Some girls dream about going to Paris. I dream about dessert. In 2011 I was nineteen and dreaming of one specific dessert: the classic French Yule Log. I first encountered the Americanized version of this French cake as a preteen, when I found, in the pages of a 1973 Gourmet Cookbook, elegantly staged photos of a “Walnut Roll.” The book itself looked too pristine to have ever been more than a prop, and, strangely, so did the cake. It was more diorama than dessert.
The same goes for the Yule Log, or Bûche de Noël. At its most basic, the Yule Log is a rolled sponge cake, iced on both sides with flavored buttercream. It is the winsome decorations that adorn most Yule Logs— meringue mushrooms, imitation branches, and plastic figurines—that elevate them above Swiss Rolls or other coiled desserts. The cake is unique, an intersection between baking and set design.
I had been living in Scotland with my best friend Alana for nearly a year. For the holidays, we decamped to a rented apartment on the outskirts of the Marais to spend Christmas in Paris. It was the first year I was spending the holidays away from my family. Back home in Canada, they would be having the kind of sweet, safe Christmas—with young children and appropriate amounts of homemade champagne— that, capricious and bitchy as I was, did not appeal.
At the Eurostar station, Alana arrived half an hour late and told me that she had no cash to buy a ticket. Transatlantic banking is a complicated affair—a cat’s cradle of Internet transfers and affiliated banks—so I lent her the money.
As we ate doughy croissants and waited for the train, it struck me that she could have been testing the waters, trying to see if she could get away with not going on the trip. Alana was in the glory days of a new relationship with a handsome photographer. For most of the last two months, she had been staying at his house in London, while I stayed alone in our frigid Scottish flat.
I had never had a boyfriend. This nagging fact underscored the majority of my thoughts, much like the coffee extract that lends notes of bitterness to a Yule Log. I refused to cede jealousy. Instead, I obsessively read articles in Saveur and Bon Appetit about Paris at Christmastime. A fulfilling love life was out of my hands, but I could control Christmas dinner. This year, I was going to Paris. I would crown a picturesque holiday meal with an artfully crafted Yule Log and everything would be wonderful! I wasn’t single, I was enigmatic.
For French pastry chefs, Yule logs are high stakes baking. Many begin the creative process in the summer, and some of the more exclusive patisseries release seasonal collections, like confectionary fashion houses. A Bûche de Noël is the distillation of Christmas spirit and national pride. A bad one is as rare in Paris as drinkable tap water.
Like the macarons and Yule Logs I had seen all over Paris, boyfriends were something I viewed through a layer of glass.
When we arrived, we took a taxi to our apartment. A sweet French girl met us outside and led us through an Escher drawing of entryways and interlocking corridors to our flat. It was cramped and humid. It was Parisian.
Since her behavior at the train station, I had started to monitor Alana for signs of discontent. I couldn’t quiet the suspicion that she was only with me because she didn’t want to stiff me on the apartment rental, or worse, because she pitied my singleness.
On the first day, I went alone to the Louvre and wept softly in the quieter parts of the building, the galleries with only 75 or so other tourists milling around. Then I sat in the Luxembourg Gardens, also crying. I ate haricot verts at Café de Flore and managed to keep it together, likely because of the intrinsic comfort that butter provides. That evening, as I walked across the Pont des Arts, a luminous, punch-drunk couple asked me to take their photo. Paris glittered behind them. I said no.
Needless to say, the lead up to Christmas was hard on my friendship. I tried to be as much fun as a boyfriend, but, as my hobbies included wandering the boulevards in tears, I was not successful. To me, boyfriends were like the technicolor offerings in a French patisserie. They were beautiful, able to salve any emotional wound or elevate any moment. And, like the macarons and Yule Logs I had seen all over Paris, boyfriends were something I viewed through a layer of glass. My understanding of their sweetness was naive to anything other than pleasure, the way a craving can wipe away any memory of distaste.
Unlike boyfriends, Yule Logs were abundant and invariably perfect. I had taken to window-shopping fanatically for the perfect one to buy on Christmas, an exercise that sugarcoated my emotional state and turned the city into an un-loseable treasure hunt.
At night I often went “out for a walk”, which is to say, I crouched in an entryway near our flat to smoke cigarettes that I had purchased using the only French I knew, “Dunhill International.” It was an ideal spot; close enough to the apartment that I wouldn’t get lost, but far enough away that Alana couldn’t observe my behavior, which I was still trying to pass off as pre-menstrual.
After a few days, Alana told me gently that her boyfriend would be coming to Paris for the New Year, and that they would move into a hotel.
The language of cakes is most readily understood by the heartsick.
On Christmas Eve, I read Jude the Obscure—an upbeat classic—and finally ventured out to purchase the Yule Log of my dreams. The cake would make up for nine days of hormonal pyrotechnics. It would make up for the fact that I spent most of my holiday drinking heavily in dive bars (too inauthentic to be of note) and chain-smoking in a doorway.
I planned to buy my Yule Log from a true Parisian patisserie. Walking around the city, I had developed a theory: if a place was both unadorned and populated by people over 80, it had to be good. I found a spot that fit, with sallow green tiles, unfriendly staff, and an impressive selection of Yule Logs. I chose the quintessential kind: brown, bark-like icing, with tiny fawn figurines dotted on top. The cake stood out for its classicism, and the Bambi figurines, like plastic apparitions, communicated comfort.
Alana seemed nonplussed by the log’s appearance. The language of cakes is most readily understood by the heartsick.
After Christmas dinner, for which my roommate made a very French chicken (tarragon, onions, turnips), I gently removed the sweet little figurines and sliced the Yule Log. The inside looked like a cut tree, concentric circles of frosting and cake.
Yule logs are the holdout of an ancient pagan ritual. In pre-Christian Europe, wintertime celebrations often centered on bringing light to the darkest days of the year, sometimes with the ceremonious burning of a log. I was bringing lightness to my darkest Christmas by indulging in the most kitsch of comfort foods: a cake-based transmutation of a timeless rite.
It tasted… disgusting. The sponge cake was leaden and layered with chalky cream filling, like a glorified Ho Ho. I am not easily put off by baking, but there was no denying the in-edibility of this cake. I had searched the patisseries of the city and done the impossible. I had come home with a stale Twinkie.
Alana took control of the situation and threw the offending cake in the garbage, knowing that the uneaten reminder of my disappointment might be too symbolic for me to deal with. She knew, as best friends do, that it wasn’t about the cake. I needed something to go exactly as I had planned. If I could translate the image in my mind into a meal on the table, didn’t that bode well for managing the rest of my life? I was still a kid, and the idea that reality was wholly incongruous with my fantasy of adulthood was sinking in slowly and painfully.
On Boxing Day, we watched Dawson’s Creek on my laptop and ate Chow Mein in bed. Nothing has ever sated an emotional hangover like those noodles, and I started to feel like the storm had passed. That night, I smoked a joint in the cold and it struck me that it didn’t matter what I ate—Chinese food or macarons from Ladurée—I was still alone. But, I had a lot of Christmas dinners ahead of me, and for the moment, there was nowhere more perfect than Paris.