Bûche de Noël: 19th century French holiday cake makes a comeback

Chocolate hazelnut Bûche de Noël at B. Patisserie (photo: Lexi Marine)

The ceremonial burning of a log on winter solstice (the year’s darkest day) or, for Christians, on Christmas Eve, is an ancient French tradition purported to date back to Viking times. The log was gargantuan and aged in a way that allowed it to burn through the 12 days of Christmas (Dec. 24 through Jan. 6). Often rubbed with spices of the season, the “Yule log” aroma wafted through the home, a sweet reminder that the warmth of the summer sun would return soon. As the 19th century ended, however, compact cast-iron stoves replaced the grand fireplaces capable of holding the Yule log, and the tradition burned out. Always known for their innovation, French pastry chefs developed a cake called bûche de Noël, which translates to “Christmas log,” to carry on a small (and edible) part of their history.

The traditional bûche de Noël is vanilla or basic yellow sponge cake baked in a shallow pan, filled with chocolate buttercream and rolled into a log shape, and then frosted with more chocolate buttercream. A fork or other implement is used to create a bark-like texture. The cakes were often elaborate exercises in realism, decorated with marzipan or meringue mushrooms, forest gnomes, and holly leaves, along with real pine branches and berries, and then dusted with powdered sugar to resemble snow.

Because of the time-consuming complexity, French-American pastry shops rarely attempt the bûche de Noël, but a couple in the Northside, including B. Patisserie in lower Pacific Heights and Le Marais Bakery in the Marina, are doing their unique takes on this classic dessert just in time for the holidays.

Acclaimed pastry chef Belinda Leong, who has worked for notable chefs including Gary Danko and David Kinch (Manresa), learned the traditional style bûche de Noël while working in France for pastry chef Pierre Hermé, dubbed by French Vogue as “the Picasso of Pastry.” Leong’s bûche de Noël is a modern, elegant version sans the literal bark and gnomes. She likes to play with flavors and textures and, while the decorating may not be over the top, Leong’s cakes are incredibly laborious and intricate. This year she will make four varieties: vanilla raspberry (almond sponge cake filled with vanilla mascarpone cream, Valrhona Ivoire white chocolate vanilla ganache, vanilla sponge cake soaked in vanilla syrup, vanilla sable breton, raspberry gelee, fresh raspberries, glazed in vanilla glaçage and garnished with fresh raspberries, macarons, and vanilla bean); chocolate hazelnut (chocolate macaron biscuit filled with layers of Valrhona Caraibe chocolate mousse, Guanaja chocolate cream, roasted hazelnuts, and hazelnut feuilletine, garnished with chocolate and macarons); chocolate and salted caramel (flourless chocolate biscuit filled with Four Barrel coffee chantilly cream, salted caramel crème brûlée, toffee bits, Four Barrel coffee ganache, and Valrhona Jivara chocolate mousse, garnished with Four Barrel coffee glaçage); and roasted pear and cream cheese (gingerbread cake, roasted caramel pears, cheesecake, cream cheese mousse, and speculoos sable).

B. Patisserie: bûche de Noël $75 each; serves six to eight. Place advanced orders (highly recommended) at 415-440-1700 or stop by the shop, 2821 California Street (at Divisadero), Dec. 23 or 24;

Recently hailed San Francisco’s “Best New French Bakery” by Conde Nast Traveler, Le Marais draws on owner Patrick Ascaso’s French upbringing and his admiration for California influences. The bakery works closely with Bay Area farmers and producers known for their humane and sustainable practices to create a variety of sweet and savory specialties, including artisanal breads, cakes, tarts, and croissants. Head pastry chef Phil Ogiela is a respected veteran of top eateries such as Fifth Floor, Elisabeth Daniel, 231 Ellsworth, Aziza, and Dandelion Chocolate (where Ascaso fell in love with his work). Le Marais will offer a fairly traditional bûche de Noël with some stylish, creative touches: vanilla cake with chocolate genoise filling and dark chocolate ganache icing generously covered with wide curls of chocolate shavings and topped with white cinnamon-dusted meringue mushrooms. It will be made with all organic ingredients and chocolate from TCHO chocolate (a San Francisco-based craft chocolate maker that sources their own cacao beans directly from growers and makes their chocolate from scratch).

Le Marais Bakery: bûche de Noël $45 each; serves eight. Place advanced orders at 415-359-9801, [email protected] or stop by the shop at 2066 Chestnut Street (at Steiner);

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