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The Notebooks
by Josée Fiset

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It’s not the holidays without a yule log

Did you know that yule logs aren’t Québécois in origin but go all the way back to Europe? Long before electricity, ancient peoples celebrated the solstice by picking out a tree with a trunk as hard as steel. They would decorate it, bless it and set it ablaze. It would burn all night and sometimes through the 12 days of Christmas, until the Epiphany. Wooden logs may no longer be central to our modern life, but we’ve replaced them with a delicious, moist and sweet version that comes in a range of interpretations but still symbolizes the season’s festivities.

I once knew a man by the name of Viateur, who used to say, “Christmas without a yule log is like a fish out of water. Not very lively. And December 25th should be lively.” This might have been because his fiancée, Béatrice B., a Rubenesque European with cheeks like ripe Ontario peaches, always whipped up a buttery yule log the likes of which I had never tasted.

I’d hoped to learn her craft, but a busy career kept me from it. But, how fondly I still think about those yule logs!

Like an alchemist, she would brew her espresso – Java dark roast only – concentrating it into a mere two or three tablespoons of dark-as-night liquid. She would dextrously separate the eggs, beat and fold them, ever so delicately. And when it came time to roll out her genoise, light as a cloud, she looked like she was swaddling a baby in an immaculate blanket. Every motion she made was significant, respectful, calculated. She hardly ever used a measuring cup.

I would watch her cut off the ends and put one aside with a wink. She would create the “knots” by eye, like she did the rest of it. She didn’t put in a lot of knots because by then we’d gobbled up the “extra” end to “test” it.

“The first log is the most stressful,” Béatrice would say. “All the questions come up: Is there enough sugar? Does it melt into the butter? Are the egg whites firm enough? After the first log, the others are easy as pie. Or, well, cake.”

For a time, she created little decorative towns. Later, her imitation bark frosting was sprinkled with candied angelica or violets. But now, she says less is more. One or two small knots – or even no knots – and it’s good to go. I agree.

Béatrice’s logs also have a higher purpose. She bakes them for those she loves, of course, but also to raise funds for a shelter for troubled young women. A log symbolizes warmth, a spark. It’s something people gather around for warmth and comfort. It does the heart good.

The multiplication of the logs

Première Moisson bakes almost like Béatrice, but with a chocolate-praline preparation instead of espresso, although that varies from year to year. Béa fusses over some 20 logs per year, while Première Moisson creates over 10,000 every year.

Josée Fiset, Première Moisson’s Co-founder and spokesperson, explains why its yule logs are so exceptional: “It’s because they’re made to very high standards of quality, using the most natural ingredients. The pralines are made in-house, with unrefined cane sugar; the frostings don’t have any artificial flavours or colours; and emulsifiers are never used in our genoise. In our kitchens, the meringues are hand-folded and we bake the dacquoises in small batches.”

Yule logs are constructed with a simple, very fine, flexible sponge cake, a silky ganache and a buttercream that’s, let’s admit it, just decadent. “When we were developing our pastry line, we brought in a specialist because we knew we were bakers, not pastry chefs,” Josée Fiset continues. “We invited Jean-Paul Schmitt of Japan’s Dalloyau shop to get our new line off on the right foot and make sure our pastries would be the best... in North America. We are so grateful to this talented man.”

High-volume production usually involves automating. We take a more artisanal approach. In the kitchen, this means ensuring our work methods are precise and creating multiple smaller batches.

No rest for the weary

Première Moisson is continuously reinventing itself, and the yule logs keep evolving too. In a spirit of unfettered creativity, the company launched its signature log concept in 2012. The signature log is produced in limited quantities, apart from the traditional yule log lines, and for this product, creativity trumps production cost.

Designer Jean-Claude Poitras was the first guest yule log designer. He turned convention on its head by dressing it in a chocolate bustier and giving it Middle Eastern flair.

The tradition continued in the ensuing years through collaborations with Cirque du Soleil and the Opéra de Montréal, for instance. For every log sold, $20 was donated (a minimum of $20,000) to La Tablée des Chefs.

In 2016, however, the proceeds benefited adults with autism spectrum disorders. For this cause, dear to the heart of Véronique Cloutier, the blonde one-woman band’s promotional efforts resulted in 1,600 signature logs being sold in Montréal, Québec City and Gatineau – double the numbers from previous years.

Last year, the same amount allowed the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation, which encourages physical activity and the adoption of a healthy lifestyle, to increase its efforts with disadvantaged youths aged 4 to 17.

A classic reinvented and very “now”

This year, the signature log is Josée Fiset’s brainchild. “I like to prove it’s possible to rethink and improve on what we already know. So, I challenged our chefs to dream up an ultra-

gourmet yule log that’s dairy-free and uses nutmeal instead of flour.”

Their discussions led to “The Audacious.” It combines a generous pistachio dacquoise with a joconde sponge cake, and pairs them with a dark chocolate mousse and a morello cherry coulis. I would crawl from Montréal to Québec City on my hands and knees for a slice of this

sinful treat.

“I can’t say it’s 100% gluten-free and dairy-free because it’s made in our kitchens where those products are used, but if present, it’s in trace amounts.” The log not only appeals to fine gourmets, it’s also perfect for people who have changed their eating habits.

The proceeds from this year’s signature log go to Accueil Bonneau, an organization founded in 1877 and still so desperately needed by our community’s most vulnerable.

THE 2018 SIGNATURE LOG

In a little nod to Accueil Bonneau, The Audacious signature log has the long shape of a comfy sofa, ready to welcome a weary person needing a rest. Created by Josée Fiset, this one-of-a-kind yule log is as surprising as it is delicious.

A FEW PAST SIGNATURE LOGS

02 The first log in 2011: Jean-Claude Poitras, 03 The 2013 log: La Tablée des Chefs, 04 The 2014 log: Cirque du Soleil, 05 The 2015 log: Opéra de Montréal, 06 The 2016 log: Véronique Cloutier, 07 The 2017 log: Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation

A year in the life

01. JANUARY: After reflecting on the previous year’s achievements, Première Moisson goes back into creative mode, drawing from its own inspiration and what’s hot in French pastry circles. 02. FEBRUARY: While Valentine’s Day chocolates fill the shelves, the initial ideas are developed and presented to a panel of partners, who look at whether the ideas are feasible from an operational point of view. This brainstorming – which can bring ideas to a higher level or take them back down to earth – is then also presented to the chef and the marketing team. 03. MARCH: New proposals are put on the table. The panel partners and marketing team try them out, with forks, pens and paper in hand. Do they have the “wow” factor? Do they match our brand DNA? Is the sales price right? Are the decorations good enough? Does the flavour elicit an emotion? Is production realistic? Is the line well balanced? 04. APRIL: The die is cast. Final selections are made. 05. MAY: High five! We have what we need to please every palate. 06. JUNE: All the partners in our network gather around a table, and the year’s holiday product line is unveiled. It’s Christmas in June! The only thing missing is Santa. 07. JULY: The partners’ orders come in. Training begins. Work starts on sales tools and marketing and PR campaigns. 08. AUGUST: Now comes the time to take photos and find the right words to describe the products that have taken us eight months to dream up, create, refine and align with our ambitions. 09. SEPTEMBER: Production starts. The pastry chefs learn to coat and frost the desserts to perfection, each of which has special requirements. 10. OCTOBER: Freezers start filling up. Pastry makers at all branches build up their stocks. Then comes the real fun: decorating the logs. 11. NOVEMBER: The first yule logs arrive in stores at the end of the month. 12. DECEMBER: The magical time of sharing finally arrives. The yule logs are unveiled, draw admiration and, at last, get taken home.

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