IN SO MANY cultures, holiday baking traditions bring family and friends together. The confections may be symbols of religion, a way to celebrate the act of sharing or a nod to cultural heritage.
Italians have panettone, a bread made with raisins and candied fruit. Germans have crusty, sweet stollen bread. The English have fruitcake and "figgy pudding."
In French culture, the holidays wouldn't be the holidays without a Buche de Noel, or Christmas yule log, at the center of the celebration.
The nearly two-foot-long confection is made of rolled, filled cake, its exterior iced and ornamented to resemble a log plucked from the forest floor.
Legend has it that Buche de Noel was born in the late 18th century when Napoleon I forced citizens to close their chimneys during the cold winter months because he believed that cold air caused sickness. This made gathering around the hearth during the holidays impossible. So a clever baker came up with a dessert shaped like a log to take the place of the traditional fireplace.
While the cake is a simple genoise, or sponge cake, the flavor variations are almost limitless. Some bakers douse the cake with espresso or liqueur before adding layers of icing, then rolling it. Others substitute fruit spread instead of icing.
And then there's the exterior icing: vanilla or chocolate buttercream are acceptable, though many opt for chocolate to make the confection look more like wood.
"No trees were harmed in the making of this cake," said pastry chef Christian Gatti (incidentally my baking-obsessed husband, in keeping with this story's family-traditions theme). "Bring warmth and yule tidings into your home with this classic European confection, adopted and used in holiday celebrations by Americans."
He added: "The holidays are about spending time with your family, and there is no better place than in the kitchen."
If you've never made a Buche de Noel, this is the year to give it a shot. Turn the page for a step-by-step tutorial. *
E-mail April Lisante at email@example.com.