Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
The Yule Log Cake and Mincemeat
For as long as I can remember, a Yule log cake and mince pies have been a traditional part of my family's Christmas. They are popular treats that have had a long and interesting history, although they've changed from their original form. A Yule log was originally a log of a tree instead of a log-shaped chocolate cake, and mince pies once contained meat instead of a mixture of fruit.
A Yule log cake, or bûche de Noël, is a chocolate sponge roll filled with chocolate or vanilla cream and covered with chocolate frosting. The cake is decorated to make it look like a log. Sometimes a white frosting is used so that the log looks as though it's covered in snow.
Mince pies are small pies or tarts consisting of a pastry shell filled with mincemeat. The mincemeat is traditionally made from raisins, currants, apples, lemon peel and zest, spices, brown sugar, suet, and rum or brandy. The pies may have a lid or may be open. Mince pies are a traditional Christmas treat in Britain and are popular in some other countries, too.
Pagan History of the Yule Log
Many people think of the word "Yule" as an alternate and slightly old fashioned name for Christmas. Yule was actually the name of a winter solstice celebration enjoyed by many pagans in Northern Europe before the introduction of Christianity. It celebrated the end of the shortest day of the year and the approach of longer, warmer days that would be accompanied by the reawakening of nature.
Yule was a festival involving feasting, fun, and hope. People brought a large log indoors during the celebration. They placed it in a fireplace and set it alight, often after sprinkling it with a libation. The goal was to keep the log burning for at least 12 hours and sometimes for as long as twelve days. The burning log may have been a symbol of the returning sun.
A small piece of the burned log was kept to light the next year's log. The burnt wood was believed to have magical properties that would protect the people from evil during the upcoming year and bring them good luck. The ashes produced from the log were also thought to have magical powers and were saved. They were often added to soil to improve the productivity of crops.
It was important that the Yule log was collected from the family's own land or from a neighbour's instead of being bought. Different cultures had different rules for the type of tree that would be suitable for supplying a log. Oak and ash seem to have been the most popular choices.
A Christian Tradition
The custom of burning a Yule log spread through Europe and eventually became incorporated into Christian celebrations. In some areas, including France, a log was brought into a home on Christmas Eve and sprinkled with salt, oil, and wine. Prayers were said as the wood was set on fire. The log was supposed to burn for 12 hours. As in pagan celebrations, splinters were kept to light the next year's log. Cinders from the burnt wood were believed to protect the family from a visitation by the devil.
The custom of burning a log during a festival became less common as fireplaces decreased in size. The smaller fireplaces could no longer accommodate large logs that would stay alight for many hours or days. For some modern pagans and Christians, a log of some type is still a meaningful part of their December celebration, however. It's usually small enough to be placed on a table and is decorated with greenery and candles. It often has a spiritual or religious significance.
A Yule Log as a Cake
For most people today, the term "Yule log" is synonymous with a cake. The substitution of a cake for a real log is thought to have begun in the 19th century. The cake is a sweet roulade. A roulade is made by rolling a flat layer of food around a filling.
Savoury roulades are often made by spreading a cheese, egg or vegetable mixture on a piece of meat and then rolling the meat up. Sweet roulades are usually made from flat sponge cake covered with a sweet filling. A Swiss roll is a type of sweet roulade.
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Some makers of Yule logs "cheat" when they create the cake. They draw the spiral pattern of the roulade in frosting at the end of a solid, log-shaped cake, as shown in the photo above. A traditional Yule log is made from a real roulade, however, as shown in the first cake photo and in the video below.
The Bûche de Noël
A bûche de Noël is covered with chocolate frosting so that it resembles a log. The baker generally creates ridges and circles in the frosting in order to produce a bark-like texture on the cake and the appearance of tree rings at its ends. He or she may also add a sprinkle of powdered sugar to give the impression of snow. (Powdered sugar is known as icing sugar in some countries.) Some logs contain a shorter roll of cake attached to the main roll at an angle so that it resembles a branch.
Holly leaves and berries made of marzipan may be added to the cake to provide Christmas colours. Christmas figures such as snowmen and Santa Claus may be placed on the top. In some countries, meringue mushrooms are traditionally placed around the log. Twigs of spruce are sometimes placed around the log as well as or instead of the mushrooms.
The cake and filling of a log are often chocolate-flavoured, but sometimes the cake or the cream are vanilla based and are light in colour. Jam may also be used as a filling, although a cream filling is more common.
The bûche de Noël is especially popular in France. It's traditionally served at the end of the réveillon—the feast that's held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
History of Mince Pies
"Mince" refers to finely chopped meat and "mincemeat" is the filling for mince pies. There is no meat in today's mince pies, however.
The forerunner of the mince pie was the Christmas pie. This was originally a large, rectangular pie filled with different types of meat and spices. The earliest mentions of Christmas pies date from the time of the Crusaders and their introduction of exotic new spices to Britain. There are claims that the shape of the pies represented the manger of the baby Jesus. Some researchers doubt this story, though. The pies were said to have a "coffin" shape, which was a common term that simply meant a shape like a basket.
During the Tudor period, the pies were sometimes known as shrid or shred pies and were very popular. They were made from meats such as beef, mutton, rabbit, and beef tongue as well as various birds.
Christmas pies containing only meat were available even in Victorian times, but by then pies containing meat and fruit were available as well. In the past, a mixture of savoury and sweet foods in one dish was more popular than it is today. Fruit was added to the Christmas pie mix at least as early as 1725, as shown by the "Little Jack Horner" nursery rhyme quoted below. A mincemeat recipe from 1788 (referenced below) shows that the mixture consisted mainly of fruit by that time, although it did contain tripe. Tripe is the lining of an animal's stomach. Most tripe comes from cows.
Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner,
Eating a Christmas Pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, "What a good boy am I!"
— Henry Carey, in the year 1725
The Mince Pies of Today
Mince pies may have no lid, a star-shaped cover to represent the star that guided the Wise Men, or a full cover. I like the ones with no lids, since I prefer the taste of the mincemeat to the taste of the pastry. The pies vary in depth. Some are shallow. These are sometimes referred to as mince tarts. Others are deeper. I buy the deeper ones when I can find them and sometimes make them myself. The pies and tarts are very nice to eat on their own, but they are also delicious with vanilla ice cream.
Today, the only remnant of meat in mince pies is the beef suet. This is sometimes replaced by butter or by vegetarian suet, which usually contains palm oil. It's possible to buy or make mince pies that don't contain any rum or brandy, if this is preferred.
Interestingly, modern recipes for large "Christmas Pies" containing all meat or meat and fruit are available today. It's therefore possible to enjoy these as people did in the past as well as enjoy the taste of mince pies.
In the United Kingdom, mince pies are a traditional treat for Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) as he visits homes on Christmas Eve. A pie is placed near the Christmas tree with a glass of milk or a small glass of sherry or brandy. In some places, a carrot is traditionally placed by Santa's gifts for Rudolph the reindeer.
Interesting Mince Pie Traditions
Some interesting traditions are associated with making and eating mince pies.
- When someone is making mincemeat at home, they should stir the mixture in a clockwise direction. Stirring in an anticlockwise direction is said to bring bad luck during the upcoming year.
- Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves must be added to represent the three gifts of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus.
- One mince pie should be eaten on each of the twelve days of Christmas to ensure good luck. The last should be eaten on January 6th, or Epiphany.
- A wish should be made as the first pie is eaten.
- Refusing to eat a mince pie will lead to bad luck.
Family and the Importance of Traditional Food
I think that family traditions related to food are a wonderful part of Christmas. They can make a meaningful contribution to a very special time of year. I love the taste of Yule logs and mince pies, but I also enjoy the idea that the food is a link to my family‘s and my culture’s past. Eating the food with some of my relations or long-time friends can sometimes increase the sense of connection. For me, nostalgia and a connection to history are valuable components of the Christmas season. Traditional Christmas food like cake and pies can sometimes add more than just calories to the season.
- A history of the Yule log from the history.com website
- The Yule log from Christmas Traditions in France and in Canada
- A mincemeat recipe from 1788 from The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs (via Google Books)
- Mince pies traditions from Project Britain
© 2013 Linda Crampton