The History of: Bûche de Noël, Gingerbread & Chocolate Babka


Our holiday menu features baked goods from around the world often enjoyed this time of year. We decided to explore the traditions behind some of our favorites, and share our findings with you! 

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Bûche de Noël

Also known as the Christmas yule log, this delicate French cake is rolled, filled, frosted and decorated to look like a log. With a history dating back to Europe’s Iron Age (before the medieval era), Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans would welcome the winter solstice with the burning of a real log decorated and sprinkled with wine, salt or holy water – among other ingredients. The burning of this log signified good luck in the new year.

As hearths disappeared from homes and replaced with wood-burning stoves, burning real logs were replaced with log-shaped cakes. According to legend, during his reign, Napolean I mandated that all chimneys be closed during the winter months to fight disease. With no way for air to get in or out, people had no way to burn their traditional yule logs, so a Parisian baker created a cake be the symbolic alternative.  

The earliest recipe for the bûche de Noël is in a cookbook from 1905 called Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique by Joseph Fabre. Today’s bûche de Noël is made with a rolled sponge cake and frosted with a cream or ganache, though flavors and types of fillings vary from region to region. 

Gingerbread

Is there any confection that symbolizes the holidays better than gingerbread? Whether in the shape of a person, a house or in loaf form, the spiced cake-like bread has murky origins. The earliest forms of gingerbread can be traced to Greece in 2400 BC when it was used for ceremonial purposes – and when crusaders brought it to Europe from the Middle East in the 11th century.

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The hard ginger cookies, sometimes shaped in fun designs, were a staple at medieval fairs in France, Germany, Holland and England. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the idea of decorating the cookies, after she commissioned the decoration of some to resemble dignitaries visiting her court. Over time these festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs, and the gingerbread cookies served there were known as ‘fairings.’ Ladies would give their favorite knights a piece of gingerbread for good luck, and also superstitiously eat a “gingerbread husband” to improve their chances of finding the real thing. By 1598, it was popular enough to merit a mention in the Shakespearen play, Love Labour’s Lost, (“An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread…”). 

Now-a-days, gingerbread is a baked sweet containing molasses, ginger and sometimes cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and anise. It can take the form of thin, crisp cookies that may be decorated, as a cake such as our gingerbread pound cake at Goldenrod, or the iconic castles and homes that are so popular this time of year! 

Chocolate Babka

Babka is a dense bread swirled with chocolate, making it irresistible. The history of the rich layers of bread and the sticky, delicious swirls are as rich and interwoven as the dough. It is believed that in the 16th century, Queen Bona Sforza of Poland brought babka back from Italy, and developed it into a Russified version.

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The bread was adopted by “babas” – grandmothers – and may have been made from left over challah dough. “Babka”: it means “little grandmother” in Ukrainian, Russian, and Eastern European Yiddish. Original babka had nuts and seeds in it, and chocolate was added when Eastern European Jews arrived in New York City. There, chocolate was easier to find and cheaper, thus it was quickly discovered that finely-chopped dark chocolate made the babka all the better. Now, babka is tightly rolled, twisted, folded and baked into the rich loaves we know and love today!

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