In the late 1800s, a Parisian pastry maker (legends dispute exactly who) created a new type of cake that paid tribute to the Christmas Eve tradition of the Yule log. It was a simple recipe: A rectangular sponge cake, spread with pastry cream, was rolled into a cylinder and coated in chocolate buttercream. It was then festooned with mushroom-shaped meringues and almond paste cut as leaves to resemble a wooden log freshly chopped from the forest.
To this day throughout France, the bûche de Noël remains the indispensable and highly anticipated final touch to a hearty holiday meal. It is also a favorite playground for pâtissiers to display their finest ideas and technical skills.
We interviewed some of France’s leading pastry chefs about the stories behind their Christmas creations. Their responses have been translated, condensed and edited.
Creative director, Lenôtre
We branded our bûches for over two decades in partnership with fashion designers, artists and architects, until we felt that creativity had taken the upper hand over flavor and the meaning of Christmas. We needed our bûche back, and as a log.
Under its chocolate shell, this one has a base made of crunchy cocoa and Agen hazelnuts, a fluffy lemon-flavored cream and a steamed baba inspired by the dampfnudel my mother used to make in my native region, Alsace.
It comes with a pop-up theater set by Michaël Cailloux evocative of a wondrous odyssey across three continents, as well as boxes containing candied lemon, chocolate sauce and a spice powder — the three wise men’s gifts. I think children will especially enjoy eating the white chocolate clouds.
Head pâtissier, Four Seasons Hotel George V
Pâtissiers are constantly using their imaginations, but at Christmas they really let loose. This year we built a 45 centimeter-high pine cone, much like a “stacking rings” toy. The scales, rings and central pole are made of chocolate from Madagascar, which is more acidic and fruity than bitter. Each ring contains a pine-nut-and-caramel cake, as well as smoked-beech-tree-flavored ice cream. Gilded pine nuts and chocolate truffles concealed on the scales appear when the cone is disassembled to be served.
Dessert is always about pleasure (not because you’re still hungry), so ingredients are essential. I discovered the true taste of butter and cream as a child on my grandmothers’ farms in Normandy, and I still travel the world to find the best products possible.
I made this bûche with blue vanilla, a rare variety from the island of Réunion. Its taste is unique and its pod so delicate that I minced and folded it into the cake’s mousse. It sits on a base of roasted and slightly salted pecan nuts, a unique combination of flavors when paired with this vanilla. Because I don’t use coloring or gold leaf, I need to find a visually compelling shape while making sure each dinner guest gets an equal share, whether from the end or the center of the cake.
The chocolate shell, created with the designer Sébastien Servaire, is embossed with my brand’s logo, foxes. They symbolize the freedom I gained by opening my own pâtisserie after my experience in high-end restaurants. My parents owned a bookstore outside Paris, and I like that foxes are depicted as cunning and smart in Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” and La Fontaine’s “Fables.” And, well, I’m also a redhead.
Pâtissier and chocolatier, Pierre Hermé
The bûche I knew as a child in Alsace was the traditional rolled sponge cake with ganache and buttercream sold at my family’s pastry shop. Later, in Paris, I discovered it could have other shapes and ingredients.
I often make bûches from cakes I’ve made before, like the Ispahan. This year, however, I created entirely new ones, including a black-lemon bûche with boiled, then sun-dried lemons from Iran, which have a unique, almost spicy flavor. I added a twist of yellow lemon to the cream for acidity and extra freshness.
I enjoy working with single ingredients and mining them deeply for taste. I use sugar as a seasoning to highlight flavors rather than as a sweetener. But whatever the content, in my view a bûche should always be log-shaped.
Our bûche is a trompe-l’oeil, shaped as a ripe cocoa pod, carved open to reveal the white pulp and cocoa beans inside. The hull is made of cocoa butter and chocolate, colored with natural red food coloring. Inside, there is a cocoa sponge cake, a cream of dark Bali chocolate, real cocoa beans and a mousse flavored with puffed and caramelized basmati rice. As a child I loved chocolate and puffed rice bars.
Last year our bûche was inspired by the zinc roofs of Paris, with their little chimneys and windows of maids’ rooms. There are so many great pâtissiers in Paris that we draw true satisfaction from trying to stand out with shapes that are original. Our bûches are limited editions of 100, never repeated. Five years from now, however, I might try that basmati rice mousse again for a new dessert.
Pâtissier, Christophe Michalak
As a kid I drew Marvel comics, baked cakes for my mother and shaped almond paste into roses and letters. The artistic side of pâtisserie thrilled me.
I’ve made bûches in all sorts of shapes — handbags, staircases, cars. This one is a rocket because Christmas is the stuff of dreams and should carry you elsewhere. It contains two ingredients I am crazy about, milk chocolate and a hazelnut praline called Gianduja, as well as orange blossom. The combination of flavors is simply atomic. The rocket comes with slicing instructions.
Christmas is the time to reconnect with your roots and traditions, and pass them on to your children. Perhaps that’s why we serve classic Christmas menus: oysters or scallops, foie gras, truffled capon. The bûche should bring a light final touch, with flavors in tune with what came before.
This year’s bûche celebrates the 40 years of three Michelin stars my family’s restaurants have accumulated over three generations. Our head pâtissier, Eric Verbauwhede, devised a rolled sponge cake with pear jam and chocolate, both flavored with sumac, which is magically astringent, then concealed under a chef’s hat made of white chocolate.
My bûche secret is that I always ask my son, who is 13, and my mother, 85, for their approval. A bûche should unite generations. They both loved this one.