Need an idea for an edible centerpiece on the Christmas table? Make your own bûche de Noël.
Also known as a Yule log, this delicious dessert has a rich food tradition. It's an elaborately decorated, rolled and filled sponge cake that's frosted with chocolate buttercream to look like tree bark. Bakers adorn the log with all sorts of fancy decorations such as meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly prigs and spun sugar cobwebs.
At a recent bûche de Noël class, Blandine Brutel gave students these decorations as well as tiny plastic champagne glasses and other Christmas ornaments to festoon their own holiday logs.
Brutel, owner of The French Kitchen cooking school in Colorado Springs, loves teaching the Yule log classes, and they fill quickly.
"We have always had Yule logs for Christmas and New Year's Eve in our family," said Brutel, who grew up in Lyon, France, where her family still lives. "That is the only dessert I would eat. When I moved here, I could not find my favorite one with coffee buttercream so I started making it. Now for every Christmas, my kids love to help me decorate it."
Brutel loves to reminisce about the Yule logs in France.
"The bakeries are gorgeous in France when they have their Yule logs in the vitrine (glass showcase)," she said. "Today's versions are not just the typical Yule log; they are made in many variations, more modern."
So why are Yule logs so popular for Christmas?
Yule logs date to medieval times when the Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans would gather to welcome the winter solstice. Feasts would be held to celebrate the days becoming longer, and families would burn logs decorated with holly, pine cones or ivy as a way to cleanse the air from the previous year in an effort to prepare for spring.
With the advent of Christianity, the Yule log soon morphed into a cake. Sponge cake, which is the most common base for the log, is one of the older cakes still made today, dating to at least 1615, when it appeared in "The English Huswife," by Gervase Marham.
In the 19th century, Parisian bakers popularized the cake and different bakeries became known for their elaborate decorations.
You can make the cake as fancy or simple as you like. Not only will you have a show-stopping centerpiece, you can tell the story of its history.
Stephanie Van Wuffen, owner of Heavenly Dessert Co., makes Yule logs for sale; she offered a couple of tips for the home cook.
"Use cheesecloth to roll the cake up, and let it cool completely before unrolling so it doesn't crack," she said. "Fill and cover with ganache (soufflé). Use a good quality chocolate for the ganache."
Ganache is a rich icing or filling made of semisweet chocolate and whipping cream, which is heated and stirred until the chocolate melts. When cool, it is poured over a cake or torte. Ganache soufflé is made from the same base but, when cooled to room temperature, the mixture is whipped to twice its original volume. Ganache is used to glaze cakes and ganache soufflé is used to fill cake rolls or you can use a buttercream filling.