Everyone has their holiday dessert traditions. But, some go deeper than others. Take for instance, the tradition of the Bûche de Noël or Yule log, which has been observed – in one form or another – for centuries.
The custom of burning the yule log goes back to, and before, medieval times. Originally a Nordic tradition, the concept of burning a log was an integral part of Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, including Germany. Christmas logs or Yule logs were placed in the fireplace hearth and burned centuries ago as part of the holiday tradition for Christmas, commonly on Christmas Eve.
Since the tradition of the yule log has been around for such a long time with roots in both the ancient Germanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures the original true symbolic meaning is not entirely clear. However, custom generally required that families burn a large log – and in some cases an entire tree – throughout the evening on Christmas Eve. The log was typically lit using burnt remains of the previous year's yule log.
In fact, once Christmas passed and the log was burned up, the last bits of wood would generally be carefully gathered up and kept in the house for the rest of the year. Many believed that the burnt wood would protect the home against lightning and the malevolent evils of the devil.
The tradition was prevalent throughout Europe. In fact, Christmas celebrations among South Slavic peoples also included something called a Badnjak, a log that was ceremonial burned as part of the Slavic Christmas celebration. In fact, even here in Milwaukee, Orthodox churches like St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral on South 51st Street, still observe Yule log ceremonies as part of their Christmas traditions.
Although burning a gigantic log seems to have been a popular way to celebrate Christmas throughout much of Europe, we have the French to thank for its modern, and rather tastier incarnation. According to "Larousse Gastronomique," hearths became less common in French homes in the late 1800s. As a result, it became difficult to observe the tradition of burning the traditional yule log.
As a result, the Bûche de Noël, appeared (literally "log of Christmas"). According to tradition, this edible log shaped cake was invented by an innovative 19th century French pastry chef. It was likely made with génoise sponge, cut and shaped into the form of a log and eaten at Christmas.
For decades since, the Bûche de Noël has been the centerpiece of the French Christmas table. Modern cakes are typically made of a chocolate sponge cake roll layered with cream. The outside is often covered with chocolate ganache or icing and decorated to look like a bark-covered log. Decorations often include additional hints of nature – chocolate leaves, mushrooms made from meringue, or sugared herbs.
"Today in France, Christmas traditions are tied to food," says Anne Leplae, executive director of Alliance Française de Milwaukee. "La Bûche de Noël for Christmas, le champagne and foie gras for New Year’s Eve, La Galette des Rois for Epiphany, les crèpes for La Chandleur. In the past few years, with Milwaukee’s increasing interest in gastronomy, we can find Bûches de Noël in most good bakeries in the area."
In addition, at least one area restaurant has created a variation on this French-themed dessert to serve during the month of December.
Chef Thomas Hauck at c.1880 is serving his own variation on the Bûche de Noël – a dessert featuring chocolate sponge cake filled with German-style butter cream, candied chestnuts and sliced almonds. The cake is sliced and served alongside more chestnuts and almonds, as well as poached pears and house-made eggnog ice cream.
And although recipes abound for the Bûche de Noël, many home cooks find the dessert a bit time-consuming to tackle during the already-busy holiday season. So, picking up a beautiful ready-made variety from a bakery seems like a welcome option.
For the second year running, Rocket Baby Bakery, 6822 W. North Ave., is offering Bûches de Noël for purchase in three delicious varieties – chocolate, coffee and gingerbread, White chocolate, raspberry and almond, and coconut and exotic fruit.
Unlike a traditional Bûche de Noël, Rocket Baby’s version uses mousse instead of buttercream, and departs from the traditional rolled cake.
"Flavored mousse is casted in molds," says pastry Chef Matt Haase. "Inserts with pudding are placed on the inside, and the cake is wrapped around the exterior. Finally, the outside is sprayed in chocolate.
"We try not to just do tradition for tradition’s sake. It’s always about improving on the concept," Haase goes on. "In this case, you’re not going to have the unpleasant experience of biting into a bunch of cold buttercream."
Cakes can be pre-ordered on the Rocket Baby web site through Dec. 22 or by calling (414) 502-7323, and will be available for pick-up on Christmas Eve. Individual servings of the chocolate, coffee and gingerbread cakes will be available for $5 on a limited basis in the case at the bakery.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.