We are in a month of celebrations, which means that extra resources are channeled into the kitchen. Those of us who don’t normally spend time discussing recipes, menus and table settings are busy making sure that they don’t fail the good-host test. Cooking aficionados are also upping their games, hoping to prove that theirs is the clearest broth, the tenderest turkey, the smoothest mash. Like it or not, these are the meals we all remember.
For professionals, particularly in the cake department, the effort is taken to a different level. I witnessed this in Paris a couple of years ago, when I was assigned to write a magazine piece about the state of French pâtisserie (yes, eating cakes was something I was actually paid to do, I am embarrassed to disclose).
It was November when I visited, and all my interviewees were eager to share their innovations for that year’s bûche de Noël, or Yule log. In the months leading up to Christmas, the top pastry chefs focus their efforts on this one traditional cake. Complex structures are erected in which, for example, lemon curd gently rubs shoulders with a red-fruit mousse nestled on a spiced sponge, the entire glorious creation coated with a mirrorlike glaze.
The level of ingenuity is mind-boggling but flavor is still at the heart of the project. I love the competitive and highly creative nature of the endeavor, and the fact that it leads to creations that people can actually eat.
A somewhat easier alternative to the Yule log: An upside-down date cake topped with kumquat marmalade, and served with Cognac mascarpone.CreditAndrew Scrivani for The New York Times
This is the spirit behind my own bûche de Noël. It includes a classic flavor combination I always go back to this time of year, that of dates and oranges (or in this case, kumquats or tangerines). There are some technical challenges along the way: making your own caramel shards, piping and torching your meringue, and even just taking care to avoid overbaking your sponge.
The reward is unrivaled, though. Bringing this Yule log to your holiday table will create that ta-da, heart-stopping moment for you. For just a second, you will actually become one of those accomplished Parisian pâtissiers. The slightly less ambitious upside-down cake here may not be quite the stuff of French daydreams but, I can assure you, will also leave behind some seriously sweet holiday memories.