Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
Carpe diem; I learned this Etsy lesson the hard way. For weeks I had coveted an intricately-detailed baking mold in the shape of a tree trunk. The petite pan — only five inches long — was impressed with bark and knots, delicate faux bois lines rendered in tin. I enjoyed it as much as an object of kitchen art as I did for its molding potential in cakes, chocolates and jellies. I planned to make all of my friends tiny tree cakes for Christmas.
I hemmed and hawed, and finally I committed to buying it. And it had sold the day before.
I kicked myself, lamenting the loss of this beautiful little object. As a long shot, I emailed the seller to see if she had another in stock — and she did! A larger, 8-inch tin even more beautiful than its junior counterpart. And it was winging its way to me all the way from the Netherlands!
The seller helped me with a bit of research as to where this log-style mold came from. She referred to it as a boomstam — or tree trunk — chocolate mold, and suspected it had been manufactured in the first half of the 20th century.
The mold reminded me of a bûche de Noël, a Christmas tradition I remembered from high school French class. Bûche de Noël translates to “Christmas log” and is descended from the holiday tradition of the Yule log — the burning of a log on the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year (or on Christmas Eve, in the Christian tradition). It’s a ceremony as ancient as the Vikings, but spread as far as the American South through the 19th century. The log was traditionally enormous, felled and aged in such a way that it could burn for the entire twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas Eve until January 6. Rubbed with sweet spices, when it burned it scented the whole house, serving as a friendly reminder that the light and warmth of summer would one day return.
By the end of the 19th century, fireplaces began to be replaced by cast iron stoves; their small, enclosed fireboxes made the Yule log tradition obsolete. As a result, enterprising French pastry chefs created an edible tradition in the form of the bûche de Noël. It’s typical form is a vanilla sponge cake baked in a flat sheet pan and slathered with chocolate cream. The cake is rolled into a log shape and decorated with chocolate icing spread to look like bark. Tiny marzipan mushrooms, gnomes, or real pine branches complete the illusion.
But most bûches de Noël don’t really look like tree trunks at all — they look like cake rolls with gnomes. When I bought my tree-patterned mold, I felt it would be a much more convincing Yule log. And vanilla sponge cake wasn’t doing it for me either; if my cake is going to look like a tree, then it should taste like one, too!
I have a bad history with literal food flavorings (see my ill-fated experiment with chicken flavored Marshmallow Peeps). So how could I make a cake taste pleasantly like a tree? Through extracts. The vanilla extract in your cupboard is simply a vanilla bean soaked in high proof alcohol. You can make any kind of extract easily at home; I took juniper berries, the pine-like flavoring component of gin, and soaked them in a high proof vodka for a week. But I also wanted to integrate the warmth of holiday spices, so I turned to another sort of extract: cocktail bitters. Bitters are infusions of spices, roots, fruits and other ingredients in alcohol, often more than a dozen components making up a single recipe. They’re complex and flavorful, and they’re not just good for topping off a cocktail — they can also be used just like vanilla extract in baking.
Companies like Dram Apothecary sell their Honey & Chamomile bitters on Etsy, and Bitter Bliss sells kits to make your own bitters at home. Grocery store staple Angostura Bitters is made with cloves, cinnamon and other holiday spice staples and is great for holiday baking. I used a locally produced brand based on a recipe from 1828 that was heavy on juniper, as well as coriander, cardamom and orange peel.
To a classic yellow cake recipe, I replaced the vanilla extract with half juniper extract and half cocktail bitters; it smelled like a fresh cut Christmas tree while I mixed it. I greased and floured the baking tin, making sure not to leave any glumps of butter that would interfere with the design. After baking, I released the cake from the tin, still warm, and rolled it in cocoa powder to bring the bark design into relief.
Not keen on pine flavors? Replace the sugar with granulated maple sugar for a maple Bûche de noël, or replace ? of the flour with almond, hazelnut, or chestnut flour for a nut tree. Adorn your log in enchanting edible decorations from Andie’s Specialty Sweets; their woodland decorating set includes confectionery toadstools, ferns, and candy ladybugs. Given as a gift, your friends will be charmed — and perhaps reminded that spring will come again.