I was recently contacted by a journalist from Saveur about the origins of bûche de Noël, the “traditional” French Christmas dessert. (For the article and a recipe, see Gabriella Gershenson, “A Slice of Christmas,” Saveur, December 2011) Today, you’ll see the cake in every single French pastry shop around the holiday, made in the shape of a yule log. It is generally made in the form of a sponge roll cake frosted and filled with buttercream. The idea derives from a folk celebration of Christmas where a log, large enough to burn for 3 days, is ceremoniously placed on the fire. The Brits have a similar tradition. (For the log, not the cake.)
But what of the cake? The earliest recipe of the cake shows up in Pierre Lacam’s 1898 Le memorial historique et géographique de la pâtisserie. The earliest mention however is a couple of years earlier in Alfred Suzanne’s 1894 La cuisine anglaise et la pâtisserie where he notes in passing that it is (was?) the specialty of a certain Ozanne, presumably his friend Achille Ozanne (1846-1898). Of course we have no idea of what this looked like. An article in the French newspaper Figaro adds an interesting tidbit (see Pierre Leonforte, “La bûche de Noël : une histoire en dents de scie,” Figaro, 17 December 2000): according to Stéphane Bonnat, of chocolatier Félix Bonnat her great grandfather’s recipe collection from 1884 contains a recipe for a roll cake make with chocolate ganache. Admittedly she makes no claim to this being the first bûche de Noël.
It makes sense that the cake, like so many other Christmas traditions (think Santa, decorated Christmas trees, Christmas cards, etc) dates to the Victorian era, to a time of genteel, bourgeois domesticity. In France, in particular, a certain romantic image of peasant traditions had become part of the story the French told themselves about themselves and while the average Parisian bourgeois could hardly be expected to hoist logs into their 4th floor apartment, they could at least show solidarity for their country cousins by picking up a more manageable bûche at the local pâtisserie. That the result was a little kitsch fit the middle class sensibility too.
If I had to guess, I would date the cake to the 1880s though it seems not to have taken off until the following decade. For an early recipe that begins to resemble today’s version see Joseph Fabre’s 1905 Dictionnaire universel de cuisine pratique (This is the second edition of the book—the first was in 1894—but I haven’t been able to locate that particular edition), or look for Gershenson’s article.