"It’s something special. I go out of my way to make that."
In his new book A Year in Chocolate, Jacques Torres claims that the "bûche de Noël, a classic dessert of the French Christmas season, is quickly becoming an American tradition."
Torres has a history nearly as illustrious as the chocolate that is his medium. When asked to describe chocolate, he waxes didactic: it was traded as currency, used as an aphrodisiac, exalted as a food of the gods, and served as a royal exclusive. In his more than a decade as pastry chef at Le Cirque, Jacques created aphrodisiac desserts for royalty, that certainly traded for a lot of currency. In 2000, Jacques opened his own chocolate factory in DUMBO, Brooklyn, and has expanded his chocolate empire to downtown Manhattan, where he grazes on chocolate, a food that he extols as "loved by anyone" and everyone, all day long.
Jacques Torres' Bûche de Noël Recipe, reprinted with permission from Jacques Torres' A Year in Chocolate.
Christmas, to Torres, is about tradition. About sharing. About festivity. In his mind, it is classical, and should stand out as unique, and special. Jacques eats chocolate every day, but there is only one day a year when he eats the bûche de Noël, a roulade of sponge cake, pastry cream, and buttercream, sculpted into a representation of a Yule log, classically decorated with Dutch cocoa dirt, confectioners' sugar snow, and meringue mushrooms, to depict a wintry woodsy scene. Torres describes the log as "something festive, something you do only for the holiday." In France, the lines stretch long from the bakery doors on Christmas Eve, as families queue up to retrieve the bûche they ordered for the occasion.
Torres' memory of the bûche de Noël begins far earlier than his years as a patissier, a career that began at the tender age of 15. When Torres was a child, all his cousins and aunts and uncles would come together on Christmas Eve. They would begin dinner at about 9 or 10 o’clock at night, and feast on turkey. Just before midnight, the family would gather around the bûche de Noël, cut slices, and munch away, awaiting Father Christmas. At the stroke of midnight, he would appear—one of Torres' uncles picturesquely disguised for the moment—with presents, and soon the cake would be forgotten in the midst of wrapping paper. But for the moment, it brought the family together.
The legend surrounding the origin of the bûche de Noël is hazy. Wikipedia claims that Napoleon I outlawed fireplaces, convinced that the cold air from the flue was detrimental to the health of the French citizens. Families, therefore, created the bûche de Noël to symbolize the hearth, a warm place of gathering in the harsh winter months. Jacques allows that, in any event, the cake, like the hearth, is the place where the family comes together.
Nowadays, as the bûche de Noël gains popularity and mass appeal, according to Torres, the cakes are being manufactured in factories, shaped into gutter-shaped molds, instead of rolled as roulades, and frozen. Torres is not selling full bûches this year in his New York stores because his production is simply not geared to produce the bûches the traditional way: rolled, and kept fresh. He will be selling slices, however, to satiate any Yuletide cravings. Torres, however, does create bûches de Noël to give away as holiday presents. "It's not something that I sell. It’s a pain for me to make. It’s something special. I go out of my way to make that." It is the effort, the tradition, the history, and the attention to detail that signifies to friends and family alike that this is a gift in the true spirit of the season. Torres insists, "Christmas is, above all, about giving."
Torres remains traditional with the flavors as well. The classic in his hometown of Bandol in the south of France is chocolate pastry cream, with coffee buttercream. Meringue mushrooms are traditional, but Torres encourages playing around to suit your tastes and your fancy, so long as you respect the flavors of the season, and insist that the decorations be edible. Hazelnut, chocolate Grand Marnier, pear, praline, and exotic fruits are all evocative of deep winter, and so are appropriate flavorings for the bûche. Decorations must never be cheap paper substitutes in Torres' chocolate forest; if meringue mushrooms and marzipan animals are too much work, he encourages using Christmas lollipops and chocolates to set the scene.
Making Your Own Bûche de Noël
If you decide to attempt one at home (the recipe from A Year in Chocolate is published here on Serious Eats by permission), Torres has several tips.
First, and this is emphatic, "Do not overbake the sponge." Cook it at a high temperature, not allowing it to become too dark, and then remove it from the baking tray right away so that it does not dry out.
Second, apply a flavored simple syrup.
Third, good pastry cream is vital.
And then, finish with the buttercream. He emphasizes that at this point, you can be done. You don’t need to decorate it at all. But if you do, do only as much as you desire. Above all, keep it fresh. Do not make it more than 24 to 48 hours in advance, and keep it in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap, so it doesn't absorb any off flavors. Ice cream left out of the freezer to soften would make a perfect accompaniment.
So why does Torres think this tradition is spreading across the U.S.? "Americans love family," he says. "[They] love tradition. When they see something as beautiful and traditional that brings the family together, they want to do it. I like that about this country—they don't say 'that's not American.'"
Here's to some bûche for your bouche, and a Joyeux Noël.