For a purely joyous, bells-are-ringing holiday extravaganza, a bûche de Noël is simply unbeatable. Translated literally as “yule log,” it’s a traditional French Christmas cake, but anyone can make or enjoy one. Though this treat might look like the territory of professional bakers (and you could certainly order one online), it’s actually fairly easy to make at home.
We reached out to bûche de Noël aficionado and baking pro Belle English, our test kitchen chef, who loves the recipe from our Favorite Cakes cookbook. She’s made many renditions of the wintry classic over her years baking professionally, and loves its stunning presentation. The cake is “mostly chocolate-based, but the combination of the whipped cream, the light fluffy taste and buttercream is really nice texturally, and has great balance,” she says. Here are Belle’s top tips for rolling, garnishing and serving your bûche de Noël at its jaw-dropping finest.
For starters, be sure to use the best recipe you can find. Ours is available online as well as in our book, and Belle loves it because of its inclusion of buttermilk. The base cake, a génoise, needs to be carefully rolled, and buttermilk lends it a lot of pliability, she says. It’ll make the whole affair a lot easier.
2. Get the Temperature Right
You likely know to let cakes cool completely before frosting them, but this one is a little different. Since you need to roll it into its signature log shape, the first time you roll it up, must “make sure the cake is slightly warm so it has give,” says Belle. “Mastering that perfect temperature is crucial.” (Think: about 16 to 20 minutes after you remove it from the oven.) For the next roll, once you’ve shellacked the whole cake with whipped cream, you want it to be “just barely warm,” per the recipe. As Belle explains, “the warmth of the cake makes it a little more flexible; if it’s completely dry, it will crumble.”
3. Use a Large Enough Tea Towel
“The big thing for me is to make sure the towel you use to roll the cake has a lot of extra space there, and is bigger than the sheet tray you baked the cake in,” says Belle. “I remember the first time I made bûche de Noël I used just any old kitchen towel. There were pieces falling out everywhere, and it was kind of a mess.” Literally make sure it can be contained, she suggests. (This 38″-x-32″ towel is her go-to.)
4. Don’t Overdo the Whipped Cream
When it comes to the whipped cream you’ll spread on the unrolled “log,” keep in mind that you should use the amount specified in the recipe, says Belle. “Too much and it’ll come spilling out, and too little it won’t fill up properly. That whipped cream acts an adhesive to hold the cake together in a roll, so it’s important to spread it out in an even layer, too.
Once you’ve made the “log,” rolled it up, and frosted its “bark,” you want it to slice well. Be sure to preserve its gorgeous appearance by using a serrated bread knife, suggests Belle. Doing so should result in a clean swirl of cake for each plate.
6. Don’t Fear Marzipan
The finishing touches on a bûche de Noël are a powder of “snow” and pretty little sylvan mushrooms and pinecones. And though the word “marzipan” may conjure unachievable creations sitting in high-end pastry shops, it’s actually a snap. “It’s easier than you’d think, and acts just like cookie dough,” says Belle. (She thinks it’s even easier to handle than cookie dough.) Better yet, it’s “very forgiving,” so if you want to flavor yours with a touch of peppermint or almond extract, you can.
So give our recipe a glance, as it includes every minute detail you might want to make your own Yule log this year. And take a moment to enjoy the admiration of loved ones who start calling you “the family pastry chef!”