If the Twelfth Night Cake has a clear link to the Christian Epiphany, another of our favourites has distinctly pre-Christian origins: the Yule Log. Today, the Yule Log, or alternatively, Bûche de Noël in French, or Kerststronk in Flemish, is a simple Swiss Roll: a large shallow sponge cake, spread with cream, and rolled up into a log shape. Its name comes from its distinctive decoration, which consists of chocolate buttercream patterned to look like the bark of a tree. A third of the log is then sliced off, using an angled cut, and positioned adjoining the larger remaining part, so that it looks like a forked branch. The log is sometimes given further credibility with meringue mushrooms, or leaves, making it a much lighter and more child-friendly treat than the traditional fruited Christmas Cake. The Yule Log does not have the same reserved space at the Christmas festivities as the Christmas Cake, the mince pies or the Christmas pudding, but it is a popular addition, especially for those who do not care for the spiced and fruited theme of the Yuletide desserts.
The Yule Log, despite its rather modern, buttercreamed appearance, actually has a long history. The word ‘Yule’ arrived in England from Scandinavia, and one theory holds that it originally meant ‘wheel’, and signified the turning of the year. The original Yule Log was literally as the name suggests: a large log of wood which would be kept burning through the night of the winter solstice or even throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas to keep evil spirits away. The tradition has its own flavour in different parts of Europe, from the type of wood used (oak in England, birch in Scotland, cherry in France), to the period over which it is burned – every night, or just the Solstice, or Christmas Eve. The burnt ashes were meant to protect the house from lightning, and in Somerset, the log would be ridden by a young man as it was dragged home, earning himself hot cakes and ale if he managed to stay on. Part of the log was traditionally kept back to start the fire the following year, heightening the symbolism of the light which burned through the darkest part of the year. Gradually, hearths became smaller, and a baked log cake seemed like a more manageable tribute to the original log. Story has it that Napoleon banned wood-burning fireplaces because their chimneys brought in cold air and ill health. Perhaps this was another spur to making a tasty representation of the log rather than the real thing. Bûches de Noël were transported with French settlers to Canada where they are still popular in this festive season, and are served at family gatherings after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
We don’t usually have a Yule Log as well as a Christmas Cake, Mince Pies and all the other goodies that Christmas brings, but we have several small children with us this year, and I’m not sure that all that dried fruit will be to their tastes. It’s a good excuse to make another cake anyway!