Christmas Past

The fascinating stories behind your favorite Christmas traditions

Backstory — La Buche du Noel

image of a buche du noel, from Maggie Ragaisis

La buche du Noel is a festively eye-catching dessert from France. And it wouldn’t have been possible if not for a nineteenth century urbanization trend and the widespread availability of cheap sugar.

Make your own buche du Noel

Maggie Regaisis shared her buche du Noel recipe. Hear her tips in the episode, then try making your own!

Basic Chiffon Cake for Buche du Noel

  • 1 cup + 2 tbsp (5 1/2 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup (5 1/4 oz) sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup (2 oz) vegetable oil
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup + 1 tbsp water
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3/4 tsp lemon zest
  • 5 egg whites, at room temp
  • 1/4 tsp cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 325, line the bottom of a 12×17 jelly roll pan with parchment paper to fit exactly, do not grease the sides of the pan. Sift the flour and baking powder together into a large mixing bowl. Whisk in all but 3 tbsp of the sugar and all of the salt into the flour mixture. In a small bowl whisk the oil, egg yolks, water, vanilla and lemon zest together.

Make a well in the flour mixture and pour the egg mixture into it, whisk quickly for 1 min, set aside Pour the egg whites into a stand mixer bowl. Using the whisk attachment beat on med-high speed until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and beat at the same speed until the whites hold soft peaks. Slowly add the 3 tbsp of sugar and beat at the same speed until whites hold stiff shiny peaks.

Gently fold in about 1/3 of the whites into the yolk mixture to lighten. Then gently fold in the rest of the whites.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth with an offset spatula. Bake 20-30 min or until cake is just set to the touch. Set aside to cool in the pan. Once cool run a small knife along the edge to loosen, then invert the cake onto a cooling rack, peel off the parchment and set aside.

Buttercream Filling

  • 1 1/4 cup (10 oz) unsalted butter, at room temp
  • 1 cup + 2 tbsp (8 oz) sugar
  • 1/2 cup (4 oz) egg whites
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup (2 oz) coffee, brewed double strength

Cut the butter into tbsp increments.

Fill a sauce pan with about 2 inches of water and bring to a simmer. Combine sugar, egg whites and salt in a stainless steal bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk together to combine. Place the bowl over the simmering water, making sure that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the simmering water. Whisk over the water until the mixture is hot to the touch (120 degrees), about 5 min.

Remove the bowl from the heat and place in the bowl into the stand mixer with the whisk attachment in place. Mix on high speed until the the mixture is thick, glossy and holds very stiff peaks, about 5-7 min. Mixture should be cool by this point

Reduce the speed to med-high and add the butter to the mixture 1 tbsp at a time, making sure each addition is fully incorporated before adding the next. Mix in the coffee at a low speed, than increase to med to fully incorporate, set aside. The buttercream was soupy and starting to separate when I added the coffee so I just beat it on high and it re-incorporated itself.

Almond Ganache Bark

  • 1 cup (3 1/2 oz) sliced almonds
  • 6 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 3/4 cup (6 oz) heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350. Spread the almonds out on a baking sheet and bake for 5 min or until toasted. Stir halfway through to ensure even toasting. Transfer to a small plate to cool. Place the chopped chocolate in a small heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan bring the heavy cream to just under a boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate and let sit for 1 min, then stir the mixture until it is melted, smooth and shiny.

Add the cooled almonds and mix gently. Place the mixture in the fridge for 15 min or until it has thickened and is a good spreading consistency. If the ganache becomes too hard for spreading you can place the heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and stir with a wooden spoon until it softens to the right consistency.

Assembling la buche

Place the cooled cake on parchment paper or plastic wrap. Using a pastry brush, moisten the entire cake with the cooled coffee syrup. Transfer all the buttercream to the cake and spread evenly with a spatula leaving a 1 inch strip on each long side of the cake void of buttercream. Starting from the longest side nearest you, begin rolling the cake tightly, using the plastic wrap to help you. Don’t worry about the state of the ends, they will both be cut off anyways. Refrigerate the rolled cake for at least 2 hours.

Using a sharp knife, cut a thick slice off each end at the diagonal . Set the cleanest best looking end aside. To frost the cake, use an offset spatula to spread the ganache bark evenly over the cake leaving the faces of the two ends exposed. Make sure you reserve enough ganache to frost the “bough” which is your reserved end piece.

Place the diagonal slice, the bough, on top of the frosted cake towards one of the cakes ends. Make sure the diagonal end is facing up. Next frost the sides of the bough leaving the top face exposed. Transfer the cake to your serving dish. Finish with dusting of confectioner’s sugar.

Fun links

Music from this episode

Episode transcript

Maggie Regacious 0:05
For whatever you want little Christmas decorations if you want to put some, you know, Christmas ornaments on there, my sister’s birthday is Christmas Eve so we put candles on it every year.

Brian Earl 0:16
I’m speaking with Maggie Regacious

Maggie Regacious 0:18
Like Oh my gracious

Brian Earl 0:19
and she’s a baker. We’re discussing a sweet and eye catching Christmas tradition. One that I first learned about in my high school French class from Mr. Lavelle or padonia ma monsieur Lavelle around Christmas time, we’d start saying things like Joyeaux Noel. And the day before school was let out for Christmas break, we would celebrate with a fete du noel, with a little sparkling grape juice, and a festive looking cake made up to look like a yule log la buche du noel. It’s a favorite tradition, and also a very new one, one whose true beginnings date back centuries, but wasn’t ready to be born until several forces came together at about the same time, including urbanization, industrialization, changing economies, and a dash of nostalgia. Like the desert itself. This tradition is made up of many layers. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past.

To understand la buche du noel the desert, first you have to know what a yule log is. And to understand that you need to know what yule itself is. So let’s start there. But the trouble is that we don’t really know for sure what yule is or was. We know that it was a Scandinavian winter time tradition, the word Yule may translate to wheel in reference to the cycle of the seasons. And that would be one argument in favor of it being a winter solstice celebration, the kind celebrated in other places to mark the lengthening of the days in the coming Return of the crops. The only problem with that is that the astronomical knowledge of the people who observed yule was pretty spotty, it may not have been possible to predict the solstice as accurately as could the Romans, For example, who marked it with the annual festival of Saturnalia, the word could also translate simply as feast. And in the winter months in that part of the world, people would slaughter their cows because there was no grain to feed them. So people would feast on meat and drink wine. And it does seem that you will was more of a time of year rather than a single celebration, with some evidence suggesting it lasted from mid November to mid January. Whatever its origins we do know that it was brought to England and Scotland by the Danish in the ninth and 10th centuries. By the 11th century, it had been rolled in with Christian traditions and eventually became synonymous with Christmastide, the 12 day period from December 25 to January 5 and the origin of the well known 12 Days of Christmas. By the 12th century, people in Germany had begun the practice of burning a yule log at Christmas. This was usually a huge log, and oftentimes it was an entire tree trunk that would stick out into the room at one end of it burned in the fireplace. This tradition quickly spread through Europe and found its way to England and Scotland by the 17th century. In all cultures that observed the tradition, finding a yule log and bringing it home was a celebration in itself. People would decorate the log with bows and children would ride on the log as the adults pulled it through the snow. Every culture came up with its own spin. Like in Newfoundland in the 19th century, it was customary for the man of the house to go outside and fire a gun into the air. Once the Yule Log had been set in the fireplace. in Montenegro, a piece of bread and a sprinkling of wine were placed on the log prior to putting it into the fireplace. I feel like yule and Yule logs could be full episodes in their own right, maybe I’ll come back to them in a future season of the show. The point I’m trying to make here is that the Yule Log was a pretty big deal. This was before anyone had Christmas trees, that custom wouldn’t get started for a few hundred years yet, and though the Yule Log never quite made it big in America, it’s still a very common tradition in Europe, including France, where it’s known as la buche du noel. And in France, like many of its neighboring countries, it’s traditional to stay up after midnight on Christmas Eve, and have an enormous feast called la revillon, which translates to the awakening in reference to staying up into the wee hours. These feasts would include seven meatless dishes, 13 kinds of bread roll and at least 13 types of dessert. In around the 19th century in France, more people were moving away from the countryside and toward the city of Paris. And with that migration, many of those rustic family traditions got a cosmopolitan facelift. main dishes and especially desserts became extravagant affairs. Also in the late 19th century in Paris, sugar had become a cheap and widely available commodity, which it hadn’t been throughout most of history. It’s hard for us to imagine what a big deal this must have been at the time. Most of us pass a dozen pastry shops on the way to work every day. But in the 19th century in Paris, pastry shops and even the idea of sweet baked goods as an everyday luxury was totally new. And Parisian pastry chefs embraced their newfound good fortune vigorously. pastry shops would compete by placing lavish creations in their window displays. And it wasn’t long before one creative patissiere realized that many Parisian felt nostalgic for the rustic tradition of la buche du noel. Parisian apartments didn’t have fireplaces large enough for a yule log after all. And besides, who’d want to drag them up a flight of stairs, so why not give them the next best thing? An eye catching and tasty dessert that resembled la buche du noel. the basic idea is a rolled up sponge cake filled with buttercream frosting, and decorated to look like a real log. And it would be an understatement to say that la buche du noel. caught on quickly. Within 20 years, it became basically an essential Christmas dessert. I’ve never made one myself, but I want to give it a try this year. So I asked Maggie Regacious

Maggie Regacious 6:18
like oh my gracious

Brian Earl 6:19
for some tips,

Maggie Regacious 6:20
you’re going to make a sponge cake. And so you’re going to need a jelly roll pan or sheet pan because you’re going to roll it up and you bake it and when you pull it out of the oven, the first thing you want to do is get out of the pan and to a towel that has powdered sugar on it. And then so that way, it’ll keep the cake from sticking. And then while it’s still warm, roll it up in the towel. It’ll keep it from cracking when you actually unroll it and reroll it to fill it. Once it’s cooled in the towel. You can fill it with just about anything you can spread buttercream you can use whipped cream, you can i softened ice cream, you can use your favorite jam, roll it up, making sure your seam is on the bottom, put it on a plate and you covered in your favorite buttercream or icing. I like to use chocolate ganache because it’s nice and dark and it looks like more like a log, you know, run of the tines of the fork through it and give it some texture. And then it’s just all about the decorating at that point.

Brian Earl 7:21
Now Maggie was kind enough to share her own recipe with me, and I’m going to share it with you. So check out the show notes for this episode at Christmas Past podcast.com. It’s true that most of the Christmas traditions we observe here in America come to us from England and Europe. But of course Christmas is celebrated all around the world with many festive traditions unique to the culture that created them. And if you’re lucky enough to live in a part of America that rich in the heritage of one of those places, your Christmases may have been merry and bright in a way all their own. Like Javier who grew up in Florida.

Javier in Florida 7:57
When I think of Christmas I don’t think about smoldering logs in a fireplace or crisp air cooling down my lungs. I remember the warm nights and the salty breeze blowing on my face. The citrusy smelled the roasting pork, the vibrations of the salsa music playing at my grandparents house. I would spend most of the night looking up hoping to see Santa slayed through the palm tree leaves in the clear Miami night sky. Occasionally, I’d look down to see the people dancing, eating and laughing. We called this party Najib wanna know chip Warner? wasn’t like the Christmas Eve dinners I watched on TV. My Cuban American family didn’t quietly gather around the dinner table. Oh, no, no, it’s your boy no was a celebration too big to contain indoors. Everyone was invited. And we all had a great time. The greatest memory of all happened way before anyone arrived 10 hours prior to the event to be exact. Early in the morning, I would wake up and help my grandfather season the whole hog and prep the fire pit, which Cubans call a gatchina. Or the Chinese box. My grandfather and I wouldn’t talk much during the preparations. It was our business. fire up the coals carry the pig to like a high Cina. Basically with orange juice and garlic. There was a lot to do. But it sees moments that I will share with me for as long as I can hold on to it. These days. We don’t celebrate no job we’re not like we used to. A few years ago, my grandfather roasted his last pig. You see he he suffers from dementia. And it’s gotten so bad that he can no longer do a lot of the things that he used to do. Instead of nocebo now this year, all I want is for him to recognize me and maybe I can tell him about all the great memories he’s given me. Maybe I can tell him that my brother and I plan to continue the tradition.

Brian Earl 9:57
Javier is the host of pretend radio podcasts telling true stories about imposters. Check it out wherever you get your podcasts. So how about you? Where did you grow up? And how did you celebrate Christmas there? Did you have any traditions unique to that area or to your family? Well, I’d love to hear about them and I’m sure everyone else would too. So record a voice memo on your phone and send it to Christmas pass podcast@gmail.com I’d love to share it on an upcoming episode. Christmas passed is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Thanks very much to Maggie Regatious and Javier Leyva. Follow along by searching for Christmas pass podcast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and find more information about the show including that recipe for the boost to know well at Christmas pass podcast.com Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and if you like the show, please tell a friend or leave a review on iTunes. It helps me out a lot and it lets me know what you’re thinking. Thanks very much for listening and I will see you next time.

Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Never miss an episode. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or anywhere else you get podcasts. If you need suggestions or help with subscribing, check out the Subscribe page. And if you have a moment, please leave a rating. It helps spread the Christmas cheer to more listeners!

Join the chorus!

With hundreds of five-star reviews, it's no wonder that Christmas Past is one of the top Christmas podcasts ever! Rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts, and I’ll send you a Christmas Past sticker and a handwritten Christmas card to say thanks. Contact me for details.

Celebrate all year round

Keep the Christmas spirit alive throughout the year with monthly updates. Christmas Past's email newsletter is free, non-spammy and full of Christmas news, tips, and musings, all handcrafted by yours truly, Brian Earl. And don't forget to follow Christmas Past on social media.

Follow Christmas Past