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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.