Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
As childhood fantasies go, baking a bûche de Noël ranks right up there with amassing a large Barbie collection and kissing Shaun Cassidy — girly in the extreme. But this has been my fantasy since I was seven. And I am happy to say it took me only 32 years to fulfill it.
The bûche de Noël — better known in the Anglophone world as a Yule log — is artifice wrapped in symbolism stuffed with buttercream. Originally, these logs were wood, not cake. People burned them for 12 days straight in the dark of winter — a wee sun in the hearth and a bane to evil spirits. Some believe Napoleon‘s proscription on chimney use (a public-health measure) sparked the invention of a sweet replacement for the illegal log. Fuel is fuel, I guess, whether it warms us inside or out.
Neither the baking nor the construction of a Yule-log cake was as hard as I had feared, despite the fact that this was my first encounter with a jelly-roll pan and my first use of cloth as a baking tool. I mixed and matched a few online recipes, picking an espresso-hazelnut sponge for the cake layer and a mixture of chocolate, whipping cream, and butter for the cream layer.
Tree rings, as my husband has taught me, mark seasons of growth: the thicker, light-colored layers (the sponge cake, in this case) are summer, when water and sun are plentiful, while the thin, dark layers (the buttercream) are winter, when growth is slow. Real annual rings are concentric rather than spiral, though.
I like a good showy bark on my tree, so I melted eight ounces of chocolate, let it cool on parchment in the refrigerator, and then pulled ragged strips off of it, which I attached with the remaining buttercream (or winter cream, as you may now wish to call it). I completed my tableau with meringue mushrooms.
As I contemplated my endeavor, I wondered why it’s so pleasing to create food that does not look like food. In my favorite scene from the old “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” movie, Willy Wonka leads Charlie and company to the banks of the chocolate river and their first vision of the factory’s interior.
The garden paths teem with a rainbow of flowers, stems, branches, and seeds; the children and adults race about feeding on everything they touch. After seeing the movie a dozen times, I am still struck when Wonka tips a narcissus blossom to his mouth and then promptly takes a bite of it. There is something fastidious and carnal in the gesture.
Of course, the wood-cake switcheroo that predates Wonka’s confectionery-industrial complex is the witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel.” And what does Hansel and Gretel’s milquetoast father do for work? He’s a woodcutter, of course. He and his family live in a dense forest, but not one of these trees will fill his babies’ bellies.
It’s not until H. and G. stumble upon the witch’s gingerbread dream of a house that their humble fantasy of a groaning board has the faintest hope of coming true. One of the many lessons of “Hansel and Gretel” may be that people who don’t know shingles from cookies may not be able to separate children from pork loin. Children fail to learn this at their peril.
Despite the risks of crossing the wood/sugar barrier, this mimicry is marvelous. I can’t help but think that the Yule log speaks to our earliest childhood inclinations, when we understood substance through our burgeoning senses of taste and ran our sugar-hungry tongues along every surface.
Only after thousands of increasingly weary parental admonitions to keep fingers (and toes, elbows, sand buckets and shovels, sleeves, doorknobs, chair backs, remote controls, geraniums, dog collars, etc.) out of our mouths did we stop seeking knowledge through our pie holes. That perhaps was why I could hardly keep my eyes off the creamy swirls of the annual rings and why I carefully tucked toadstools against the log’s unruly bark.
As my husband joked about taking a chainsaw rather than a knife to the cake, I felt like I had pulled off something special. I was a little closer to the world of unfettered abundance I believed in as a child, and the world I hope for still.
Related recipe: Bûche de Noël (Yule Log)
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