The Passion of the Bûche: Lighting Cake on Fire for Christmas

The Passion of the Bûche: Lighting Cake on Fire for Christmas

We asked former Au Pied de Cochon pastry chef Gabrielle Hiller-Rivard to make us a bûche de Noël and she created a flammable work of art.

"Vingt fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage."

This dictum by French poet Boileau translates roughly to, "Put your work twenty times upon the anvil." It's a well-known call to arms for perfectionists and, for pastry chef Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller, whose anvil is the baking tray, a personal motto.

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Gabrielle Hiller-Rivard. Photos by Farah Kahn and Allison Slattery.

A couple of weeks ago, in the name of Christmas content, we asked Gabrielle if she could recreate her bûche de Noël from Martin Picard's monumental Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon cookbook.

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But Rivard-Hiller, who recently left Au Pied de Cochon's sugar shack (on very good terms) after six intense years, is not one to rehash old classics. Plus, she doesn't have to cook for 2,000 people a week anymore, which freed her mind and schedule up considerably.

So, she went deep into R&D mode and eventually settled on a completely different species of tree than what she is used to making. "At first I was going to make you a fir, but this is more of an ash tree," she says. "My father, who's a woodworker, saw the early version and said, 'That's ash!'"

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Rivard-Hiller, like most Quebecers, has the yule log seared into her memory from Christmases gone by. "Every year at Christmas, my mom made a raspberry bûche made with a rolled white cake, raspberry jam, and whipped cream—really classic—so I did a twist on that," Rivard-Hiller explains. "It's the tastes and memories of my childhood."

To add a personal touch, she even brought along a tiny wooden axe made by her grandfather to garnish her towering pile of cake wood. "My mom always puts this axe in the bûche. Her father gave it to her before he died about 25 years ago; he sculpted it himself. I made my mom promise that I would get it. I've called shotgun on it for my inheritance."

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For centuries, it's been cakes that look like wood a blank canvas for pastry chefs (and moms) to riff on edible Christmas imagery like axes, snow, fire, and, of course, little mushrooms. "On all of the tacky Christmas yule logs, there's always little fake mushrooms made with butter cream, or whatever," she recounts. "It just seems to be part of the bûche de Noël imagery."

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Rivard-Hiller has opted to deck the log with mushroom caps made of raspberry whippets—dunked in white chocolate and hand-painted with food coloring—sitting on a stem of dried meringue. "I've always really liked making the whippet mushrooms, it's really tacky," she laughs.

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But the mushrooms were just the obligatory garnish and the real challenge was creating what lay beneath. The first step was to building foundational log sturdy enough to accommodate the branches, mushrooms, axe, and flames that would adorn it. For that, Rivard-Hiller made a raspberry jam with berries from her hometown of St-Joseph-du-Lac, which she calls, "the best town in the world."

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For the ash branches, she made puff pastry stuffed with maple pastry cream, maple whipped cream, and maple caramel. And no, that is not real tree bark, it's a paste of brown sugar, butter, and flour.

"You squeeze the paste between two sheets of paper and then stick it to the puff pastry before you put it in the oven. It adds a little crunch to the puff pastry and it makes it cook more evenly and avoids the puff pastry exploding in the oven. I made it really thick so that it would crack and look like bark."

Also in the name of arboreal accuracy, each end of the branches had to be topped with a tuile cookie to avoid the cream spilling over and to make it look even more like an actual piece of wood.

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Variations on the faux-wood Christmas theme exist throughout Europe in various forms; the licht in Germany, the yule log in England, and the bûche de Noel in France, where, every year, pastry chefs essentially compete to see who can make the most elaborate bûche. In fact, these ornate logs are so inextricably linked to French cuisine that they can be found in former French colonies as disparate as Lebanon, Vietnam, and Quebec.

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"I'm not a classical French pastry chef who uses foam and jelly and coulis," she insists. "I admire that precision, but I'm not really into it. I prefer more natural-looking things—I'm more into wooden logs than Yuzu logs."

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Instead of technical perfection, Rivard-Hiller emphasized the emotion, comfort, and indulgences associated with memories of Christmas. "Sugar is really like a drug. There is nothing more direct that, say, eating a strawberry pie and it brings you back 20 years to when your grandmother made it. It's a direct line to your emotions."

But working within the parameters of feeling and familiarity doesn't make the technique side of the equation any easier, especially for a perfectionist like Rivard-Hiller. "It's a really tough process, because you're constantly questioning yourself. The first times you try, it doesn't work, it's ugly, and you feel like a loser. You have have to constantly be re-thinking things—it's humbling."

"It forces you to think and to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Sometimes, it's just not working and you know that something is missing and you go to sleep and wake up the next day and you have a flash of inspiration and you've found the solution. It's really exciting when that happens."

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As a coup de grâce, Rivard-Hiller heats up some of the raspberry eau-de-vie and ignites it over the yule log; she has actually created an edible fireplace. My photographers and I look at each other, a little stunned. Hiller-Rivard drops the proverbial mic and walks away.

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With her food, Gabrielle is able to bypass the rational mind and tap directly into the feelings of those who eat it, but without being sentimental or overly conceptual—it's as fun to eat as it is to look at.

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"What I like about pastries is what it gives to people: the memories. Usually, when you eat a meal, it's to survive. But when you're eating dessert, it's different; it really taps into memories. Most people's best memories are associated with cakes and cookies and smells and tastes."

"It's nice to make people remember those things."

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2016.