History of the Yule Log and How to Make Your Own
The Long Journey From Pagan Ritual to Pastry
Long before there were gaily-wrapped gifts and twinkling Christmas lights, there was a different type of gathering in the midst of winter. The druids of centuries past were filled with dread as they witnessed the daylight hours grow shorter. The nights were cold and bleak and food was becoming scarce. Would the sun ultimately be extinguished, plunging mankind into a forever darkness? Or perhaps could she be coaxed to return, bringing light, warmth, and life back to earth?
The winter solstice was that period when it was thought that the sun stood still. Ultimately, the dark half of the year would succumb to the light half, the sun climbing a bit higher and staying a bit longer in the sky. This then was the time for celebration, to revel in the rebirth of the giver of life. The yule log was the highlight of the celebration, smoldering for 12 days to impart good luck in the coming year.
In “modern” (4th century A.D.) England, the yule log took on an entirely different meaning. With the spread of Christianity, pagan traditions were stamped out (or appropriated?) and the yule log became the centerpiece for the Twelve Days of Christmas, the large log burnt for 12 days. But, a portion was reserved to be used as the starter for the next year’s lighting.
However, just like smoldering embers, in time the log became aswirl in ritual and superstition. It was anointed with salt, purported to cure numerous ailments and (stored under the bed of the head of household) was insurance against all matter of misfortune including (but not limited to) mildew, lightning, fires, and hailstorms. In summary, it was believed to symbolize the battle of Christ versus Satan, good and evil.
In December, at the very darkest of the year, we head toward Winter Solstice when the new light it born out of the womb of winter. Solstice means standstill, and refers to the 3 days around December 21 when the sun appears to stand still, or rise and set in the same place. During these long, cold nights, Earth’s very breath seems to falter in the face of the overpowering dark. Then, imperceptibly at first, the sun begins its long journey towards the south, and all of creation begins to exhale.— Mara Freeman, Chalice Centre
As the fire grew brighter and burned hotter, and as the log turned into ashes, it symbolized Christ's final and ultimate triumph over sin.— Ace Collins, "Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas," Zondervan (2010)
How Did It Become a Cake?
That's a good question. Several theories abound. I’ll present them, in no particular order, and let you choose your favorite:
- As hearths became smaller, large logs were no longer practical or even possible, so the annual yule log was fashioned out of cake. Hearths shrank because, believe it or not, in the 17th century, Charles II imposed a hearth tax!
- During his reign as ruler and supreme being, it came to Napolean's attention that a lot of the populace was sick. He theorized that the illness was due to exposure to drafts from those darned chimneys. The solution, of course, was to mandate that all chimneys be closed. With no way to burn the traditional buche Parisians crafted logs out of cake. (But I’m left wondering how they baked or cooked with closed chimneys?)
- With the Industrial Revolution, wood-burning stoves became more commonplace, replacing the hearth as the source of heat and cooking center for the home. With no “center stage” for the log, a replacement was made for the tabletop and, as long as it’s sitting on the table, why not make it something we can slice an eat?
And Then the French Made It a Buche de Noel
The type of cake used and the ingredients suggest that this is a fairly recent invention of the French. The name buche de noel (BOOSH duh noh-EHL) told you that it’s French, right? Sponge cakes in which the batter achieves its "poof" from whipped eggs were conceived in the 19th century. And, of course, Parisian bakers seized the opportunity to take the decorating over the top with elaborate meringue and marzipan decorations.
Basic Chocolate Buche de Noel
Are you ready to get started? The website Joy of Baking has produced a 30-minute video that shows step-by-step how to make a basic yule log cake. Watch and learn how to whip the eggs until they are light and pale, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks, and use those ingredients plus flour and cocoa powder to create a chocolate sponge.
If you've ever made a jelly roll, you are already familiar with the technique, but don't worry if you are a newbie. Joy of Cooking demonstrates how to roll up the cake, while it's still warm, in a clean kitchen towel. Doing that puts "being rolled up" in the cake's memory and insures that the cake won't break when you roll it up (cool) with the chocolate filling.
For your reference, I've jotted down the ingredients you'll need to make the cake:
- 2 large eggs
- 3 yolks from 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup sugar (remove 1 tablespoon and set aside)
- 2 whites from the 3 large eggs (discard one white)
- 1/4 cup cake flour
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Whisk together the 2 whole eggs and 3 egg yolks, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1/2 cup sugar (minus 1 tablespoon) in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on high until thick and pale, about 5 minutes.
- In a separate bowl with clean beaters whip the egg whites with the cream of tartar until frothy. Slowly beat in the 1 tablespoon of reserved sugar; beat on high until moderately stiff peaks form.
- Stir together the dry ingredients in a third bowl. Sift into the sugar/yolks mixture and fold in gently. Next, gently fold in the whites. Take care to not deflate the whites. Note that there is no baking powder or baking soda in this recipe—the rising of the cake batter takes place because of the air bubbles expanding with the heat of the oven.
There is one step in this video with which I disagree. The baker removes the hot cake from the oven and flips it onto a clean kitchen towel dusted with powdered sugar. In my view, that's a bit risky. I prefer to place the sugar-dusted towel on top of the cake, put a cooling rack on top of that, and then, holding everything securely together with oven-mitted hands, rotate so that the cooling rack is on the bottom and the cake pan is on top. It's an easy process then to lift up the cake pan. If you take care with greasing and flouring, the cake should not/will not stick.
Are you ready for more? Now that you know how to make the basic recipe, I've found several more yule log cake ideas for you.
Tiramisu Yule Log Cake
Natasha takes the whimsy of a French buche de noel and blends it with the flavors of an Italian tiramisu to create a stunning tiramisu yule log dessert rich with the flavors of coffee and pistachio.
Vanilla Chiffon Roll
Zoë François is a student of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) but her exploration of baking started many years before that training. First, she worked through all of the Time-Life books on French cooking, then "graduated" to Lee Bailey and Ina Garten. Her biography from there takes a few amazing turns. How many people are offered a prestigious position will still training at the CIA? How many people are offered a prestigious position by Andrew Zimmern? Add to that seven best-selling cookbooks and over 800,000 sales.
And yet, she takes the time to manage a blog and share her creativity with us. Her vanilla chiffon roll is stunningly beautiful. It was first published in Better Homes and Gardens.
Maple Gingerbread Yule Log
Does each season of the year have its own flavor? When I think of spring (and Easter) I crave the light, bright flavor of lemon. In summer, it's fresh berries and shortcake. Of course, in autumn we have pumpkin everything. And at Christmas, I dream of gingerbread and whipped cream. Allison Day folded the warm spicy flavors of ginger and cinnamon into her maple gingerbread yule log.
But that's not all. The cake is moist and sweet with the addition of coconut milk, and the finished cake is adorned with a salted walnut praline.
Chocolate Chestnut Yule Log
"Michele the Baker" as she calls herself, has become obsessed with the Great Brtish Bakeoff (she's not alone). The holiday special featured a buche de noel, and she was totally smitten.
By picking and choosing elements from various cookbooks, she assembled a decadent and totally "thinking-outside-of-the-cakebox" version of the traditional yule log. Hers is a chocolate chestnut filled vertical tree stump and worthy as the grand finale for this article.
Questions & Answers
Can you substitute anything for the cake flour?
A homemade version of cake flour is 1 cup all-purpose flour minus 2 tablespoons of the flour. Then add 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Because this yule log cake requires such a small amount of flour, I think you would be OK to simply use all-purpose.
© 2019 Linda Lum