The Yule Log Saga

Decades ago, I used to be quite ambitious in the kitchen. One year for our annual family Christmas dinner I decided to go the whole nine yards and make a cake that looks like something you’d toss onto the campfire on a chilly night. It’s called a Yule Log, originating in France as the Buche de Noel. It’s a classic French Christmas dessert, which is strange because I have no French ancestry on either side of my family.

While I love French cuisine and think French chefs are among the finest in the world when it comes to creativity, maybe they went ju-u-u-u-st a bit too far with this monstrosity. I won’t bore you with the recipe ingredients, since there are dozens out there, much like everyone has their favorite meatloaf or chili recipe. But the process is similar no matter the ingredients, so let me share my odyssey and expertise in what to expect if you truly want to wow your family with a dessert “Yule” never forget.

First, make the cake in a jellyroll pan (have I lost most of you already?). A jellyroll pan is a shallow baking pan, like a cookie sheet with sides. Standard is 15″X10″X1″ deep. Remove the cake from the pan when it has cooled. Then make the filling that you will spread onto the cake.

Listen carefully now. Spread the filling onto the cake. This is the point of no return. Up to this point, you still have time to run out to the Kwik Trip and buy a gallon of ice cream and a dozen day old, chocolate-covered doughnuts for Christmas dessert.

Now, roll the cake up into a log shape. That’s the first fun part, because as we all know, a 15x10x1-inch cake with some sort of goopy fruit or cream filling slathered on top of it is so pliable and easy to roll into a tight little log. A two-year-old could do it. (More on two-year-olds later.)

Assuming that task came off without a hitch and you don’t have chunks of filling-covered cake scattered about your counter, which would require you to start over, you are now ready to apply the tree bark to your Yule log. Translation: tree bark is the layer of frosting you apply to make the cake look like a log. Chocolate is a good choice since, like most tree bark, it’s brown. One could digress here and go for a white birch, but if you’re going to this much trouble to frost a cake, it might as well be chocolate, right?

It’s not enough to slather this liquid tree bark on like you would frost a normal cake; the trick is to make that frosting actually look like tree bark. Most bakers tend to go for smoother-barked trees such as young maples. Not me. I went for a scraggly old cottonwood, with deep, roughly parallel grooves. If you’re a trained sculptor, expert in clay, this will only take a few minutes. It takes klutzes like me 15-20 minutes.

By this time, you’ll be ready for a snort, so make sure you’ve got plenty of wine, beer, or tequila shots on hand. Booze does wonders at keeping you calm when you realize you have to leave for your brother’s house in ten minutes and you thought your Yule Log would have been finished two hours ago.

Now it’s time for the branches. These can be mini-pieces of jellyroll cake that you’ve saved from your trimming of the original cake. Or you can think ahead and bake a dozen or so mini-cakes shaped like tree branches. Have I mentioned that entire books have been written on the art of Yule Logging? If not, there should be, if only to scare more people away from trying to make one.

Actually, it’s much easier to show where branches used to be by creating the look of a sawed-off branch only sticking out an inch or so. Two or three of these are enough. Some artistes go so far as to use real branches (twigs actually), which they stick into the cake. This can work well for coniferous trees, adding a nice green color and texture–and aroma if you use fresh pine boughs. Just remember to tell your guests these aren’t edible. Celebrate with another drink.

Once the branches are stuck on and painted/frosted you’re getting close, but remember these small pieces of cake are even more fragile than the whole cake, and your frosting is the consistency of partially-set cement, so it might take a few (dozen?) tries to get several acceptable branches stuck on and frosted. Celebrate with another drink.

If you go with the sawed-off branch theme, you of course have to make lighter-colored icing to put on the stump—tan or caramel color vs. the chocolate-brown of the bark. Adding twenty or thirty age rings on that sawed-off area adds a nice touch of realism, too. Easy enough to do on a one-inch-diameter branch, right? Celebrate with another drink.

Now you look at the Yule Log and think, “That looks pretty good, but something’s missing. Ah ha! I’ve got it … mushrooms! Celebrate with another drink.

NO, I don’t mean psychedelic mushrooms for your consumption because you’re certain that’s the only way you’re going to finish this sucker without killing the cat or punching a hole in your wall. Save those for afterward. They go nice with a glass of port.

So you whip up a batch of meringue mushrooms, let them cool, and place them in strategic locations on the log. Suffice it to say, there are more mushroom shapes than tree bark varieties, so unless you have some serious meringue-sculpting talent, stick with garden-variety button mushrooms. Crank out five or six of those—vary the sizes, of course—and stick those onto the log. Some purists insist on one per serving. I worry more about the visual effect. Is my muse telling me this is a recently downed tree, meaning only a few mushrooms will have taken hold? Or has this sucker been dead for decades, and if not for those freaking age rings, no one in their right mind would suspect this is a log. Celebrate with another drink.

But those mushrooms usually look starkly white against the brown frosting of the bark, which is not natural, so you decide the mushrooms need a touch of dirt on them. Not real dirt of course, but cocoa powder lightly dusted over them. Et Voila, right?

Well-l-l-l, not quite. It’s Christmas after all, so you need to garnish your masterpiece. Get some holly leaves and berries, maybe a few pine sprigs, and nestle those around the edges in an artistic montage of winter’s struggle to defeat beauty and color, and the pine and holly berry’s ultimate prevailing over Old Man Winter. Celebrate with another drink.

Presuming you had the foresight to begin this odyssey at least 24 hours before E.A.T. (Eating Approximation Time); you’ve got just enough time to proudly present this culinary Taj Mahal to your guests before they’ve given up on you and cracked  open the five-gallon pail of caramel corn that Uncle Joe gave to one of the two-year-olds for Christmas. They ooh and ah politely, at which point one of the inevitable Terrible Two Toddlers who are always present at family gatherings spies your creation, says, “MINE!” and proceeds to plunge his grubbly little fist into the cake up to his wrist. I know “grubbly” is a typo, but I like the word. It combines grubby and bubbly—like “happy dirt.”

You choke back bile and venom as you maintain your composure. But you say to yourself, “So this is what goes through a serial killer’s mind just before he fires up the chainsaw!” Of course, the little tyke’s mom apologizes profusely. You shrug it off. “He and the other little darlings can have that section. We grownups will enjoy the three inches of cake that doesn’t have toxic two-year-old germs and spittle all over it.” Celebrate by spiking the kid’s apple juice with Red Hot Peppermint Schnapps.

You slice up what’s left of the cake and serve. Everyone wolfs it down in 30 seconds and makes comments such as, “That was pretty good, Chris, tastes kind of like a Ding Dong. Whatdja call it again, a Euell Gibbons Log?”

You say, “It’s just Yule Log,'” and smile graciously. Everyone makes sure to thank you, mainly for showing up so they can talk to someone else besides their boorish spouses. Your last thought before cracking open the Magnum of Late Bottle Vintage Port that you plan to drink all by yourself (with a generous dose of psychedelic mushrooms) is, “Next year, I’m bringing the salad!”

Care to share any of your own Holiday cooking (mis)adventures?

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