History of the Yule Log
One of the most interesting aspects I find about French Pastry is that most of the desserts have some sort of story behind them. Take for instance, the cream puff-like Religieuse, which was named because the dessert resembled a nun’s habit. Or perhaps the Paris Brest, named for the route of the Tour de France and the shape and spokes of a bicycle wheel. But the most intriguing is the Buche de Noel, or as we call in America, Yule Log.
Celebrating winter’s solstice
The yule log dates back to the 12th century when winter’s solstice was celebrated. Winter’s solstice is known as the longest night of the year. It usually falls on or around December 21 which is also very close to Christmas day. It was celebrated by lighting a fire in the night.
In earliest traditions the logs that were burned for winter’s solstice symbolized the events of that year. Some people would adorn the logs to enhance the celebration of memories that had passed. The youngest and oldest members of the family would carry the dedicated log to the fireplace and begin to set it aflame. This tradition was performed almost as a holistic act to cleanse the air, similar to the act of waving smoking sage. At the end, the ashes were collected and used throughout the new year to protect against evil and allow for healing.
As one traditions fades another takes its place
As that tradition faded, the rolled cake began to sweetly step into its place. The same fireplace, where the burning logs had originally started the tradition, was now used to bake the delicious cake that would be eaten in delight. All of the decorations on the yule log are reminiscent of things found naturally in the gardens. The most popular garnish is the meringue mushrooms. You may also find holly leaves and berries, twigs made from fondant, chocolate or marzipan. Spun sugar was used to signify spider webs. “Dirt” would be made from dried out crumbs of the cake. The classic yule log has chocolate buttercream on the outside and fork marks to resemble tree bark.
Yule logs have been gaining in popularity in recent years
Assorted flavors are widely available such as vanilla, mocha, praline, red velvet and lemon. Some of the decorations have transitioned from being edible to now being plastic. Needless to say, the tradition of having one on your Christmas buffet always makes for a memorable dessert.
The cake itself is not difficult to make
It’s the time and effort that goes into it that makes them so demanding. The items required for a yule log are:
- The thin sponge cake
- Simple syrup
- Ganache or buttercream for the filling
- Ganache or buttercream for the outside (if using a different flavor)
- Meringue mushrooms
- Marzipan holly berries
Here is a recipe for your decorative Meringue Mushrooms!
Enjoy and have a happy holiday!
Dried Meringue Mushrooms
By Keli Marks of Bakery 28
Preheat oven to 185F. (If you are able to control fan speed, drop to a low fan.)
Line your sheet pan (cookie sheet) with parchment paper or silicone mat.
4 room temperature whites
2 ½ C powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
- In your Kitchen Aide mixer with whisk attachment, whip 4 room temperature egg whites on high speed. (Having your eggs room temperature will allow the white to be more relaxed and have the ability to break apart and hold volume.)
- Allow the whites to develop into a froth; about 1 minute.
- While the whites are mixing, stir your sugar and cream of tartar together in a separate container.
- Once your froth has developed, begin to add your sugar ¼ C at a time.
- In between each addition, allow the meringue to develop again. (This takes patience. If you add all the sugar too soon the meringue will become granular or gooey instead of fluffy and soft.)
- Continue to whip until the meringue gets to stiff peak and looks glossy.
- Take half of your mixture and pipe tall little “kisses” on the sheet pan. These will be the base of your mushrooms.
- Mix some red food coloring into the remaining half of meringue and pipe in the shape of flattened kisses.
- Sprinkle the tops of the red meringue mushrooms with white non-pareils.
- Place in the oven and bake for 1 hour. Then turn off the oven and allow them to rest overnight.
- The next morning, glue the tops of the mushrooms to the tall bases with a dot or two of royal icing. Dust with a light snowfall of powdered sugar.
- Allow your mushrooms to dry before decorating your yule log.
Yule Log photos courtesy of Keli Marks
Pastry Chef Keli Marks is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. She received a full year education at the French Pastry School in Chicago, IL in exchange for being the very first assistant to Jacquy Pfeiffer & Sebastien Canonne, MOF when they opened the school in 1996.
Keli has been on the Food Network on three separate occasions: Sugar Rush, Romance Novel Cake Challenge and The Holiday Baking Championships. In addition, she was on the Chicago chapter’s board for Les Dames d’Escoffier from 2009 – 2011 and was a guest pastry chef at the famed James Beard House in NYC in 2013.
As the pastry chef owner of Bakery 28, she incorporates local ingredients from farmers within the Carolinas and promises to only use natural ingredients.
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