By Lesley Mahoney / Photos by Kristin Teig
Today, the Yule log cake, or bûche de Noël, in homage to its French popularity, is a staple at holiday tables, and still carries the association of warmth and welcome. One local baker has built a reputation for perfecting her own version of this dessert. Vicki Lee Boyajian, owner of Vicki Lee’s in Belmont, starts with a flourless chocolate roulade and adds a thin layer of chocolate buttercream, a thick layer of Grand Marnier whipped cream, and then adorns it with intricate chocolate pine cones, meringue mushrooms and snowmen, real pine boughs, and holly berries made of raspberry jam and fondant flowers. “It’s like saying, ‘The door is open, come warm your toes by the fire,’” she says of the cake.
Boyajian, who with her staff creates upwards of 150 bûche de Noël cakes each holiday season, starts thinking about the onslaught of orders as early as August. Around Thanksgiving, when the orders start rolling in, they begin staging for fondant banners and meringue mushrooms and snowmen. “We love them and hate them,” she jokes, as she folds egg whites into the cake batter of sugar-ribboned egg yolks, espresso, and melted chocolate. “It’s really about the relationships of the people who come and get them. It’s the same people every year.”
In fact, just a few days before Boyajian walked me through the process behind this confectionary marvel, a loyal customer had coincidentally mailed her one of the bakery’s past annual holiday menus, which of course featured the bûche de Noël. In addition to getting her in the spirit—“It’s like karma that she’s sending it in October”—it also reminded her that she used to dedicate these menus each year (this one was for her mother)—a tradition she resolved to renew.
Boyajian has been making the bûche de Noël cake for almost as long as she’s been professionally baking. And it’s been so long that she can’t quite remember what sparked the idea in the first place. After about six years of making desserts out of her home for premier Boston restaurants, and then out of a rented kitchen in Arlington for two years, she opened up a retail location in Westwood in 1985. There, she put the bûche de Noël on the menu. “I don’t know why,” she says. “I did a lot of French pastry. Somehow, French is more my influence than anything.”
After six years in Westwood, Boyajian moved to a bigger space in Needham in 1991 and then a few years later, opened a satellite location in Vicki Lee’s current Belmont spot. In 1999, Boyajian left the business to raise her young son after her husband passed away. Then in 2006 she wanted back in and reopened in Belmont, doubling the space. Of course, the bûche de Noël was back on the holiday menu.
Through the years, Boyajian has heeded lessons she learned from her first culinary teacher, Leo Romero, whom she worked for in Boston as prep cook at Casa Romero and the former Café L’Ananas, and years later, made desserts for his Vermont restaurant. “Don’t take shortcuts, keep the same standards, don’t lower them,” she recalls, noting that these adages of course apply to the bûche de Noël. “I’m proud of that.”
Indeed, Boyajian continues to use real Grand Marnier for the dessert’s signature whipped cream, instead of resorting to cheaper liqueur.
But that doesn’t mean she’s adverse to change. Over the years, Boyajian’s Yule log has evolved. “I want to continue to modernize,” she says.
As she makes a mock-up of the cake—spreading the thin layer of chocolate buttercream and a thick helping of the whipped cream, then rolling it in parchment—I can imagine an assembly line of sorts when the bakery is churning out dozens of these cakes at a time. From the cake itself to the meringue mushrooms and jam berries, to the pine boughs and wired ribbon adorning fondant Joyeux Noël banners, it’s a labor of love, and every detail counts.
The whole time, Boyajian and her staff know they’re creating something special for customers. “Of course people want their apple pie and their pecan pie, but there’s something very special about a Yule log at Christmas. It is their pièce de résistance.”
Vicki Lee’s 105 Trapelo Road, Belmont 617.489.5007 vickilees.com
Lesley Mahoney is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in South Shore Living, Cape Cod Magazine, various GateHouse Media publications, and Edible Berkshires. You can reach her at LMahoney1@gmail.com.