This is one in a series of occasional articles on the people who do the behind-the-scenes work of the holidays.
The highlight of Christmas dinner in some Baltimore homes is a decorated buche de noel, and many can be traced to a small industrial kitchen in Halethorpe, the French Oven.
This is the workshop of Gerard Billebault, 54, who arrived in the United States more than 30 years ago from his father's bakery in Paris. Six Christmases ago, he started making the log-shaped cake of his childhood for the Falls Road bakery Bon Jour, which he had opened with his wife, Gayle Brier-Billebault. He sold 47 cakes.
The next year, he made 120. This year, at least 250. This is insignificant compared to the millions assembled every year in France three days before Christmas. But French Oven already runs 24 hours a day all year long.
One day recently we found Billebault and his assistant, Joel Roche, making buches for holiday parties. Roche was icing them with praline and mocha-flavored buttercream, a mix of eggs, sugar and butter. There is so much butter in this shop that when the price rose a few cents a pound, Billebault's butter bill rose $18,000.
But instead of a health warning, the high-fat luxury comes with directions. "It is very important when eating these that they be at room temperature," the chef says. "If you eat when it is too cold, you get butter in your mouth. If you eat it soft, it is full of sweetness but you will not have butter in your mouth."
A cake for 12 to 14 people costs $42.
The genoise, or light sponge cake, is made first. Roche beats eggs and sugar in a double boiler, then transfers the mixture to an electric blender, where it's mixed for 5 to 10 minutes, until it stiffens. Then, he pours in sifted flour from a folded piece of wax paper. He gives the batter a few swirls and then, in five strokes, plops it on a parchment-lined, 26-by-18- inch jelly-roll pan and puts it in the oven. When the genoise emerges from the oven five minutes later, it is only 3/8 th-inch thick and, thanks to organic eggs, extra light.
By then, Billebault and Roche are onto a fresh batch of buttercream. Sugar water is heated, then cooled, and added to eggs and beaten into a thick syrup. It rises, and they add a thick slab of softened butter. This buttercream will be coffee-flavored, one of Bon Jour's seven varieties. In France, chestnut is very popular. In the United States, Billebault says, "people don't know about chestnut. It's my favorite."
When the genoise cools, Roche flips it out of the pan, grabbing it with his hands. Quickly he paints a mix of rum and coffee extracts onto both sides of the cake. In France, the cake is soaked in liquor. "Here," Billebault says, "we go very, very light. People don't want liquor."
Roche spreads buttercream filling with a spatula, then rolls the cake into a log. He begins decorating by squeezing two large lumps of buttercream onto the top of the log for bumps. With a pastry attachment that gives the buttercream the lined texture of bark, Roche ices the cake. Next, he draws on vines with green buttercream and flowers with red.
No buche is complete without a meringue mushroom. Roche gently sits two on the log, one pink, the other sprinkled with cocoa. Billebault adds a woodsman's tools -- a silver saw and a tiny hatchet -- a wrapped Christmas package, marzipan holly leaves, white-chocolate sticks and, for snow, rock sugar.
Orders for buches have been steady for weeks. They are made in stages, starting with the mushrooms -- 800 of them -- in early December. Fifteen days before Christmas, production starts in earnest. Two days before Christmas Eve, shop employees arrive to decorate the cakes in assembly-line fashion. The cookie base for the log is made last, glued to a gold foil board with -- what else -- buttercream. Finally, beginning at 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve, Gayle Brier-Billebault will pack the buches and drive them in several runs to Bon Jour.
Why such a fuss for a log cake? It's not every day you see a dessert that looks like this, Billebault says. It's tradition.
It began before the Middle Ages, when people would cut enormous logs from fruit trees, decorate them with ribbons, and burn them in fireplaces for three days at Christmas, he says. When houses and fireplaces became smaller, people switched to the symbolic sweet log.
Today, Billebault says, "You cannot do holidays in France without a buche."
Nor in a French bakery in Baltimore, for that matter. "People will come in the door and demand a buche," he says.
This is why he makes them, and why, on the day his customers delight in his creations, he can do little but sleep -- after, that is, sharing another family tradition of champagne, caviar, smoked salmon and a little fois gras.