Buche de Noel: A French New Year’s Tradition

Buche de Noel: A French New Year’s Tradition
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Buche de Noel: A French New Year’s Tradition

Long ago, before modern conveniences like central heating, everyone took their warmth from the hearth of the home.  A tradition formed around Christmas and New Year in France.  Those with a spare bit of firewood traveled to visit close friends and family, offering a “Buche de Noel,” a log (Bush) for Noel.  The gift would ensure that those loved ones would stay warm and thus healthy and fed, until the arrival of spring. 

Fast forward a few centuries. 

No longer dependent on firewood to keep them warm, the French still cling tightly to tradition.  The Yule Log cake has replaced the firewood.  Friends and family still gather, but when someone brings you a Buche de Noel, it is a symbol of their sincere love and hope for you for the new year. 

In my family, learning to make the Yule Log was a rite of passage.  Every kid, at age thirteen or fourteen, met with my grandmother, and she taught us to make the cake.  Making the cake is a two-day process and is a rite of passage due to the difficulty of achieving something that looks like a real piece of wood.  The problem lies in the cake batter itself.  Too moist and it won’t hold up to the buttercream frosting.  Too dry and the cake will crack and break as it is rolled. 

When each of my kids had come of age, I sat in a chair in the corner of my kitchen as Meme taught them each how to peel the parchment from the cake, careful to roll it into a wide log shape.  I held my breath when she stopped them, giving the cake a few seconds, ensuring it didn't break. 

Making the Yule Log with her was more than making a cake or cookies with a grandparent.  This was a tradition, she told them, that they would carry into their lives and future families.  There were already photo albums full, back then, with Christmas and New Year pictures going back twenty years.  Each one had a picture of “the cake.”  It was tremendous pressure when it was your turn to present your cake to the huge gathering of a family who arrived for dinner.  The buttercream would be tasted and analyzed.  The design in the frosting to look like wood would be photographed and applauded.  Ever seen the Great British Baking Show, the contest for bakers on Public Television?  They’ve got nothing on my family. 

This year, I was on the phone with my grandmother, planning our holiday get together.  She remarked, “Too bad I’m too old to make a Yule Log anymore.”  My heart sunk a little.  It was difficult to hear her say the words.  I called my daughter, who is a far better baker than me.  I held my breath as I asked her to come and help me. I am very fortunate. She jumped at the chance.  As I hung up the phone, I felt a little sick.  I was thirteen again, and this time, I didn't have my grandmother to help me.

A couple days later, with a counter full of ingredients, my daughter, her toddler son and a whole lot of trepidation on my part, we set to make a Yule Log that might meet the bar of the family matriarch.  Here is what we accomplished.  Two Yule Logs, one traditional; chocolate mocha and one lighter, non-traditional; raspberry filling with cream cheese frosting.  What we really accomplished was me, being a mom and a grandmother, gathering my own family together, carrying on a tradition that is part of my heritage and hundreds of years old.  As I look to 2017, I can only hope for many, many more of these kinds of moments.

Michele Roger is a Senior Food and Travel Writer for SEARCH magazine (www.searchmagazine.net).  She writes the food blog, “Oui, Michele” atwww.cookwithmichele.wordpress.com.  When she isn’t writing or cooking, she is a harpist who teaches and performs in the Detroit area.



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