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.
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.