25 December 2008
Vive la bûche de Noël
Growing up, I was aware of "yule logs" only as the perpetually burning log in the fireplace. If you didn't have your own fireplace (which we usually didn't, living most often in urban apartment buildings), there was always the televised fireplace flickering for hours on some public access channel--which my family firmly resisted. I watched my share of "Frosty the Snowman," "A Charlie Brown Christmas"--and let's not forget the classic "It's a Wonderful Life" with Zuzu's petals!--but television was not something we were going to make the centerpiece of our living room, sitting around a cold box wishing for real flames. But this is beside the point.
The point being that to other people, out there in other parts of the world--certainly to my husband and his family--a "yule log" has always signified less something to burn as something to bake. According to him, Christmas just isn't Christmas without a Bûche de Noêl, the sponge cake slathered with chocolate buttercream and rolled up to look like a log (covered
with more buttercream).
Several years ago, my husband revived the recipe in our home. Having a child of our own, no doubt, made stronger his desire to preserve his own family traditions from France. I have to confess that at first, I was a bit disappointed. Something about the dessert seemed too ordinary to me, although its shape was unique to the season. Buttercream cake, to me, was just the most typical of American-style cakes--something everyone had for their birthday. And the form of the bûche reminded me of a "jelly roll," which is something I never particularly liked.
A side note: every year I am thankful that we do not have to have arguments over when to celebrate Christmas (the eve or the morning) or at whose house.
I know this can be a source of tension for many couples. We just celebrate twice: Christmas eve at our own house, with whichever French relatives are in New York; Christmas day up in Connecticut with my parents. My husband's family have always exchanged gifts and done their big meal on Christmas eve; we have always waited until Christmas day. To pull this back around to the bûche, I used to be relieved that we could satisfy my husband's desire for the traditional French dessert, and then I could make something different for Christmas day. Of course, eating two big meals in the span of less than 24 hours is no easy feat, either.
Another reason I was disappointed in the bûche was that it took my husband a few years to get the recipe right. This is not his fault. The recipe is his mother's (of course) and it is not always easy to convert metric and celsius weights and temperatures to our Imperial measurement system. The first year, if I recall, the cake stayed in the oven too long and became dry and hard to roll. My husband's solution was to moisten the cake with undiluted rum--way too much rum!--and you'd have done just as well with a straw (and a ready cure for a hangover) as a spoon. The next year, I don't recall what seemed to go awry; maybe the chocolate was too sweet, as is the sad case with much of the chocolate in the U.S.
And then--horrors!--my husband began to want to share this confection with my family on Christmas day as well. Two meals, two yule logs. I thought it would be a one-time event, so I relinquished my title as "dessert provider" for the family (always my contribution, at any event where food is featured), and we ate a so-so bûche. Then another.
At this point, it would be charitable of me to reveal that in intervening years, my husband started to perfect his recipe, adapted for our American kitchen (more on what an "American kitchen" means in some future post; it's got a very specific sense if you say this to a French person). And it would be generous as well as accurate to say that, in fact, I have finally come to enjoy (more than my share of) this dessert. My husband has figured out exactly how long it needs to cook to retain its spongy moistness.
He has begun to spike it with simple sugar syrup (though we are now thinking a small touch of rum could come back into the picture). The chocolate he used this year was an unqualified success. And it's great to see my son enjoying the bûche as I know my husband did when he was a child.
Perhaps I also warmed up to the bûche during the single year that I myself created one. My son's preschool, which is international in its focus, was having a holiday party, and I volunteered to supply (what else?) dessert. The bûche really was a great choice for the impact of tradition and ethnicity. Of course I refused to make my mother-in-law's recipe; I had seen a version of bûche that was much fancier, more "gourmet," and I spent many hours laboring over it. In fact, it was quite good--better than the ones my husband had been turning out in those early years--and it was more pleasing to my artist's eye: I made the chocolate look much more like bark, I thought, and I also added meringue mushrooms dusted with cocoa powder (they looked real, were whimsical and fun, and tasted great). But it was clear that, to my husband, it just wasn't the same. And I do understand, really.
So, this year, for many reasons, my husband once again was the Christmas chef. And to give him his due... we had the best Christmas eve meal ever. Cassoulet (see photo, right), while not traditional as a Christmas recipe, is the dish most associated with his hometown of Toulouse, France. I will not reveal the source of our ingredients--the duck, the special brand of haricots, the sausage and such--but will say that the whole lived up to, and even surpassed, the sum of its high-quality parts. A perfect dish on a cold winter's eve, a one-pot family meal to warm the body and soul. And the bûche: it should be said, this year, it was close to perfection. Close, I say, because I admit I still long for the pastry art details that please my eye; I miss the meringue mushrooms. But the taste was wonderful, and I happily ate seconds--on both Christmas eve and Christmas day!
(As a sort of post-script, I will say that although my eye enjoys artistry, I do appreciate the simplicity and the humbleness of the dessert "tout simple"--the lack of fussiness in our bûche. Even the one I made myself, while "fancy" in some ways, was very modest compared to the commercialized frenzy of the name-brand versions peddled in Parisian boutiques. Especially in the current economic climate--though this has always been my opinion, even in flush times--I find wealth displays and conspicuous consumption distasteful. A friend of mine forwarded the following New York Times article about just this subject as applied to end-of-year traditions of champagne and yule logs, and I have to say that I agree with the "scrooges" when it comes to the level of excess depicted here.)
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