Yule logs are a French culinary tradition par excellence, and abound in American pastry shops and supermarkets during the holiday season.
The yule log was originally part of Celtic culture. During the Winter Solstice — the shortest day of the year — the Celts would keep a wooden log burning throughout the night to celebrate the rebirth of the sun. The first rolled, log-shaped cakes appeared in France in the late 19th century. At a time when fireplaces and chimneys were fading from fashion, this dessert stepped in to take up the torch. Today, more than 50% of French people round off their Christmas dinner with a slice of yule log.
The traditional dessert has become a firm favorite in the majority of Francophone countries, including Canada, Switzerland, and Belgium — and can even be found in Vietnam. In the United States, the yule log made its way onto cooking shows and into recipe books during the 1960s, and is now put on the shelves of baked goods stores and supermarkets in early December every year.
“In major cities such as New York, culinary borders are very fluid and there is a big mix of influences,” says French chocolatier Jacques Torres. “The yule log is a wonderful custom, and that’s why the Americans made it their own.” The same sentiment is echoed by French baker Eric Kayser, who has sold yule logs since he opened his first store in the United States in 2012. “Not only is it a very traditional dessert, it’s also delicious — not to mention visually festive. They’re very popular every year with all our customers.”
What happened to the traditional log?
Historically, the yule log is made with a rolled sponge cake garnished with buttercream and flavored with coffee or chocolate. Its marzipan decorations conjure up images of Christmas and the forest, while the icing replicates the appearance of bark. And while customers won’t struggle to find a modern yule log at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, the traditional dessert is increasingly rare at artisanal stores.
“It has become very difficult to find traditional buttercream yule logs, even in France,” says Jean Kahn, who owned the Les Friandises bakery in New York from 1984 to 2001. They have been replaced by logs with lighter mousses and intricate, modern designs.” The tradition is still going strong, but the recipe has been “revisited.” Baking equipment has also developed over the last 30 years. Today’s yule logs are now made in cake molds, and the icing is no longer applied by hand.
“Some chefs are simply adapting their favorite cakes and presenting them in a log shape for the Christmas holidays,” says Jacques Torres. In his stores, he offers yule logs “with lighter flavors” garnished with chocolate mousse and fruit. “Times are changing, and consumers don’t want buttercream anymore,” he says.
Bakers propose different-sized yule logs (for up to 12 people!), as well as smaller, individual models and “by the slice” options. “The Americans are looking for choice and variety,” says Jean Kahn. “They don’t think twice about buying little logs with different flavors, which they serve along with the usual pies for their Christmas dessert.” Chocolate, mocha, vanilla, and sweet chestnut are still the most popular.
=> For the holidays, discover the coffee yule log recipe by French pastry chef Eric Kayser!