Yule log cake, or bûche de Noël, is a Christmas cake with a ritualistic past. Cleverly shaped and decorated to look like a 3-D log, the cake represents a melding of ancient midwinter traditions: one that celebrated the end of winter, and another honoring the Norse god Thor.
The Yule log cake is a rolled Genoise sponge cake, filled with buttercream and decorated with chocolate frosting or ganache, which is combed with a fork to create a bark-like texture. Woodsy decorations are a must. Crushed pistachio moss, marzipan mushrooms, and holly garnishes give the impression that these cakes were lifted from the forest floor.
But the Victorians bakers who invented this novelty cake had a far older tradition in mind. In pre-industrial Europe, the Yule log was an actual piece of wood. The name comes from the Nordic midwinter festival that involved burning logs in honor of the god of thunder and lightning, Thor. Viking invasions spread the tradition across Europe, and the celebration became entwined with Northern European winter solstice rites, especially those of the Celts, who believed that burning a massive log vanquished the winter darkness. Yule logs had to be large enough to burn throughout the longest, coldest night of the year, with some unburned wood left over. The remainder of the log would be lit next year, as a symbol of continuity.
The combination of traditions gave the Yule log surprising longevity. According to the writings of folklorist Sir James George Frazer, the practice of burning the Yule log survived long past the introduction of Christianity. Some 17th century French families believed that a piece of leftover log could, “if kept under the bed, protect the house for a whole year from fire and thunder.” To Frazer, this suggested the pagan belief of being spared Thor’s lightning bolts.
The first known Yule log cake recipe was published in 1895 by French pastry chef Pierre Lacan in Le Mémorial Historique et Géographique de la Pâtisserie. Francophone countries most avidly consume Yule log cakes, although they’re common in many countries that celebrate Christmas. Modern recipes have added eggnog and gingerbread frostings to the mix.
By the time of Lacan’s recipe, the Yule log tradition was fading. Stoves replaced massive stone hearths, and city life made carrying giant logs out of the woods difficult. Instead, in an ode to provincial life, city-dwellers enjoyed bûche de Noël cakes … and unwittingly paid homage to an ancient ritual.
Need to Know
During the holidays, Yule Log cakes can be purchased in bakeries. They're most common in France, but European-style bakeries around the world often feature them. You usually need to pre-order.