What’s hot in Paris this season.
It’s June in Paris and the city’s star patissiers are embellishing their tartlettes with luscious seasonal strawberries. But their minds are on Christmas and the fanciful bûche de Noël they will unveil to the press over the summer, to be promoted on websites, showcased at gala fund raising events, and sampled at congenial competitions from London to Chicago, months before the cakes appear on menus and in shop windows in December.
The bûche originated in France in the late 19th century, traditionally a chocolate frosted roulade decorated with meringue mushrooms. However, in the past few years the cake has morphed into a glamorous vehicle for pastry chefs to indulge their visions of sugar plums – from snowmen exiting a mailbox, to ruby red lips for a “kiss” to conclude Christmas dinner.
When I was in Paris at the beginning or June, two celebrated executive pastry chefs at luxury hotels, Christophe Michalak of the Plaza Athenée, and Cedric Grolet at the Meurice, were just finishing sketches for their 2015 buches, with prototypes ready for photography by the end of the month. Michalak’s cake, Home on the Range, is a replica of a stove, complete with pots and pans, and a shelf with tiny carrots and cauliflower ready to cook; Grolet pays homage to the cherry, unavailable during the winter, which he reproduces in chocolate, complete with stems, in a specially designed mold, made when the fruit was in season. Cherries also adorned several of the 24 buches de Noël presented with great fanfare in Paris on September 9th at the third annual Prix d’Excellence. Sponsored by Relais Desserts, the prestigious association of pastry and chocolatier virtuosos, the dual purpose of the event is to honor achievement in the profession and to display the work of members. “It’s always a bit bizarre to be thinking/tasting Christmas cakes in September,” says Carol Gillott, an American ex-pat artist renowned for her watercolor sketches of pastries and the blog Parisbreakfasts, “but that’s how they do it here, like haute couture; and these are the haute couture of pastry chefs.”
At the reception, guests applauded winners in several “best” categories, admired the elaborate bûches, and chatted with the chefs stationed next to their creations. Of course there was Champagne, a slice of each cake to taste, and mini-eclairs contributed by Christophe Adam, who won the award for Best Patissier, 2015.
Some of the cakes were elegantly simple, with fresh, fruity, flavors like Claire Damon’s rose essence and grapefruit segments, and Luc Guillet’s Apple Star with confit of apples. Chocolatier Jean Paul Hevin’s extraordinary Bûche D’Enfer featured a half dozen chocolate dancing devils holding up a burning log. The inimitable macaron revisionist Pierre Hermé, who many chefs credit as the inspiration for their thinking outside the box, contributed the stunning Perpetua, a chocolate ganache and whipped cream log within a log inspired by Spazio di Luce, a bronze cast of a tree trunk by artist Guiseppe Penone. A catalogue distributed at the event included images and descriptions of each cake, along with information about availability and price.
The spectacular array would have astonished Pierre Lacam, 19th century patissier extraordinaire, who published two of the earliest bûche recipes in several editions of Le Memorial Des Glaces et Entremets de Cuisine et Patisserie. One, made with marzipan, vacherin, and chocolate, was filled with ice cream. The second, closer to a classic bûche, called for a chocolate or coffee filling. But the patissier who added meringue mushrooms remains unheralded.
The pastry bûche was the proxy for a real log in an era when stoves were replacing large open hearths, diminishing the enthusiasm for Yule log celebrations. The custom harks back to Norse and Celtic commemorations of the winter solstice when a huge log was burned on top of a mountain to honor the God Thor and the return of light after dark winter days. The tradition was adapted by Christians in Europe and Britain where families dragged a large log from the forest to light on Christmas Eve, a good luck symbol to ward off sickness and evil and heal misunderstandings, immortalized by the 17th century English poet Robert Herrick’s ode to the holidays, “Ceremonies for Christmas.”
Today the edible Yule log lives on in London, enthusiastically embraced by the Valrhona chocolate company. Last year Valrhona partnered with a dozen leading pastry pros for a display of bûches using their chocolate, and also sponsored a competition open to all. This year the company teamed up with Classic Fine Foods, soliciting entries for logs that use at least one of four Valrhona chocolates – Nyangbo dark, Amelia milk, Opals white, and Dulcey blonde. Images of both whole and cut cakes were submitted anonymously and five finalists selected in November, based on the most tweets and likes. Vying for prizes that include a week for two in Rome, the finalists are making cakes that will be blind-tasted and judged on both looks and appearance on December 4th.
Across the pond, the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower has hosted a lively bûche competition called “Holiday Rock and Roll” for the past four years, inviting about a dozen of the city’s top pastry chefs to present their modern interpretations of the genre. A panel of media and food bloggers evaluated the cakes, and attendees could also cast a ballot for a people’s choice award - all for a good cause, Share Our Strength. Cocktails, live music, and savory bites (rolled) made for a festive prelude to the holiday. Although Rock and Roll is taking a break this year, Sofitel Executive Pastry Chef Anna Young is preparing a chocolate cake rolled with caramelized white chocolate mousse, raspberry, and Chambord that guests can order online and pick up at the restaurant. At another Chicago hotel, the Langham, Executive Pastry Chef Scott Green explains “The holidays are a great time for creating desserts because there’s so much visual imagery. Sometimes for me it’s a palette of colors, or a single image like a snowflake, and I build on ideas from there. Even if the idea is average or cliche, when you start the design process, you can make it new and unique.” This year Green’s three bûches, which will be featured in the Hotel’s Grand Christmas Buffet, all include some fruit: Eggnog-Cherry, Hazelnut-Yuzu, and Orange-Chocolate.
Winners of the annual Relais Desserts Prix d’Excellence 2015
Best Pâtissier 2015: Christophe Adam, Léclair de Génie
Best Up-and-Coming Pâtissier 2015: Benoit Couvrand, La Pâtisserie by Cyril Lignac
Best Pastry Book for 2015: Le Grand Manuel du Pâtissier by Mélanie Dupuis & Anne Cazor
Best Pastry Blog for 2015: http://www.sucredorgeetpaindepices.fr/ by Auriane Leblanc (literally ‘candy cane & gingerbread)
About Relais Desserts:
The association was created 33 years ago. The members have the same values: creativity, passion, and a willingness to share their knowledge with each other to continue the tradition of excellence in French pastry. There are around 100 members from 19 countries. To join you need to own a shop and be sponsored by two members.
Bûches have become seasonal best sellers in hotels and restaurants across the country, often riffing on the establishment’s culinary concept. At American Cut in New York, Pastry Chef Tara Glick explains that her bûche is based on the AC Carbomb dessert, a chocolate Guiness cake soaked in banana Jameson, and then rolled in chocolate buttercream. “I thought it was a good fit,” she explains. “Being a steakhouse, we have a larger male clientele, and the whiskey flavored desserts are always a hit.”
Executive Pastry Chef Brian Mercury of Harvest, Cambridge, MA notes that the bûche is “always a wow factor item for guests on buffets. Trying to turn it into a plated dessert offers a little challenge as far as keeping all components and the look of the classic cake. For this I wanted to keep visual textures and change around some of the flavors. The dish consists of chocolate ice cream, vanilla roulade with malted milk chocolate mousse, dried cherrywood grain sauce, Earl Gray & cacao nib mushroom meringues and pistachio powder.”
Even Steiff, the toy animal company, has climbed on the bûche bandwagon: for 2015 they have introduced a new version of their beloved bear, Muffy Bûche de Noël, green clad, almost eight inches tall, and holding a tiny, highly detailed buche.