Just Good Food

(Yule) Logging Through the Holidays

by John Ryan


Given the potential, I'm always surprised at how few memories I have of having fun with food. My youthful forays into the kitchen, at least the ones I look back on with a hazy film of nostalgia, all had to do with sugar and chocolate. However, most of them weren't really fun...a mix of selfish and satisfying would be closer. Take cookies for instance. They weren't particularly fun to make, but by making my own, I didn't have to launch a campaign for my mother to make them and then put up with her doling them out. When I was at the mixing bowl, I'd not only get to scarf down all the cookie dough I wanted, but I had proprietary rights over the finished product, which meant I was doing the doling...at least until my brother or sister found my stash and stole them.

Yule Log

The only truly fun food experience I remember from childhood was making Yule logs.

By today's standards, our Yule logs were naive affairs. Barbara, our mother, had a supply of orange juice cans (back when concentrated juice came in cans) for that inevitable day over Christmas vacation when boredom turned my brother, sister, and me into mortal enemies. One of her peacekeeping strategies was to set us to work on Yule logs. We'd take a box of cake mix and bake the batter in orange juice cans. When the cakes were cool, we'd use an apple corer to hollow out the center of each cake, then we'd stuff each one with frosting and smear all our logs with even more chocolate frosting.

This part of the project partially calmed the troubled sibling waters. I say "partially," because each step had a sweet payoff that we could fight over. First, there was bowl of cake batter and beaters to lick. Then there were the cake cores that always got mixed up with someone else's. And finally, it was too much to resist to not take a finger and mess up another's frosting when they weren't looking.

If we sound insufferable, we were. However, the time when our mother really got peace was during the decorating. She would make up a batch of white frosting, divide it up in three or four bowls, and color each bowl with food coloring. She'd spoon a little frosting into an envelope, crimp it, and snip off the corner —voila, an instant (and very disposable) pastry bag.

These Yule logs were the culinary version of a coloring book and crayons. Once we were engaged on decorating, the house would be peaceful and, as I remember, we'd come out of it with the sort of jovial camaraderie that comes after finishing a long and tough assignment.

Years later, when I was the pastry chef at Atticus Bookstore and Cafe in New Haven, I saw a picture of a Yule log in some glossy magazine and decided to make one. Using a sheet cake and buttercream, I made a roll and decorated it with chocolate buttercream, marzipan holly, meringue mushrooms, and displayed it in the cafe window.

A few calls came in from customers wanting to buy a Yule log for their Christmas party and I foolishly agreed to make them. But the calls kept coming and within a few days I was overwhelmed with orders. Making one had been satisfying, but the holidays were hectic enough without becoming a logger. The only way I could face this was to persuade two other cooks into helping me on their day off.

Getting cooks to give up a day off to cook isn't easy. So you can imagine our mood when we arrived at the kitchen on Saturday to knock out a bunch of cakes. Even the prospect of making overtime didn't cheer us up. with grudging cooperation we divided up the chores. Becky agreed to make the sheets of cake. Kyle consented to making the marzipan holly and meringue mushrooms. That left the buttercream and cake boards for me. (Cake boards are simply cardboard under a cake—exactly the same boards used under pizza. In this case the logs would be rectangular, so I cut rectangular boards from a sheet of cardboard and wrapped each one with foil.)

As an aside, one explanation for Yule logs is that our northern European ancestors needed especially big logs to burn on the longest night of the year. And those logs became known as Yule logs. According to books, the reason for needing a log to burn all night was to ward off malevolent spirits while everyone slept. Frankly, I've always had serious doubts about folk traditions that are based on superstition. They make our ancestors seem like such morons. I mean, I can believe that parents tell their kids any number of ridiculous things, but I'll bet the truth of the matter is that a family wanted a log that'd burn all night so there'd be a fire going for a pot of coffee first thing in the morning.

And somewhere in my travels I've read about a pre-pastry Yule log popular in France. It was a real log and it was thrown on a fire, but this one was hollowed out and filled with candy. The log was fitted with a hidden door and a spring. At some point the heat of the fire would trigger a spring and candy would be thrown out all over the floor.

The sweet, modern day Yule logs only date back to the end of last century. But they really show the pleasure of pastry. Since there is no "recipe" for Yule logs, the dessert is up to the maker. The cake can be just about any flavor—chocolate, coffee, a spice cake or nut cake. The filling can be just about anything as well. And the great thing is that no matter how badly the cake breaks as it's rolled, it doesn't matter, because slathering frosting on the log will disguise any faults and actually make it more realistic.

Anyway, by late afternoon Kyle, Becky and I had rolled some 40-plus cakes with a chocolate-hazelnut buttercream, iced the outside with the same buttercream and raked each and every cake with a fork to simulate bark. We had the cakes lined up on every available countertop. All that was left was to arrange the marzipan holly and meringue mushrooms on each one and we'd be out of there.

I don't know where the Gummi Bears came from, but they cracked us up. As we arranged them under holly and behind mushrooms, our grumbling about working on a day off gave way to holiday cheer. By the end of the afternoon we had Gummi bears racing across logs, pontificating atop mushrooms and sliding down frosting knots on their little butts.

I look back and I've got to say that Yule logs are a royal icing pain in the neck. They are time-consuming, they get every pan in the kitchen dirty, and there is never enough room to store the cake(s). But if laughing and having fun ward off some evil seasonal spirits, then Yule logs still do the trick.


Holiday Recipe Guide


John Ryan

Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.

Just Good Food Archive

This page created 1997. Modified August 2007.