Dining With Denise Neil

Odd-looking dessert in high demand at Wichita’s French bakeries

It’s an odd-looking little dessert, to be sure: a cylindrical, rolled sponge cake decorated to look like a knobby log, complete with textured, bark-like frosting and topped with tiny Santa Clauses, snowmen, Christmas trees and meringue mushrooms.

Nothing is proportional. The mushroom is four times the size of Santa’s sleigh, and never mind that everyone is hanging out on top of a log that to them would be the size of a submarine in real life.

But these cakes, also known as Yule logs (or buche de Noel), are one of the most cherished Christmas dessert traditions in countries like France, Belgium and Lebanon, and Wichita’s two French bakeries – La Galette at 1017 W. Douglas and Bagatelle Bakery at 6801 E. Harry – work to keep the tradition alive in Wichita each holiday season.

When he was growing up in Lebanon, said La Galette owner Tony Abdayem, Yule logs were never missing from his family’s Christmas table.

The tradition, he said, dates back to pre-medieval times. To celebrate the winter solstice, people would soak logs in salt and wine then burn the logs for the 12 days before Christmas. The ashes were put in their yards to ensure good luck.

In the 1800s in France, ruler Napoleon Bonaparte outlawed burning the logs, convinced that smog was making the population unhealthy.

“The bakers were smart enough that they came up with something,” Abdayem said. “They said, ‘Let’s do a cake that looks like a Yule log.’ ”

The cakes have been a tradition ever since.

Abdayem said he makes at least 250 to 300 Yule logs each year. He first bakes and then freezes big sheet cakes. He fills them with chantilly cream in flavors like strawberry and mocha, then rolls them and freezes them again.

He frosts the cake with a tip that replicates the texture of bark, then decorates the log with little plastic toys – a tiny Santa and sleigh, a snowman, a tiny gift-wrapped box, a “Merry Christmas” sign.

The smaller cake, which can feed 10 to 15 people, costs $25. The larger one, which will feed 25 to 30 people, is $45. Bagatelle sells its logs in three sizes: A 10-incher is $18.65, a 14-incher is $23.86, and a 22-incher is $33.21. Both bakeries are still taking orders.

Many Wichita families who didn’t grow up with Yule logs are taken with the unusual cakes and have made them part of their own Christmas traditions, Abdayem said.

“We’ve been in business 30 years, and I see people order them every year,” he said. “It’s like a tradition now with new generation.”

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil