Yule Logs, Mince Pies and Mincemeat: Facts, Recipes and History
The Yule Log Cake and Mincemeat: Christmas Traditions
For as long as I can remember, a Yule log cake and mince pies have been a traditional part of my family's Christmas. They are popular treats that have had a long and interesting history, although they've changed from their original form. A Yule log was originally a log of a tree instead of a log-shaped chocolate cake, and mince pies once contained meat instead of a mixture of fruit.
A Yule log cake, or bûche de Noël, is a chocolate sponge roll filled with chocolate or vanilla cream and covered with chocolate frosting. The cake is decorated to make it look like a log. Sometimes a white frosting is used so that the log looks as though it's covered in snow.
Mince pies are small tarts consisting of a pastry shell filled with mincemeat. The mincemeat is traditionally made from raisins, currants, apples, lemon peel and zest, spices, brown sugar, suet, and rum or brandy. The pies may have a lid or may be open. Mince pies are a traditional Christmas treat in Britain and are popular in other countries, too.
Pagan History of the Yule Log
Many people think of the word "Yule" as an alternate and slightly old fashioned name for Christmas. Yule was actually the name of a winter solstice celebration enjoyed by pagans in Northern Europe before the introduction of Christianity. It celebrated the end of the shortest day of the year and the approach of longer, warmer days that would be accompanied by the reawakening of nature.
Yule was a festival involving feasting, fun and hope. People brought a large log indoors during the celebration, placed it in a fireplace and set it alight, often after sprinkling it with a libation. The goal was to keep the log burning for at least twelve hours and sometimes for as long as twelve days. The burning log may have been a symbol of the returning sun.
A small piece of the burned log was kept to light the next year's log. The burnt wood was believed to have magical properties that would protect the people from evil during the upcoming year and bring them good luck. The ashes produced from the log were also thought to have magical powers and were saved. They were often added to soil to improve the productivity of crops.
It was important that the Yule log was collected from the family's own land or from a neighbour's instead of being bought. Different cultures had different rules for the type of tree that would be suitable for supplying a log. Oak and ash seem to have been the most popular choices.
A Christian Tradition
The custom of burning a Yule log spread through Europe and eventually became incorporated into Christian celebrations. In some areas, including France, a log was brought into a home on Christmas Eve and sprinkled with salt, oil and wine. Prayers were said as the wood was set on fire. The log was supposed to burn for twelve hours. As in pagan celebrations, splinters were kept to light the next year's log. Cinders from the burnt wood were believed to protect the family from a visitation by the devil.
The Log and Cake Today
The custom of burning a log during a festival became less common as fireplaces decreased in size. The smaller fireplaces could no longer accommodate large logs that would stay alight for many hours or days. For some modern pagans and Christians a log is still a meaningful part of their December celebration, however. It's usually small enough to be placed on a table and is decorated with greenery and candles. It often has a spiritual or religious significance.
For most people today, the term "Yule log" is synonymous with a cake. The substitution of a cake for a real log is thought to have begun in the nineteenth century. The cake is a sweet roulade. A roulade is made by rolling a flat layer of food around a filling. Savoury roulades are often made by spreading a cheese, egg or vegetable mix on a piece of meat and then rolling the meat up. Sweet roulades are usually made from flat sponge cake covered with a sweet filling. A Swiss roll is a type of sweet roulade.
Christmas Chocolate Log and Sponge Cake Recipe
The Bûche de Noël or Yule Log Cake
A bûche de Noël is covered with chocolate frosting so that it resembles a log. The surface of the cake is decorated for even more realism. The decorations often include the creation of ridges and circles in the frosting in order to produce a bark-like texture on the cake and the appearance of tree rings at its ends. They may also include a sprinkle of powdered sugar to give the impression of snow. Some cakes contain a shorter roll of cake attached to the main roll at an angle to resemble a branch.
Holly leaves and berries made of marzipan may be added to the cake to provide Christmas colours. Christmas figures such as snowmen and Santa Claus may be placed on the top. In some countries, meringue mushrooms are traditionally placed around the log. Twigs of spruce are sometimes placed around the log as well as or instead of the mushrooms.
The cake and filling of a log are often chocolate-flavoured, but sometimes the cake or the cream are vanilla based and are light in colour. Jam may also be used as a filling, although a cream filling is more common.
The bûche de Noël is especially popular in France. It's traditionally served at the end of the réveillon or feast that's held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
How to Make Meringue Mushrooms
History of Mince Pies
"Mince" refers to finely chopped meat and "mincemeat" is the filling for mince pies. There is no meat in today's mince pies, however.
The forerunner of the mince pie was the Christmas pie. This was originally a large, rectangular pie filled with different types of meat and spices. The earliest mentions of Christmas pies date from the time of the Crusaders and their introduction of exotic new spices to Britain. There are claims that the shape of the pies represented the manger of the baby Jesus. Some researchers doubt this story, though. The pies were said to have a "coffin" shape, which was a common term that simply meant a shape like a basket.
During the Tudor period the pies were sometimes known as shrid or shred pies and were very popular. They were made from meats such as beef, mutton, rabbit and beef tongue as well as various birds.
Christmas pies containing only meat were available even in Victorian times, but by then pies containing meat and fruit were available as well. In the past, a mixture of savoury and sweet foods in one dish was more popular than it is today. Fruit was added to the Christmas pie mix at least as early as 1725, as shown by the Little Jack Horner nursery rhyme quoted below. A mincemeat recipe from 1788 shows that the mixture consisted mainly of fruit by that time, although it did contain tripe.
Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner,
Eating a Christmas Pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, "What a good boy am I!"— Henry Carey, in the year 1725
Homemade Vegetarian Mincemeat Recipe
Mince Pies Today
Mince pies may have no lid, a star-shaped cover to represent the star that guided the Wise Men or a full cover. I like the ones with no lids, since I prefer the taste of the mincemeat to the taste of the pastry. Mince pies are very nice to eat on their own, but they are also delicious with ice cream.
Today the only remnant of meat in mince pies is the beef suet. This is sometimes replaced by butter or by vegetarian suet, which usually contains palm oil. It's possible to buy or make mince pies that don't contain any rum or brandy, if this is preferred.
Interestingly, modern recipes for large "Christmas Pies" containing all meat or meat and fruit are available today. It's therefore possible to enjoy these as people did in the past as well as enjoy the taste of mince pies.
There are some interesting traditions associated with making and eating mince pies.
- When making mincemeat at home, the mixture must always be stirred in a clockwise direction. Stirring in an anticlockwise direction is said to bring bad luck during the upcoming year.
- Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves must be added to represent the three gifts of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus.
- One mince pie should be eaten on each of the twelve days of Christmas to ensure good luck. The last should be eaten on January 6th, or Epiphany.
- A wish should be made as the first pie is eaten.
- Refusing to eat a mince pie will lead to bad luck.
Family traditions related to food are often a wonderful part of Christmas. They can make an important and meaningful contribution to a very special time of year.
Mince Pies Recipe
© 2013 Linda Crampton