Why in the world would you attempt a spectacular, complicated dessert when you’ve already got so much to do during this holiday season? Because it is an accomplishment, it shows how much you care about your friends and family, and sometimes it’s just cool to create a whopper of a showstopper!
The buche de Noel or Yule log, is a traditional French Christmas cake shaped and decorated to look like a log. It begins with a simple genoise or sponge cake (this can be chocolate, plain, mocha, chestnut, whatever you wish) spread with buttercream or whipped cream and rolled. The ends can be trimmed off and used as additional branch stumps on the log, which is covered with more buttercream and decorated. The simplest decorating can be accomplished by raking the tines of a fork over the log to give it a bark-like texture. You can also sprinkle some confectioner’s sugar to look like snow, plop a few random meringue mushrooms (homemade or store-bought) on top, and use some crushed pistachios to resemble moss.
Croquembouche is another fancy and ancient French dessert that is traditionally served at weddings, baptisms, and first communions, but I have gotten it into my head that it is a marvelous and fun New Year’s Eve dessert. It consists of little profiteroles filled with pastry cream or whipped cream (again, you can flavor this with Grand Marnier, coffee, or chocolate, but I am loyal to vanilla). They are then stacked and glued together with caramel, usually in a pyramid or other towering form. Mine usually just look like a bunch of molecules and atoms meeting for the first time. Think more gangster house in Arkhangelsk, Russia, than the Shard in London. Bottom line: If you like eclairs, you will love croquembouche; if you like cake, you will love buche de Noel.
Croquembouche translates literally to “crunch in mouth,” because of the hardened caramel coating. This dessert enjoyed its heyday in the 1800s thanks to Antoine Careme, a pastry chef who had also studied architecture. His original shape was a Turkish fez, which then evolved into towering, unwieldy pyramids and cones. Versions of this dessert go back as far as the 1500s, and some were in in the shapes of Gothic towers, Persian pavilions, and Turkish mosques. By the beginning of the 20th century, the favorite croquembouche form was conical.
It is not clear exactly when the Yule log as a dessert came about, but it was possibly around 1615. The symbolism of the log goes back to the Iron Age, before the medieval era. Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans would celebrate the winter solstice at December’s end. The days were about to get longer, so a log decorated with holly, pinecones, and ivy would be burned in the hearth. Sometimes the log would be anointed with wine and salt before burning, and it was believed that saving the ashes would protect your house from lightning.
It would take up too much room to give full recipes for both of these dessert’s components so I am only going to give recipes for the pate a choux dough of the croquembouche, pastry cream, caramel, and the genoise or sponge cake for the buche de Noel. You can make your own buttercream, fill it with whipped cream, or cheat and buy the Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker canned frosting. What the heck!
So if you’ve got the time and the inclination, be a showoff this holiday season, flex your culinary muscles, and build a spectacular showstopper of a dessert for your loved ones. After all, Christmas comes but once a year.