Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.
– Calvin Coolidge
Of all the culinary treats that grace the French Christmas table, nothing inspires more child-like joy than a rich, chocolate Bûche de Noël. Real yule logs, the kind from living trees, have had symbolic significance to the French for centuries. Until the late 1800’s, it was a widespread custom for extended families to gather under one roof, and burn a sacramonial log. In the soft glow of the embers, the family would drink vin cue, cooked wine and sing Christmas carols before attending midnight mass.
My family has been giving homemade Bûche de Noel’s to friends, families and our local community since I was a small child. This holiday season, I am sharing my favorite recipe so that you may start your own family tradition.
François, Beau and Lisa
“It is a most important matter,” he said, “this bringing home of the cacho-fio. The whole family must take part in it. The head of the family–the grandfather, the father, or the eldest son–must cut the tree; all the others must share in carrying home the log that is to make the Christmas fire. And the tree must be a fruit-bearing tree. With us it usually is an almond or an olive. The olive especially is sacred. Our people, getting their faith from their Greek ancestors, believe that lightning never strikes it. But an apple-tree or a pear-tree will serve the purpose, and up in the Alp region they burn the acorn-bearing oak. What we shall do to-day is an echo of Druidical ceremonial–of the time when the Druid priests cut the yule-oak and with their golden sickles reaped the sacred mistletoe; but old Jan here, who is so stiff for preserving ancient customs, does not know that this custom, like many others that he stands for, is the survival of a rite.”
Every year I read “The Christmas Kalends of Provence” written in 1902 by Thomas A. Janvier, an American of Provencal heritage. Mr. Janvier relates his travels to Provence where he describes many age old holiday customs. I love reading it because it provides a connection to my family roots. It serves as a gentle reminder of times when Christmas had more meaning than simply a time to exchanges gifts. As a partial disclaimer I should add I am a huge fan of Marcel Pagnol and Alphonse Daudet much for the same reasons. Their stories evoke a time when life was more sincere. I came by this honestly. For my mother, when French customs and preferences need referencing, France is forever stuck in the past. It’s as if France froze in time in the late 1950’s when she departed for America. I suppose I am guilty of the same nostalgic thinking. I want the world to be held in my idealized vision of the past.
Cacho-fiò, Bouto-fiò! Alègre! Alègre! Diéu nous alègre! Calèndo vèn! Tout bèn vèn! Diéu nous fague la gràci de vèire l’an que vèn, E se noun sian pas mai, que noun fuguen pas mens!
Yule-log,Catch fire! Joy! Joy! God gives us joy! Christmas comes! All good comes! May God give us grace to see the coming year, And if we are not more, may we not be less!
Prior to my father’s passing he gave a great speech on French food. In it, he mentioned Daudet’s great cautionary short story of the sins of gluttony, “The Three Christmas Masses“. Read the story yourself, it’s about the devil tormenting a priest with the evocative scents of truffled turkey and other foods. He rushes through the three low masses in order to start the reveillon feast celebrated afterwards. With every Christmas getting more commercial, books like Thomas Janvier’s offer ceremony and meaning to our lives. We must return substance to the holidays. At some point I will celebrate a traditional Provencal Christmas complete with yule logs, vin cue, midnight mass and the reveillon feasts that follow.
For decades I have been making a Buche de Noel for Christmas. About ten years ago I happened upon Laduree’s original recipe modified by Megan Wetherall. It is the most amazing version of this holiday cake and I present it to you. It is their recipe, not mine, but it simply is the best. Like Daudet’s three Christmas Masses, I present it in three steps, each guaranteed to test your virtues.
- 1 ounce softened butter
- 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 7 egg whites
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Line a half sheet pan with buttered parchment paper.
- Put chocolate into a large metal bowl.
- Boil cream, then pour over chocolate and stir till smooth. Cool slightly.
- Beat egg whites to soft peaks, add sugar, then beat till stiff peaks, about 30 seconds.
- Fold egg whites into chocolate.
- Pour into prepared half sheet pan and bake till a toothpick comes out clean, about ten minutes.
- 4 ounces semi sweet chocolate
- 2 tablespoons water
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons water
- 3 egg yolks, room temperature
- 6 ounces unsalted butter, softened
- Melt chocolate with two tablespoons of water in a double boiler. Allow to cool slightly.
- Mix sugar and 3 tablespoons of water in a copper sugar pot or a stainless steel pot. Be careful not to splash sugar on sides of pot.
- Cover with a lid and cook to 236 degrees, or soft ball stage. The lid helps create steam which raises from the sugar syrup hits the lids and rolls down the sides preventing sugar crystals from forming on the pot sides. A single sugar crystal can ruin your syrup. PLEASE watch out the worst burns in a kitchen are sugar burns. Hot syrup sticks to your skin and keeps burning.
- Carefully check temperature with an appropriate thermometer. It should take about five minutes.
- Beat egg yolks in a mixer till light and fluffy.
- Slowly pour hot syrup in a very slow stream into egg yolks with the motor on very very slow. The sugar may get hard as it hits the cool egg yolks. Do not fret. By the time you have added all the syrup the temperature will be hot enough to melt most of the lumps.
- Beat egg yolks on high speed for ten minutes, or until the mixture cools somewhat.
- Add softened butter then chocolate.
- 12 ounces semi sweet chocolate
- 4 ounces butter
- ⅔ cup heavy cream
- Melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler.
- Add cream and let cool to room temperature.
To assemble and finish the buche de Noel. Lay the roulade out in front of you. Spread the filling over 2/3 of the roulade and roll into a long log. You can cut a slice off to decorate your yule log like a real log. Use a spatula and apply the coating to the exterior of the buche. Use a fork dragged across the topping to give the appearance of tree bark. Garnished with meringue mushrooms, real pine branches and pine combs. This year I started decorating with chocolate bark. Melt bittersweet chocolate and pour onto a piece of parchment paper. Use an offset spatula to spread thinly. Let cool. Break chocolate into irregular pieces of chocolate bark. Stick into topping. However you choose, let your inner children loose and have fun! Drink a glass of vin cue and celebrate the season of sharing!
Merry Christmas to YOU and YOURS!
To read Thomas Janvier’s classic “The Christmas Kalends of Provence”, click here.