Baltimoreans don’t need a plane ticket to find a traditional, French Bûche de Noël. At Bonjour bakery on Falls Road, Gerard Billebault and his sister Martine are busy preparing Yule log-shaped cakes in the same manner they learned from their Parisian father decades ago.
Stand in line at any bakery in Paris this time of year and while the cashier rings up your baguette order, the eyes inevitably wander up to the Bûche de Noël in the display case, an elaborate dollhouse explosion of holiday cheer on a plate.
In France, “Every family has a Bûche de Noël for Christmas,” says Martine Billebault, 70. She arrived just yesterday from her home in Paris, and already helping her brother in his bakery, Bonjour on Falls Road.
“Every year she comes for vacation,” Gerard, 66, says of his elder sister, but he puts her to work.
First come the sheets of genoise cake – to be rolled up with either chocolate or a raspberry puree. Gerard adorns the logs with two dollops of frosting on top, then pipes rippled chocolate mousse frosting to the sides. “In all the pastries we do… this is butter eggs sugar – that’s it,” he says.
Martine adds flourishes in red and green frosting, miniature Christmas trees, fanciful mushrooms of white merengue, all topped with a gentle “snowfall” of powdered sugar.
“That’s exactly the way we used to do when I worked with my dad,” Gerard says. Both children grew up helping their father in his bakery in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville, Paris, also known as the birthplace of Edith Piaf. (The bakery didn’t have a name, he says. ‘In France we don’t put our name on the streets,’ says Gerard. ‘You know, we’re not Donald Trump.’)
Gerard first studied baking at his father’s side, then studied at a baking school in Paris, eventually moving to the United States in the early 1970s. He and his wife opened up Bonjour in Baltimore in 1998; it’s since become a popular spot for area Francophiles and sweet teeth.
But not too sweet. Customers note that his pastries aren’t as sweet as those available in supermarkets. “We don’t sell people sugar. We sell them a cake,” he says. “In America the cakes in the supermarket, I mean it’s awful, the sugar…. That’s why the kids, I guess, are so hyper.”
Gerard suggests that customers leave cakes and pastries out for an hour before consuming. “It’s very important because you get much more flavor,” he says.
A rule French families are sure to keep in mind before slicing into the swirls of jam and spongy genoise cake, representing the rings of the Yule log.
In addition to Bonjour, a few other spots sell Bûche de Noël in Baltimore:
Patisserie Poupon sells four varieties of the Bûche de Noël: chocolate, hazelnut, coffee and Grand Marnier.
Local baker Sarah Acconcia of Wild Thyme Event Studio sells ten special-order “goth” versions of the festive Buche de Noel, topping her mushrooms with beet powder and cocoa powder.