The origins of this most famous and delicious of French pastries can be traced back to the ancient Celtic tradition of celebrating the winter solstice. On this day, the shortest of the year, the Celts would search for a large trunk of either oak, beech, elm or cherry and would burn it. The burning log was a symbol of the rebirth of the sun as well as an offering of thanks to the sun for returning to the earth.
This pagan tradition was not snuffed out by the Catholic church and during the middle ages. In fact, the logs and the ceremony of the burning log became even more elaborate. The logs themselves would be decorated with ribbons and greenery. Then the youngest and the oldest member of each family would carry the log to the hearth and set it ablaze. It would burn through the night and the ashes would be collected the next day to be used during the year. They were thought to help cure various sicknesses and protect the house from storms, lightning and the evil powers of the Devil.
The tradition of actually burning a log began to disappear with the arrival of small stoves and the disappearance of large hearths. The big log was replaced by a smaller branch that was set in the middle of the table and surrounded by little “friandises” (sweets, delicacies) that were given as treats to guests. It is this branch that was eventually transformed into the cake we know as the Bûche de Noël. Whether it was a Parisian or Lyonnaise creation is still the subject of a heated debate. It was first mentioned and described in 1879 and since that time has become “THE” dessert served at Christmas dinners . . . et voilà:
La Bûche de Noël
Yule Log: Chocolate Mousse Cake with orange flavored cream filling
For the cake:
6 eggs, separated
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
For the filling and frosting:
2 cups heavy cream
3 Tablespoons Cointreau
cocoa powder for dusting
Preheat oven to 400°F. with rack in the center of the oven. Grease the bottom of a 17 x 11-inch jelly roll pan and line with parchment paper.
1. In a saucepan over low heat, beat the chocolate and butter, stirring occasionally.
2. Remove the chocolate from heat and whisk in the egg yolks until blended. Immediately pour into a large bowl.
3. In another grease-free, clean bowl, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar to stiff peaks.
4. With a whisk, fold one-third of the whites into the chocolate to lighten it. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the remaining whites, until smooth.
5. Pour the chocolate/egg white mixture into the pan and spread it evenly into the corners with a metal off-set spatula. Bake 10 minutes, or just until the cake has begun to come away from the sides of the pan.
6. While the cake is baking, spread a dishtowel flat and lay a piece of parchment paper, the size of the cake, on top of the towel. Sprinkle the paper with some sugar.
7. Invert the cake onto the paper and carefully peel off the lining paper. Slowly, roll up the cake with the paper inside, starting from a short side. Wrap the towel around the cake, and place on a rack and allow to cool.
Prepare the filling & frosting:
1. In a bowl set into a larger bowl of ice and water, whip the cream and Cointreau to stiff peaks. Add confectioner’s sugar to your taste.
To assemble the cake:
1. When the cake is cooled, unroll it. Coat the roll with half of the cream and reroll.
2. Trim the ends and lift the cake to a serving platter. Coat with remaining whipped cream and dust the top with some cocoa.
The cake may be made up to one day ahead and stored covered in the refrigerator. Before serving, add some decorations, such as sprigs of holly, figurines, ribbons, berries, etc.
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