Bûche de Noël holiday dessert tradition flourishes in the Appalachian Mountains
A bûche de Noël sets an elegant tone as a modern-day holiday centerpiece, but the origins of the intricately designed cake are centuries old.
The wintertime dessert has taken on different names and meanings over the centuries. At its core, it's a rolled sponge cake fashioned to look like a log and adorned by edible woodland accents.
It was inspired by Yule, a pagan celebration dating to medieval times in which a tree or log was burned in the hearth in observance of the winter solstice — the longest night of the year.
“I personally love the idea that someone would make a cake and make it look like a log,” pastry chef Susannah Gebhart said. “It’s very symbolic of a culture and celebrations and rituals that are connected to the seasons and life on the land."
Bûche de Noël translates to Christmas log in French and is often referred to as a Yule log cake. Its origin traces back to France in the 1800s. Bakers uphold the wintertime tradition and dessert evolution by taking creative license in its recipe and design.
Gebhart is the owner and founder of Old World Levain (OWL) Bakery in Asheville, North Carolina, in the Pisgah National Forest. The James Beard Awards semifinalist stays true to the Yule log origin story by creating the dessert to honor and represent the forested land of the Appalachian Mountains.
OWL Bakery handcrafts bûches de Noël using locally sourced and forest-foraged ingredients and offers the cakes for a limited time leading up to the winter solstice (Dec. 22).
The complicated process of making yule logs
Bûches de Noël aren't commonly seen in U.S. bakeries or at holiday parties, probably due to the effort it takes to make one.
"We work over an entire week in order to produce however many we make to sell which is usually, in the past it’s been about 50. Only 50 cakes," Gebhart said. "They’re really special.”
The first step in making a bûche de Noël is baking the cake foundation, which requires many steps to produce a thin, spongy, pliable cake.
“You have to whip egg whites separately from the yolks then create the batter in a very specific way, so it takes a long time,” Gebhart said. “You have to work very quickly because you’re using a lot of air that you incorporate mechanically and that would go away with time."
OWL Bakery uses hickory nuts in the cream that is incorporated into the cake, along with chestnut or acorn flour. The foraged nuts come clean and cracked but with the nut meats and shells still together. They’re boiled to make very rich nut milk
“It’s incredibly buttery and it has this flavor of butterscotch that’s just ineffable — it’s so beautiful,” Gebhart said. “It’s something that’s really special and we like to use here at the bakery, but this is kind of the premier application of it.”
Next, the batter is poured into large sheet pans. It takes only a few minutes in the oven for the batter to bake, then the urgency returns.
“You have to roll them up as soon as they come out of the oven so they can retain that roulade shape,” Gebhart said. “After that’s done it’s the process of making all the filling for the ganache and doing the steps of filling all the cakes then icing them then decorating them.”
The baker adds foraged black walnuts to French Broad Chocolate's ganache to make a light icing that’s poured over the cylinder cake and carved to look like tree bark.
Then, it’s time to decorate and garnish.
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Decorations top off the yule log masterpiece
Piped meringue shaped into small mushrooms lends an earthy look. Locally sourced dried apple rings replicate mushrooms jutting out of the logs. Molds of tiny orange chanterelle mushrooms the baker describes as “wildly bright and vibrant” are sometimes placed on top, too.
“We do a lot of crystallized botanicals at the bakery. They’re like our botanical sprinkles, and often we use garden herbs like mint, sage, rosemary and thyme,” Gebhart said. “For bûche de Noël, we forage evergreen hemlock — it’s not poison hemlock, of course.”
The small tips and some needles of the evergreen hemlock are ground up and crystallized with sugar to make a pine-flavored sprinkle that goes over the top of the bûches de Noël, she said.
Mica dust — a mineral found in forests — is sprinkled on top and shimmers like snow.
OWL Bakery’s bûches de Noël are about 8-10 inches long and $55 each. A miniature version called Stump de Noël is $15. Preorders begin in late November or early-December. Desserts may be mail-ordered.
For bakers planning to give the dessert a crack for the first time, Gebhart recommends making it a multi-day pursuit.
“Some things are always worth trying and if someone wants to tackle a big, fun project this would be the one to do,” she said. "If you’re using good ingredients and sourcing locally as much as you can then you’ll have something delicious, and it’ll be a real treat no matter what.”
Tiana Kennell is the food and dining reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @PrincessOfPage.