French-cake-a-week: Buche de Noel

Buche de noel

Buche de noel

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962. It’s nearly Christmas!! Three days till Christmas eve, and we get presents on Christmas eve, too! Or so I’ve been told over and over and over again. The boys have been waiting ages for Christmas, and I’ve been waiting for ages to make this cake. The time is finally right! Tis the season for buche de noel. I’ve gotten into the habit of talking about French films in my preamble to my French cakes, and it’s a habit I’ve enjoyed, so here we go again… This is a season of lights, in which we celebrate the lights on our Christmas tree, and in our hearths and hearts, so let’s talk about the Lumière brothers. Their name means light, of course, and they invented a way to organize lights and shadows to make pictures, and to project them so that we could all see them. They invented cinema, or more specifically, the cinématographe, a device that recorded, developed and projected motion pictures. (Of course they didn’t invent moving pictures singlehandedly, but were part of a long process of experimentation performed by many different people in many different places.) They were the first to perfect the art, though, and the first to project it. Cinématographe means “writing with movement,” which I find a beautiful idea, and which many film theorists would be drawn to, later, in discussing the language of cinema. I love the films of the Lumière brothers. They’re short (50 seconds), simple, beautifully framed, and oddly compelling. This time of year, when I look at the boys and the pure, concentrated force of their love for everything about Christmas, for everything that makes Christmas magical, I’m always more than a little envious of them. We’ve all become jaded about film, I think. Digital effects, techonological advances, and millions of dollars thrown at what has become an industry have helped us to forget how magical film must have seemed at its birth. Watching the Lumière brothers films is like seeing a child excited by Christmas – thrilled by the lights, proud of the decorations they made, hopeful and inspired. And, of course, I love the Lumière brothers films because they’re all (wait for it) about ordinary people, and every day situations. Their films are called actualités, and they record mundane, daily events. The very first film shows workers leaving a factory, along with a large dog, a horse-drawn carriage and a few bicycles. Subsequent films show babies eating, trains arriving at a station, children playing marbles. But they’re so beautifully shot – they’re static, but the composition is so thoughtful, and the play of light and darkness so graceful, that they’re unforgettable. By noticing and recording an ordinary moment they make it memorable. And surely that’s what film is all about.

As the Lumière brothers were the first filmmakers, this buche de noel is the first cake in my French cookbook. Although it seems fancy, it’s actually quite simple – a sort of genoise sponge cake, just butter, sugar, eggs and flour, spread thin, and then rolled up with mocha cream inside and out. I followed the cake recipe exactly, but I was a little perplexed by the mocha cream, which seemed to consist of uncooked egg whites and coffee, so I strayed a bit on the cream, and made my own, sort of a pastry cream/mousse, with chocolate and coffee. Very delicious!! And, as you know if you’ve been following along, my attempts to make marzipan were mixed, so I bought some to make these leaves. And then added a bit of green writing-frosting, because if there was one thing this cake needed it was more sugar!! The whole cake was lovely – after a few hours in the fridge it set enough that you could cut it into slices, but we finished off the cake, all of us attacking it directly on the platter!!buche-de-noel

Here’s the first part of a show on the Lumière brothers that shows all of their early films and has lovely dry, witty, informative narration by Bertrand Tavernier.

And here’s Ding Dong Bell, by The Ethiopians. Another song that I posted last year that bears repeating. I love it!!


4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
pinch salt
5 T butter, melted and cooled slightly

Preheat the oven to 325.

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar till they’re light and lemon-colored. Beat in the flour, salt and melted butter. Beat the eggwhites till they’re very stiff. Stir in a big spoonful to lighten the batter, and then fold in the rest.

Butter a pan that’s 8 inches by 12 inches, or thereabouts. Put a piece of foil lengthwise, with a few inches left on each end so that you can grab them and lift the cake out at the end. Butter and flour the foil.

Spread the batter into the pan. The book calls for it to be 1 1/2 centimeters deep, but it was shallower before it cooked.

Bake for 15 – 20 minutes, until the top is firm when you press on it, and the bottom starts to turn golden.

Let it cool slightly, and then, holding by both ends, lift the cake out, and gently roll it into a cylinder, still on the foil. Let it continue to cool in this shape. When it’s completely cool, gently peel the foil off, with a sharp knife handy to cut away any little patches that might be stuck.

Spread a layer of mocha cream on the cake, about 1/2 inch deep or deeper, and gently roll it up. Some of the cream will squish out the sides, but you can spoon it back in.

Cover the top with the darker mocha cream, and with a fork or knife make bark-like patterns in it. Craft little leaves of mushrooms from marzipan, and stick these into the cream.

Leave in the fridge to chill for an hour or more, and then slice and eat!!


2 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 t vanilla
1/3 cup coffee
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 T flour
1 cup heavy cream, whipped

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk, vanilla, coffee and chocolate chips. Stir, occasionally, as it warms, to incorporate the chocolate chips as they melt.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the eggs, sugar and flour. Whisk until smooth and light.

When the milk mixture is just forming tiny bubbles on the edges, pour it in a thin stream into the egg mixture, whisking madly the whole time. Return to the saucepan with the heat on low. Whisk for ten to fifteen minutes, until the mixture is thickened, and it pulls away from the bottom of the pan when you tilt it.

Remove it from the heat, and keep whisking to let some of the heat out, then transfer to a wide flat bowl, cover with foil, and chill for a few hours in the fridge.

When you’re ready to make the cake, make two batches of mousse/mocha cream. One will be more mousse than whipped cream – say a one cup of mousse to half a cup of cream, and the other will be a one to one ration…one cup of mousse, one cup of cream. The darker cream/mousse mixture will form the bark, and the lighter one will fill the cake.

Decorate with leaves molded out of marzipan.


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