Remembering Grandmother's French Christmas Cake

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Veronique Greenwood


To try Veronique's grandmother's recipe for bûche de Noël, the traditional French Christmas cake, click here.

When I was growing up in California, my grandmother always made our bûche de Noël. She was raised in Paris during World War II, one of 10 children, and for the rest of her life, though she went on to emigrate to the States and become a mathematician, she was always expecting a catastrophe. Thus, in the grand tradition of soufflés and meringues, there was always plenty of anxiety about the construction of the bûche, a traditional French Christmas cake, and watching her make it was part of the entertainment.

The bûche de Noël, or "Yule log," consists of a thin sheet of silky sponge cake spread with buttercream and gently rolled into the shape of a log, jelly roll-style. It's the kind of confection that inspires obsession in a small child, or even an adult. The mellow sweetness of the cake and the cool, firm frosting, bittersweet from the addition of coffee, are addictive. For my grandmother, who recently succumbed to Alzheimer's, it recalled the réveillon, the feast her family had after midnight mass where the bûche was the star.

In the kitchen, she assembled the batter with a practiced hand and poured in into a cookie sheet to bake. When it was done, the cake would be tipped out on a tea towel sprinkled with confectioner's sugar. She preferred stiff, thin towels, like the ones she had with calendars printed on them, and while she watched the cake gently brown, fretting that it was getting too dry to roll, we sifted sugar snow onto July or August.

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Veronique Greenwood

Once the cake was out of the oven, she sliced off the rough edges and sprinkled the golden sheet with rum. Nervously munching the crisp scraps, she took a deep breath. The trick is that the cake is rolled up not once, but twice. Before it can be spread with icing and assembled, the still-warm sponge cake must cool in the log shape so it doesn't break when it is rolled up the second time. This was the moment of truth.

Spectators who hadn't been around for the baking came to stand in the kitchen door, which can't have helped. First, just the lip of the cake was gently pinched over on itself, the tea towel keeping the cake from sticking, and then, if all went well, if the stars were aligned, the rest of it followed in quick succession, my grandmother hissing to herself in her throat. If a rift appeared, so be it—it would be patched with extra frosting. The show must go on.

After a quick break for mulled wine while the cake cooled, the log was gingerly unrolled and the tea towel extracted. Leaning over the curling sheet of cake, my grandmother began to spread it with a layer of buttercream flavored with coffee. Once that was completed, and the log was rolled up again, she could breathe easy.

We frosted the outside and made elaborate designs with fork tines, like bark. Two rounds cut from the ends were mounted like branches atop the log. When we lived in California, we would fetch a sprig of toyon from the woods to decorate the bûche; now that my family lives in Switzerland, there is actual holly.

The last time I saw my grandmother when she was herself, she was making the bûche while wine mulled on the stove, and in one of those inspired moments when Alzheimer's is a gift, she remembered that they had mulled wine on the farm in Normandy where she had been sent when the bombs were falling.

Recipe: Bûche de Noël

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Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at Discover. Her writing has also appeared in Seed, Technology Review, Scientific American, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her at veroniquegreenwood.com.

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