This festive Yule Log is a showstopping finale for a special holiday dinner. The traditional French Bûche De Noël is given a German twist with a lightly spiced Lebkuchen sponge rolled around a filling made of marzipan-studded whipped cream. A simple chocolate ganache makes a luscious 'bark'. This cake looks impressive but is surprisingly easy to make. Instructions are also included for the fun little marzipan mushrooms and pine cones if you want to get whimsical with your decorations. (Gluten-free, too!)
What happens when you combine a beautiful, classic French Bûche De Noël (Yule Log) with German Christmas spices and flavours? You get an amazing fusion dessert that will grace your table with elegance and pizzazz and have your guests oohing and ahhing with delight.
This holiday season, we got together with our blogging friends, Nicoletta and Loreto, from SugarLoveSpices and were talking about making a festive Buche de Noel for Christmas this year. They wanted to make an Italian version to fit with their Italian cuisine and I wanted to make mine with German flavours to fit our German style of Christmas. We started brainstorming ways to adapt the traditional French Bûche De Noël, then got together for a baking project and each made our new version of the classic. It was a fun day in the kitchen and even more fun taste-testing both versions at the end of our baking session. Scroll down to see the photos of our finished beauties.
What is the Story Behind the Bûche De Noël/Yule Log?
This delicious cake tradition stems from the burning of an actual yule log during the Christmas season, dating back to medieval times in Scandinavia, northern Europe, and Germany. A whole tree would be brought into the house and the thick end of the trunk would be stuck into the fire. A little more of the log would be burnt every day during the twelve days of Christmas and this was meant to bring luck into the New Year. The tradition was important throughout many European countries. As time went on, it became impractical to bring a whole log into the home, and the tradition of a cake decorated as a log gradually replaced the actual log, especially in France, Belgium, and former French colonies where the Bûche De Noël is an important part of yuletide celebrations.
What is a Yule Log Cake?
This light and luscious cake is traditionally made with a thin sponge cake layer wrapped around a filling made of whipped cream or other ingredients, then coated with frosting and decorated to look like an actual log.
There are 4 separate elements to a Yule Log, and the beauty is that some of the parts can be made a few days ahead, and the whole cake can even be made the day before you plan to serve it (in fact, it tastes at its best after a day in the fridge).
1. THE SPONGE CAKE LAYER: The base of the Yule Log is a thin Genoise sponge - a light and airy cake made of whipped eggs, sugar, and flour (and sometimes butter or oil, but we won't need any in this cake). If you've ever had a jelly roll, you'll know how to roll up this Yule Log - and if you haven't, it's an easy technique (and kinda fun). Just look through the process photos below.
2. THE FILLING: A Yule Log is generally filled with chocolate buttercream or whipped cream, but many variations exist.
3. THE FROSTING: More chocolate buttercream is often used to ice the cake to make the outside look like bark, but chocolate ganache is often used, too. That's what I went with as it's much easier to make, less sweet, and has a really rich and decadent texture and flavour. Plus, it's so easy to work with and looks like real bark - all you need is a fork!
4. THE DECORATIONS: These are not absolutely essential, but they make all the difference to the look of the cake - and we eat with our eyes first, right? A bit of powdered sugar is sprinkled over the frosting to look like new-fallen snow. Then you can let your inner artiste run wild. The decorations can be edible or not. You can go with real or artificial evergreen twigs, pinecones, berries, or Christmas baubles. Meringue mushrooms are often used, as are sugared or plain cranberries, maraschino cherries, and sugared or plain rosemary twigs. Or you can go with marzipan mushrooms and pine cones, as I did. They are delightfully whimsical and so easy to make (see instructions below). The beauty of the marzipan decorations is that they can be made a few days ahead and are ready to pop onto your log at the last minute.
Let's get the Cake Made and Assembled!
The sponge for this German version of a Bûche De Noël is flavoured with the addition of German Lebkuchen spice mix and a touch of molasses and lemon peel to provide the classic Lebkuchen (German gingerbread) flavour. This spice mix gets its unique flavour from the addition of ground star anise and fennel or anise seeds to add that light licorice flavour that makes German baking have its special flavour. It's easy to make up a batch, and if you've got some of this spice blend on hand, you can use it for Lebkuchen Loaf or in these German Elisenlebkuchen cookies. In fact, you can use Lebkuchen Spice whenever you need a spice blend in recipes, or put a pinch in your holiday coffee, hot chocolate, or eggnog to make it festive. If you don't want to make up the Lebkuchen spice mix, you can use pumpkin pie spice or apple pie spice - it'll still be tasty.
Make the Sponge Cake:
The beauty of this type of sponge cake is that it uses the technique of whipping the egg yolks and whites together until they form a foamy mousse (one less step since you don't have to whip them separately). The molasses and lemon zest are added to the egg foam, and then the flour is folded in. The batter is spread into a thin layer in a rimmed cookie sheet and baked for a short time.
Roll up the Sponge
Pre-rolling and cooling the cake in that shape is an important step for any cake roulade (like jelly roll). It ensures the cake keeps its shape and easily rolls up again without cracking when filled.
While the cake is baking, dust a tea towel generously with powdered sugar. Cut around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Then quickly and confidently invert the cake onto the dusted tea towel. Peel off the paper and dust the exposed side of the cake with powdered sugar, too. Now roll up the hot cake in the tea towel to train it into the shape needed for the finished rolled cake. You can choose to roll up the cake from the short end for a short, thick log, or roll it up from the long end for a longer, thinner log with a sawed-off branch attached to its side (that's what I did for the logs in these photos).
Let the cake cool in the rolled up towel. You can wrap the towel in plastic at this point and keep it in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days before filling and frosting it.
Make the Filling and Fill the Log
The whipped cream is very lightly sweetened and is set with a bit of gelatin to help it keep its shape while slicing the Yule Log. To add the gelatin, you soften it first in a bit of cold water, then heat the softened gelatin in the microwave or over a pot of simmering water just until the gelatin granules are dissolved. Whip the melted gelatin into the cream near the end of the whipping time. Prepare the marzipan for the filling by rolling it out into a thick layer and dicing it into small cubes. You can omit the marzipan and add a bit of almond extract to the whipped cream if you like.
Unroll the cooled cake gently from the tea towel - it will now keep its shape much better when re-rolled. Spread the whipped cream over the cake, leaving a 1-inch border at the outside edge uncovered. Sprinkle the diced marzipan evenly over the whipped cream, then re-roll the cake into a log. Cut off a slice diagonally from the end if you want to add a sawed-off-branch to the side of your Buche de Noel. At this point you can wrap the log in plastic wrap and keep it in the fridge for a few hours or overnight to frost and decorate on the day you plan to serve it. You can also finish it immediately, then chill it for a few hours before serving.
Frost and Decorate the Log
Make a luscious ganache frosting by melting together equal weights of dark chocolate chips and heavy cream. Let it cool until it's thick enough to spread (30-45 minutes). Frost the whole log with the ganache, then drag a fork through it to make it look like real bark.
Then you can go crazy and decorate your Buche de Noel however you'd like. In this version I used marzipan mushrooms, real pine cones, and artificial berries, and in the other photos I used the marzipan mushrooms and pine cones. Instructions for both are below.
How to Make the Whimsical Marzipan Decorations
For the Marzipan Mushrooms:
These little mushrooms can be made up to a week ahead. Shape them an store them in a single layer on a plate uncovered for up to 24 hours or in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
You'll need a chunk of marzipan (available in some supermarkets, import stores, or delicatessens) and a small amount of cocoa powder. About 75 grams (2.5 oz/¼ cup) of marzipan will make 5 - 6 mushrooms.
- Pinch off a teaspoonful of marzipan, roll it into a ball, then shape it into a mushroom cap. Pinch off a slightly smaller sized piece and roll it into a thick stem. Press the mushroom cap onto the stem.
- Make as many mushrooms as you'd like, then dust the tops lightly with a bit of cocoa powder sprinkled through a small sieve.
- Press the mushrooms onto the frosted yule log or onto the plate next to it.
For the Marzipan Pine Cones:
These little pine cones can also be made up to a week ahead. Shape them an store them in a single layer on a plate uncovered for up to 24 hours or in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
You'll need a chunk of marzipan (available in some supermarkets, import stores, or delicatessens), ¾ teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa powder, and a handful of sliced natural almonds (with the skins still on them). About 75 grams (2.5 oz/¼ cup) of marzipan will make 5 - 6 pine cones.
- Mix a chunk of marzipan (about 75 grams/2.5oz) with the cocoa powder. If the marzipan is at room temperature, you can mix it with a fork at first, then knead it with your fingers to mix in the colour. Don't knead it too much, as the oils from the almonds will be released, making it very oily. (The oil will get reabsorbed again as the decorations sit, but it makes them more greasy to work with.)
- Pinch off a 2-teaspoon-sized chunk of marzipan, roll it into a ball, then press it into a rounded cone shape. Sort through the sliced almonds and pick out ones that are relatively whole (save the broken pieces for another use.) Starting as close to the bottom of the cone as possible, press in a row of almond slices, slightly angled and overlapping each other, with the pointed sides of the almonds facing outward. Add another row of almonds about ⅛ -inch above the first row. Keep adding rows of almond slices, working your way to the top of the cone and choosing smaller almond slices as you go.
- Place the pine cones around the Yule log and add small bits of fresh spruce twigs or rosemary sprigs between them.
A Beautiful Bûche De Noël for your Festivities
I hope you're inspired to make your own Bûche De Noël/Yule Log for your special day. It's a fun project and definitely worth the time spent. If you spread out the stages and make them a few days ahead, you won't even feel like it's that big of a job. Put on some Christmas music and enjoy the experience. Or, if you'd like to try some other special desserts that are festive and fun and have that extra oomph, how about a Dreamy Pumpkin Spice Pavlova, a Mile-High Medjool Date & Apple Pie, or a really unique and special German Baumkuchen?
If the Yule Log is calling to your baking soul, maybe you'd like to try an Italian version of the Yule Log, too? Check out Nicoletta's amazing version, the Cannoli Christmas Yule Log, that she made on our joint baking day. It's got a light-as-air vanilla sponge cake base filled with a creamy, sweetened ricotta filling spiked with bits of candied orange peel and chocolate - a little slice of Italian Christmas. We had fun sharing tastes of each other's cakes at the end of our baking project, and we couldn't decide which one we liked better. You can get an idea of different ways to roll and decorate your own log. We both used a chocolate ganache frosting, with a different finish. The Italian Yule Log was rolled the short way to be a thicker log and decorated with maraschino cherries and rosemary sprigs - simple, bright, and festive. My German Lebkuchen Log was rolled the long way and decorated with marzipan mushrooms and pine cones - rustic and foresty.
Both have their charm and both are absolutely delicious!
You might also like to try a traditional Canadian prairie Gumdrop Fruitcake, a famous German Stollen, or how about a decadently chewy Italian fruitcake, the Panforte? If you're into Christmas cookies, you might be excited to try these traditional fruit & nut based German Elisen Lebkuchen, the popular Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars), marzipan-based Bethmännchen, or spicy Basler Leckerli. And Sicilian Almond Cookies are a pretty great choice, too!
Bûche De Noël (Yule Log, German Style)
for the sponge cake roll:
- 6 large eggs
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ½ cup (100gms) sugar
- 2 tablespoons fancy molasses (light molasses/table molasses)
- 1 cup (140gms) gluten-free flour blend or regular flour for non-gluten-free
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons lebkuchen spice blend or substitute with pumpkin pie spice
- zest of ½ a lemon
- icing sugar for dusting
for the filling:
- 1½ cups (360ml) whipping cream (33% fat or higher)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
- 2 tablespoons cold water
- 3.5 ounces (100gms) marzipan (⅓ cup packed or ⅔ cup finely diced)
for the ganache 'bark' frosting:
- ¾ cup (180ml) whipping cream
- 6.5 ounces (180gms) chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate (1 cup + 1 tablespoon)
- a sprinkle of powdered sugar, fresh or artificial spruce twigs, berries, twigs, pine cones, or marzipan mushrooms or marzipan pine cones see Yule Log recipe post for instructions
to make the sponge cake roll:
- Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C). Lightly grease the bottom of a 12 x 17-inch (30 x 43 cm) rimmed baking sheet with butter or baking spray. Line the bottom with a piece of baking parchment paper cut to fit. Grease or spray the paper, too. (Leaving the sides of the pan ungreased will help the cake to 'grip' the sides and rise better.)
- Whip the eggs and salt with a stand mixer whisk or hand mixer until foamy. Add the sugar gradually, then beat on high speed for a full 8 to 10 minutes, until the mixture is really pale and fluffy and has expanded in volume 5 to 6 times.
- Add the molasses and lemon zest and whip for 30 seconds to incorporate them.
- Sift the flour, baking powder, and spices over the eggs and fold them in with a spatula until just combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared baking sheet. Spread it to the edges and even out the top. Bang the pan sharply on the countertop to release any air bubbles.
- Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the center of the cake springs back when lightly touched. Do not overbake, or the cake will crack when rolled.
- While the cake is baking, lay out a clean tea towel (use a thin cotton one without any towel nap or waffle weave). Sprinkle the whole towel liberally with powdered sugar shaken through a sieve.
- When the cake is finished baking, let it cool for 2 minutes, then cut all the way around the edges of the cake to loosen it from the sides of the pan. Invert it quickly and confidently with one smooth movement onto the sugar-dusted towel. Remove the baking sheet and carefully peel off the parchment paper. Dust the surface of the cake liberally with powdered sugar, too.
- Roll up the hot cake firmly with the tea towel. Start from the short side if you want a shorter, thicker log. Start from the long side if you want a thinner, longer log.
- Leave the log to cool completely, rolled up in the towel - for about an hour in the fridge, or wrap the cooled cake (still in the towel) in plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge for up to a day, if making the cake ahead.
to make the filling and assemble the yule log:
- Sprinkle the gelatin onto the water in a small bowl and leave it to soak for 5 minutes to soften it. Microwave it in 10 second increments until it is just melted (20 - 30 seconds) or set the bowl over a small pot of simmering water until the gelatin has melted.
- Whip the cream with the sugar until soft peaks form. Pour in the warm melted gelatin while whipping and whip for 30 seconds more.
- Dust a work surface with powdered sugar and roll out the marzipan to a ¼-inch (.6cm) thickness. Cut it into small cubes.
- Gently unroll the chilled cake and spread it with the whipped cream right to the sides of the cake, but leaving the last inch of the roll uncovered.
- Sprinkle the diced marzipan evenly over the cream.
- Re-roll the cake in the same direction it was rolled before, lifting the towel to help roll it and using your fingers to tuck it firmly as you roll it. As you roll, you may have to carefully pull the towel away from the cake if it was stuck in any spots.
- Lift the yule log carefully and place it onto a serving plate.
- If you'd like to have a side-branch, cut off one end of the log diagonally at about 3 to 4 inches and place it up against the side of the longer log piece. If you've rolled your log the short way, you can make a short side piece, or leave your log plain, without a side-piece.
- At this point, you can cover the cake with plastic wrap and chill it for a day before adding the ganache 'bark' and decorating it, or complete it now to serve in a few hours.
to make the ganache 'bark' and decorate the log:
- Combine the chocolate chips or chopped chocolate and the whipping cream in a small saucepan. Heat over low heat on the stovetop, stirring constantly until the chocolate is almost all melted. Remove from the heat and continue stirring until the mixture is smooth and glossy. (Alternately, heat the chocolate and cream in a bowl in the microwave by 30 second increments on high power until it is half melted. Remove and stir until it is completely melted.
- Set the ganache aside to cool at room temperature until it is thickened enough to spread - about 30 to 45 minutes. Check it often after the 30 minute mark, as you don't want it to get too stiff to spread.
- Spread the ganache over the yule log to cover it completely, leaving the cut ends of the log and side-branch exposed.
- Leave it with the knife marks to look like bark, or drag the tines of a fork through the icing in wavy lines to look like bark.
- Optional - Dust the cake lightly in a few spots with powdered sugar shaken through a sieve, to look like a bit of fresh snow.
- Decorate your Yule Log as desired. Use little mushrooms made of marzipan and real pine cones or ones made with almonds pressed into marzipan cones that have been tinted with cocoa powder. You can also use maraschino cherries, sugared cranberries, sprigs of spruce or evergreen, sugared or plain rosemary twigs, or Christmas decorations.
- The cake will cake, covered in plastic wrap and chilled, for 2 to 3 days.