The yule log - a worthy addition to the British Christmas feast, or a sickly continental import for people incapable of appreciating a good fruit cake?
It is a truth universally accepted that Christmas isn't what it used to be. That doesn't necessarily mean things are worse: most of us are comfortable enough to ensure that the feast of the nativity lives up to its name, for a start. And these days, thanks to central heating, the symbolic yule log generally comes in the form of a chocolate cake rather than a massive piece of hardwood. Environmental concerns aside, I certainly know which I'd rather give house room to over the festive period.
Although burning a gigantic log seems to have been a popular way to celebrate Christmas throughout much of Europe, we have the French to thank for its modern, and rather tastier incarnation. Larousse Gastronomique dates it to the 19th century, when, and presumably not coincidentally, the large open hearths required for the traditional version began to disappear from most homes. Early bûche de noël were often made with génoise sponge, cut and shaped into the form of a log, but these days, using a swiss roll seems to be standard practice.
I suspect yule logs were one of the first things I ever made in the kitchen, albeit using a Lyons swiss roll as a vehicle for my homemade chocolate buttercream - to be honest, my interest at that point lay more in the realistic recreation of bark effect than what lay beneath - so, 20 years on, I'm interested to discover how the posh versions can compare.
Linda Collister's Great British Bake Off: How to Bake book gives a recipe for a génoise-like swiss roll, not dissimilar to that in Geraldene Holt's trusty Cakes. Both whisk together eggs with sugar until thick, and then sift in flour, and in Holt's case, cocoa and cinnamon, while the Bake Off recipe folds melted butter into the mixture before baking.
I can grudgingly concede the idea of using a plain vanilla cake to represent the middle of the log is a clever one visually - after all, logs are sort of beige inside - but I don't like it in practice. It's strikingly rich and buttery, and too much of a contrast with the chocolate filling and icing. Geraldene's cocoa cake is much lighter, and pleasingly chocolatey: I notice she's used self-raising flour, rather than just relying on the air in the mixture to raise the cake, which may have something to do with it.
Emma, author of the food blog poires au chocolat, uses a recipe she says she's adapted from a David Lebovitz sponge, which separates the eggs, whisks together the yolks with water and sugar until thick and pale, and then folds in the whipped whites along with flour, cornflour and baking powder. The sponge is light, but strangely damp: I wonder if I should have left it in the oven slightly longer, but this does at least ensure the cake doesn't dry out before the last crumb is devoured.
Delia Smith's squidgy yule log is a flourless sponge, made in much the same way as Emma's, but without the water or the flour. It rises magnificently, and is wonderfully light and fluffy, which, on reflection, I decide is what's needed here. A dense, rich chocolate cake is all very well most of the time, but at Christmas, when you're already stuffing your face, something a bit more subtle is required.
This, sadly, knocks out Annie Bell's yule log, which is as rich as Scrooge himself. She describes it as "somewhere between a fudgey cake and a mousse" in her Baking Bible, but I'd suggest it's better classed as a big wodge of overindulgence. If the icing is your favourite part of a chocolate log, then give hers a whirl: it's a solid cylinder of chocolate, butter, chestnut puree, sugar and cream. Here, however, I'm going to be sticking with Delia's fluffier number. It is, as her name for the dish suggests, rather squidgier than your average swiss roll, so you won't get a perfect round shape - but logs come in all shapes and sizes.
Geraldene uses dark muscovado sugar in her cake recipe, while everyone else plays it safe with plain old caster. I'm never keen on the slightly treacly bitterness of dark sugar with chocolate, but I do like the idea of a certain toffee sweetness, so, as with my own chocolate cake recipe, I'm going to use soft light brown sugar instead. She also adds cinnamon to the mixture, instead of the more common vanilla extract. As regular readers might have noticed, I'm vehemently opposed to the creeping addition of vanilla into everything sweet, and at this time of year, cinnamon feels far more festive anyway. For good measure, I'm adding nutmeg too. The yule log was a medieval favourite, after all.
In the past, my shop-bought swiss rolls always contained a sickly buttercream of the kind I still have a weakness for, but I'm surprised to discover that only Geraldene Holt suggests using the stuff - but only as an alternative to her preferred coffee cream, and then only if you're giving the cake as a gift. Not only am I hoping to give most of these logs away, but Delia already uses fresh cream in her filling, so I try the coffee buttercream instead and am very pleased with the result. Although it works well with the chocolate, coffee, in my opinion, does not shout Christmas, but the buttercream itself is just as good as I remember it.
Delia doesn't content herself with fresh whipped cream: she also makes a chocolate mousse to spread on top. Unfortunately she's very firm about making this before embarking on the cake itself and then refrigerating it, which leaves mine solid. Perhaps it was my technique, but if you try this one, I'd advise leaving it at room temperature, just in case. Nevertheless, it's nice enough, if not quite the airy filling she intended, contrasting pleasingly with the cream.
The Great British Bake Off team make a chocolate pastry cream for their filling, which is an interesting idea, although here I have the opposite problem: this is slightly too runny, like a chocolate custard, and I lose much of it when I roll up the cake. It's delicious though: I end up spooning most of it off the board and into my mouth.
Poires au chocolat suggests a chestnut cream filling, using mascarpone rather than whipped cream. Chestnuts are a popular addition, particularly in France, and they're also a major ingredient in Annie Bell's version. The minute I taste it, I'm completely sold. Not only do chestnuts taste unmistakably of Christmas, but they're a clever nod to the sylvan origins of this particular dessert, and, most importantly, they work brilliantly with chocolate. I think they'd be too rich in a buttercream, however, so I'm going to whip them with fresh cream instead, and add a little brandy too, just because it's Christmas and I can.
Neither Annie nor Delia bother with any icing, but the others all use a kind of ganache, made by melting chocolate in warm cream. Geraldene Holt also adds butter, which means her icing sets more solid than the others, but also makes it more prone to seizing up, so I'm keeping it simple.
The one major change I'm going to make, however, is to introduce some milk chocolate to the mix: a ganache made entirely from dark chocolate is too bitter for my taste, and definitely wouldn't appeal to my nephews and nieces, who would almost certainly be the target market for this particular festive dessert. Milk chocolate gives it a more universal appeal.
A last word on the logistics of the swiss roll. From recent experience, I can confirm that rolling them up while they're still warm, as everyone but Delia advocates, does make life a lot easier. Lining a tea towel with greaseproof paper, as per the Bake Off recipe, turns out to be a lot more effective than using just a tea towel, which it has an annoying tendency to stick to (Geraldene Holt). I do like Geraldene's idea of coating the outside with caster sugar though: it supplies a nice crunch amidst all the squidgy creaminess.
Perfect yule log
This is a yule log to be eaten greedily with spoons for pudding, rather than served in polite slices at the tea table - a proper festive indulgence.
6 large eggs, separated
150g soft brown sugar
50g cocoa powder
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp caster sugar
For the filling:
225ml double cream
250g chestnut puree
1 tbsp brandy (optional)
For the icing:
285ml double cream
150g good quality milk chocolate, broken into pieces
100g dark chocolate
Pinch of sea salt
1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a 30x20cm swiss roll tin and line the base with greaseproof paper.
2. Put the egg yolks in a food mixer and whisk for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle over the soft brown sugar, breaking up any lumps, and whisk until you have a thick mixture. Meanwhile, sift together the cooca powder and seasoning, then whisk them into the egg yolk mixture.
3. In a clean bowl, whip up the egg whites to soft peaks, then fold them into the rest of the mixture. Pour this into the tin, spread out evenly, and bake for about 30 minutes until cooked and bouncy. Put a clean tea towel on a cooling rack and top with a similarly sized piece of greaseproof paper. Sprinkle this with caster sugar.
4. When the roll is cooked, run a knife around the edges, then shake it out on to the greaseproof paper. Peel off the lining paper, and then, using the tea towel to help, roll it up tightly and leave to cool on the rack.
5. Whip the cream to soft peaks, and then fold in the chestnut puree (if it isn't already sweetened, you may wish to add a little sugar) and brandy. Make the ganache by heating the cream to a bare simmer, then take off the heat and add the chocolate pieces and salt. Leave for a minute or so, then stir to a smooth paste, and allow to cool to room temperature.
6. When the roll is barely warm, unroll it on a board, remove the paper, and spread with the chestnut cream. Roll up again, and place on the serving plate. Spread with the ganache, and, as it cools, use the tines of a fork to create a bark effect - you can add more ganache for a thicker coating once the first layer has cooled if you like. Dust with icing sugar for a snowy effect just before serving.
The yule log - worthy addition to the British Christmas feast, or sickly continental import for people incapable of appreciating the subtler pleasures of a good fruit cake? Should chocolate at Christmas be confined to the selection box, or can't you get enough of it in the season of self-indulgence?
Felicity's perfect yule log. Photograph: Felicity Cloake