Recipe: Bûche de Noël

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.

Chocolate coffee buttercream icing

• 3 large egg yolks
    • ¼ cup sugar
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    • 1 cup unsalted softened butter
    • 1 ounce melted, unsweetened baking chocolate
    • 1 teaspoon instant coffee, prepared

Beat the egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla together. Add the chocolate and the instant coffee. Then gradually beat in the butter until the mixture is thick and stiff. Chill while you make the cake. Makes 1¼ cup—more may be required, depending on how thickly you ice the cake.

Sponge cake

• 3 large eggs
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 5 tablespoons water
    • 1.5 teaspoon vanilla extract
    • 1 cup cake flour
    • ¼ teaspoon salt
    • 1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
    • A mixture of 1 ounce rum, 3 ounces water, and 1 teaspoon sugar

Line a 15.5 x 10.5-inch jelly roll pan or cookie sheet, one inch deep, with a sheet of greased wax paper. Beat eggs until they have grown thick, adding the sugar gradually, then the water and vanilla all at once. Combine the salt, flour, and baking powder in a separate bowl, then add to the egg mixture. Mix just until smooth. Pour batter into the cookie sheet and cook at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or slightly less—the cake must not be too dry, or it will crack when you roll it. Test it with a wooden toothpick, and as soon as the toothpick comes out clean, remove the cake from the oven.

Turn the cake out onto a cotton tea towel that has been lightly sprinkled with confectioner's sugar, removing the wax paper. Trim the crusty edges off with a knife. While the cake is still warm, gently roll the cake and tea towel together into a log shape. Let it cool for a few minutes on a cookie sheet so it hardens in the right shape, but not so long that it becomes inflexible. Gently unroll the log enough to remove the tea towel. At this point the cake will be tending to curl back into the log shape.

Sprinkle it lightly with the mixture of rum, water, and sugar (about a half cup), to keep it moist, and spread the inner side of the cake with a generous (1/4 inch) layer of icing, taking care not to tear the cake. All sins can be obscured with icing—if your cake has split or cracked during the rolling, it can be repaired at this stage. Once the cake is iced, roll it up again into a log shape. Transfer it to a long serving dish or tray, rolling it gently off the cookie sheet.

Ice the whole log, including both ends. Run the tines of a fork through the icing to simulate bark, making a knot hole here and there. To make the two branches, slice a small piece off each end at an angle. Insert several toothpicks into the places on the log where you'd like to place the branches and, lifting a slice on a knife with the frosted end up, place it on the log, cementing it in place with extra frosting. Repeat with the other slice.

Decorate the log with a few bunches of holly and sprinkle confectioner's sugar over the whole.

To read Veronique's article about her grandmother and this traditional French cake, click here.