It’s no secret that a highlight of French Christmas is the bûche de Noël that crowns a festive meal. What is less well known is that the traditional Yule log cake is rarely — but I mean, really rarely — made at home in France. This is because prettily decorated bûches in all sizes are on offer at every pastry shop in the country during the season. And yet, as I discovered in my kitchen, it’s both possible and amusing to make one yourself.
Bûche de Noël chocolat-noisette / Chocolate-hazelnut Yule log
Not that I’m saying it was easy. It required both patience and a bit of dexterity. But it all paid off when my carefully chosen panel of tasters (my daughter and a few friends) tried the log shown in the photo. The most common comment? ‘More, please!’ Second most common comment? ‘What’s in it?’ (Short answer: It’s a thin hazelnut cake with a tiramisu-style mocha cream filling decorated with dark chocolate icing and hazelnuts.)
Now, before I go on, you should know that bûches de Noël come in an amazing profusion of flavors. Chocolate, coffee and vanilla are common but so, these days, are raspberry, passion fruit, pistachio, mango, chestnut and the list goes one. Pastry shops sell family-sized logs as well as bûchettes (just big enough for one person) and many sizes in between. Frozen bûches are also popular — made of ice cream or sherbet, sometimes with cake involved and sometimes not. Liberties have been taken with the shape. Sometimes the ‘logs’ are actually rectangular. And the decorations vary wildly. Here are some examples from Picard, France’s excellent frozen food chain.
When I set out to make a bûche, my first port of call was a cookbook I’ve had for decades called Faites votre patisserie comme Lenôtre — ‘Make your pastry like Lenôtre’ (Gaston Lenôtre was a famous French pastry chef). Sure enough, M. Lenôtre delivered the goods, proposing a variety of bûches decorated with delicate snowmen and mushrooms made of meringue and leaves made of green almond paste. Very traditional, yet a bit over the top for an everyday French chef. So I turned elsewhere for inspiration.
To tell you the truth, I spent hours searching for a recipe that looked both delicious and easy enough to make in a couple of hours. One that caught my eye was a recipe for a chocolate-hazelnut log by Cyril Lignac, a well-known contemporary chef. But then I read the fine print. His very handsome log was filled with pâte à tartiner, aka Nutella, a sweet chocolate-hazelnut spread loved by schoolchildren and avoided by everyone else. And it was iced with melted milk chocolate mixed with (I’m not kidding) a full cup of sunflower oil! At that point I decided to innovate — and that’s when the fun began.
I made my log on a chilly November morning, not knowing how long it would take. I was prepared to spend the day at it, but in fact the entire process took only two hours. You start by making the filling — a blend of mascarpone, egg yolks, sugar, cocoa, coffee and beaten egg whites. Then you make a thin sheet of hazelnut genoise (I used my oven tray for this). When the cake is done, you cut away the sides to form a clean rectangle, then coat it with the mascarpone filling and roll it up. Next you make the icing — dark chocolate melted with a little butter and cream (no sunflower oil!). The last step is decoration.
I’m posting this recipe well before Christmas to give you time to think it over and gather the ingredients. The good news is that this Yule log can be made in stages over a couple of days, and may be refrigerated for a couple more days before serving, or frozen if you want to get it ready ahead of time. It’s a bit more challenging than most of the recipes on this site. But if you’d like to produce an unforgettable Christmas dessert this year, go for it. And add a couple of sparklers when you bring it to the table. It will knock their socks off.
P.S. Planning ahead for Hanukah, Christmas or the New Year? Plenty of suggestions for festive meals with a French touch can be found on the Holiday Menus page.