Skip to main content
Menu
Search
Menu
Close

We make mistakes so you don’t have to.

Try CooksIllustrated.com Free for 14 Days

Email is required
How we use your email address

It's Time for a Yule Log Revival

By Andrea Geary Published

A fluffy, tender cake that rolls effortlessly around a plush, stay-put filling, and most of the work can be completed days in advance? It’s a Christmas miracle.

When it comes to holiday celebrations, I’m a traditionalist. But somehow I’d managed never to make a Yule log. It’s not only one of the oldest finales to a Christmas feast but also a dessert with a huge “wow” factor: a moist, tender cake rolled around a rich, creamy filling; coated in frosting; and adorned with playful woodsy garnishes. This year I decided I would finally take on the elaborate holiday project.

But as I started to review recipes, I found I was more likely to read about how suspenseful—even harrowing—the dessert can be to assemble than about how wonderful it can be to eat. Will the filling be squeezed out as you roll? Will the cake crack? After all that work and stress, will your creation look convincingly log-like? Or more like a pile of mulch?

Of course, my own recipe had to be delicious. But it also had to be a sure thing: a cake that rolled without fracturing and a filling that stayed put, all encased in a neat layer of frosting.

Christmas in the Test Kitchen

Things got rather festive when we kicked off our Yule log development process by sampling five published recipes, including one from our archives. Most of the cakes looked impressive, and each offered a good idea or two, but none of them delivered our idea of the full package: a realistic look, ease of preparation, and great taste and texture.

 

The Best Cake for the Job

I familiarized myself with the basic method: Bake cake batter in a shallow rimmed baking sheet. Invert the hot cake onto a confectioners’ sugar–dusted dish towel (the sugar prevents sticking) and roll it up so that the cake sets into a curled shape as it cools. Unroll the cake, spread the filling over the cake, and roll it up again—without the towel this time. Then cover the whole thing with buttercream or a rich ganache.

Though chocolate cake is more common, I decided on a vanilla cake: A blond “log” would look more like actual wood, and its relatively neutral taste would allow for some creativity when it came time to flavor the filling. But as I started to bake, I noticed a problem: Sponge cake—the most common choice for rolled cakes—has a bouncy texture due to its large amount of whipped eggs and small amount of fat. But that bounce also means that sponge cake can be a tad chewy and tough. It’s also prone to cracking if it’s at all overbaked.

I decided to try a chiffon cake, which I hadn’t seen in many Yule log recipes. Chiffon is similar to sponge but has more fat that helps tenderize it and makes it more forgiving when baked. Our recipe calls for whisking egg yolks, water, vanilla, and vegetable oil into the dry ingredients (cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt) and then whipping the egg whites and folding them into the batter. Even if you lose some volume while folding, the baking powder ensures a fluffy cake.

I baked a chiffon cake, rolled it in a dish towel, and then unfurled it once it had cooled. I then spread on a placeholder filling of sweetened whipped cream and rolled the cake back up. While the log chilled, I heated some cream, poured it over chopped bittersweet chocolate with a bit of corn syrup for shine, and stirred everything together to make a smooth ganache, my choice for the frosting “bark.” When the ganache had cooled and thickened to a pudding‑like consistency, I spread it over my cake.

A single bite confirmed that chiffon had been an excellent choice: It was fluffy but also tender, moist, and crack-free thanks to the oil. But now I had new problems: Lots of the soft filling had squished out, and the ganache had a worrisome tendency to separate from the surface of the roll when I sliced the cake.

A Festive . . . Log?

We think of the Yule log as a Christmas cake, but the original was an actual hunk of tree, and the custom surrounding it pre-dates Christianity. This carefully selected—and usually massive—log was burned on the hearth at the winter solstice to celebrate turning the corner toward warmth and longer days. Like other pre‑Christian rituals, the burning of the Yule log was later absorbed into the Christmas celebration. But over the centuries, huge fireplaces were replaced by stoves that couldn’t accommodate enormous logs, so instead a smaller log or even a branch was placed on the holiday table and festooned with decorations and small gifts. So when did wood become cake? It could have happened as early as the 1600s, since that’s when the first recipe for sponge cake, the cake of choice for most Yule logs, was published. But the elaborate constructions of buttercream and meringue that we think of today can probably be traced back to 19th-century Paris, where bakers competed to create the most impressive bûches de Noël. This friendly rivalry continues today, though contemporary Parisian versions often bear only a passing resemblance to the original Yule log.

On a Roll

The ganache was peeling because the cake’s exterior was dry; in some places it was even encrusted with confectioners’ sugar from the towel. Thankfully, the fix was simple. An outlier approach by none other than Julia Child ditched the confectioners’ sugar and instead called for wrapping the cake in a clean, damp dish towel. This worked like a charm, and the ganache now adhered nicely. The damp towel also left the surface so moist that the cake could be wrapped, filled (but not frosted), and chilled for 2 days with no ill effects.

Emboldened by Child’s nonconformism, I decided to break from tradition yet again: Instead of rolling up the cake from the long side, as virtually all recipes directed and which I found awkward and unwieldy, I rolled up mine from the short side, which made it much easier to control the center of the cake as I rolled. This technique produced a chubbier, more impressive log with a graceful spiral.

Lay damp towel over cake on rack. Invert second rack over towel. Invert cake; remove racks.
Starting from short side, gently roll cake and towel together into jelly roll shape. Cool for 1 hour.
Unroll cake. Spread filling evenly over cake, leaving 1/2-inch margin on each short side.
Reroll cake, leaving towel behind as you roll.
Trim ½-inch slice from each end of log. To make branch stump, cut one end of cake at 45-degree angle, starting 1½ inches from end.
Transfer cake to platter. Rest stump against log. Spread ganache over log and stump. Use fork to make wood-grain patterns.

Filling In the Details

I next turned my attention to the whipped cream filling. It needed some real personality to stand up to the bittersweet chocolate ganache. Espresso powder would amp up the cream, but so would caramel. Why not use both? The bitterness of the coffee would complement the sweet caramel. I brought a cup of heavy cream and some espresso powder to a simmer in one pot while melting some sugar in another. When the sugar had caramelized, I whisked in the warm, flavored cream. Then I added a cup of cold cream to cool the mixture and refrigerated it. This filling whipped up just like regular whipped cream, and its flavor was outstanding, if a little sweet.

Deputy editor Andrea Geary plates samples of a yule log during a five-recipe test for this festive holiday dessert.

Last task: Find an easy way to firm up the filling so it would stay put. I tried adding mascarpone, the soft Italian cheese. It thickened the filling a bit, but not enough. How about cream cheese? I melted some into the warm caramel before chilling the mixture.

This new filling whipped to a promisingly thick buttercream-like consistency. A quick taste revealed that the cream cheese had tempered the sweetness of the filling without making it taste cheesy. Best of all, the filling didn’t move when I rolled the springy yet cooperative cake. Suddenly, rolling a Yule log had gone from anxiety-inducing to exhilarating.

Trimming the ends of my Yule log revealed an elegant spiral within. I then cut off one end on the bias and attached it to the side of the log with some ganache before frosting the rest of the log. But I left the cut ends exposed to show off the perfect swirl.

As a finishing touch, I traced the tines of a fork over the surface of the ganache to create a bark-like effect, and my project was complete. Turns out, when you match the ideal cake to the ideal filling, making a log can be as easy as falling off one.

Recipe Caramel-Espresso Yule Log

A fluffy, tender cake that rolls effortlessly around a plush, stay-put filling, and most of the work can be completed days in advance? It's a Christmas miracle.

Recipe Caramel-Espresso Yule Log with Meringue Bracket-Style Mushrooms and Chocolate Crumbles

A fluffy, tender cake that rolls effortlessly around a plush, stay-put filling, and most of the work can be completed days in advance? It's a Christmas miracle.

Leave a comment and join the conversation!

0 Comments
Read & post comments with a free account
Join the conversation with our community of home cooks, test cooks, and editors.
First Name is Required
Last Name is Required
Email Address is Required
How we use your email?
Password is Required
JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.