The Bûche de Noël That Outlived My Mother

We always started with the ice cream. It’s the most important part of our Christmas yule log and, if my mother and I were organized, we prepared it the day before baking the rest of the cake. Made with raw milk and cream, our peppermint ice cream was unbelievably thick and velvety, flecked with bits of crushed candy cane. Every year, we would hover over the ice cream maker as it churned, scraping a spoonful from the side of the freezer bowl to taste. She’d turn to me, pleased, as it melted in our mouths.

By 2010, when I was 15 years old, my mother could no longer use her body in the way she had known her entire life. I cringed at how she had to crunch her shoulder to her neck to get her elbow above the counter, all for a spoonful of ice cream. But she was determined to make the perfect yule log filled with that ice cream, surrounded by a light and airy chocolate cake, and covered with fluffy meringue blowtorched to woodsy perfection.

I resented her so much for getting sick—or rather, I resented the cancer itself for eating away at the mother that I knew.

My mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in the spring of 2006, and she’d lost all of her hair by Christmastime. It was just after my sixth-grade field trip that I arrived home to find her crying in the arms of a close friend. As she lifted her head to look at me, I was instantly struck by the fear and sadness in her eyes. Without any explanation she embraced me and we cried together. I resented her so much for getting sick—or rather, I resented the cancer itself for eating away at the mother that I knew. “Why did you get sick?” I demanded, to which she had no real response. She asked herself the same question, having done everything “right.” She hardly smoked (okay, maybe a handful of times in her late 20s), she ate brown rice and veggies, and she was a pioneer of the health food revolution before anyone else even knew the word kale. My mother wasn’t just a talented cook and baker; food was a central part of her identity.

In the early 1980s in Boston, she was working as a waitress at newly opened French bistro Café Calypso and studying modern dance. The bistro’s chef, Laura Brennan, had trained under Madeleine Kamman, a culinary beacon akin to Julia Child, who, perhaps unfairly, never achieved Child’s level of fame. Chef Brennan served variations of quiche, calf-liver paté with raspberry cookie, and torta rustica. My mother’s boyfriend at the time was also a chef at the restaurant. He and his sister, who became one of my mother’s closest friends, described the scene at Café Calypso to me years later: Mom glowed as she maneuvered gracefully around the tables, tucking her wavy blonde hair behind her ear, as she thoughtfully attended to each guest. She was no-nonsense, but at the same time, had a knack for keeping things convivial. The regulars in the predominantly gay neighborhood at the time adoringly called her “Miss Management.” (I would have taken advantage of that one, had I known.)

My mother wasn’t just a talented cook and baker; food was a central part of her identity.

There were many things my mother wanted to make sure I had, after she passed when I was 19: her star sapphire ring, which she had bought herself after her own mother died. Her vintage dresses from her 20s, when she lived in SoHo in New York City. Her favorite recipe for tapioca pudding. And, I realize now, the tradition of making a Christmas yule log. These intentional inheritances were her way of shaping how she would be remembered, and they gave me something concrete to hold on to. My mother knew from experience that, over time, my memories of her would grow foggy. In her own clever way, she was stitching me into a tradition she could always be a part of. And, in doing so, stitching herself into my future.

When I was 15, she selected Bon Appétit’s Frozen Chocolate-Peppermint Bûche de Noël recipe, which we would continue to re-create years later. It was not a simple recipe by any means (total time: 15 hours), and became even more complicated with my mother’s specifications. We could have bought peppermint ice cream from the store, but instead, she insisted we make our own with the highest-quality raw milk and cream. We could have chosen a much simpler recipe, for that matter—one that did not require making our own dark chocolate leaves (molded on lemon leaves from the garden) or tiny mushrooms out of whipped egg whites, or blowtorching the meringue to give it that toasted loglike look. But then it wouldn’t have been her yule log. My mother was always over the top; it was just how she operated.

A yule log cake made by the author and her mother

Courtesy of Manami Takashina

When she was just a baby, my mother’s father passed away on December 31. When she was 16, her mother died the day after Christmas. I find the timing remarkably depressing. But instead of thrusting her into a slump every year, the anniversary of their deaths seemed to inspire a mania in my mother. I recall from childhood her frantic energy as she buzzed around the kitchen. “Nam, can you please help me with this?!” she’d say, pointing to a whole chicken she was about to throw in the oven, sautéing a panful of greens with the other hand. “I can’t fucking do it all on my own!” she would yell at me, nearly in tears. My heart rate doubled every year when the holidays came around, when my mother’s fiery energy turned explosive. I would scurry out of her way, following orders, while my father—always on the sidelines—kept his distance.

Sometimes, it felt like she was ruining the holidays on purpose. Now it makes me feel guilty to think about how much pressure she must have placed on herself to make Christmas absolutely perfect. It was as if she were waving a wand—trying to erase her past and re-create a future that was brighter for us all.

I distinctly remember our last Christmas together. I would fly home to California that winter after having finished my first semester of college in New York. Despite our attempts to cultivate holiday cheer, it was a horribly depressing setup: My mother was a shell of herself, and we all knew she was going to die very soon. More than ever, the yule log had to count. Maybe, if it was perfect, it would relieve us of the reality of her condition.

It was as if she were waving a wand—trying to erase her past and re-create a future that was brighter for us all.

The process became a performance, directed with abandon by my mother. With chutzpah, we (my cousin had been wrangled to join me in the kitchen) channeled my mother’s remarkably high standards. Our goal: Craft the best and most delicious yule log possible—the kind you might see on the windowsill of a French bakery, that could transport you to a Nordic white Christmas in the 19th century. Her eyes narrowed, Mom pointed her index finger at eye level—her way of communicating how things must be done. Careful not to break the chocolate leaves. A little darker on the meringue. More ice cream—don’t be stingy!

We called her fussy. But really, she just never settled for less than, and she made her opinions known. “Her judgments were fierce, but so was her love,” that same cousin told me over the phone last fall. “If she was committed to you”—or a yule log—“you could feel it, and there was a lot of power in that.” Exhausted and worn down by five years of illness, all she could really do was direct us.

After my mother’s father died, she and her mother and sister moved in with her grandmother Hattie May Goth. Grammy Goth, who had been raised on a farm in the Catskills, made three meals a day, and there were always homemade yeast rolls for dinner. For Thanksgiving, Grammy would host a big, white-tablecloth dinner for the family, serving 30 to 40 people. It wasn’t anything especially fancy, but there were always massive amounts of food, and more dessert than anyone could ever finish. For Christmas, my grandmother Eleanor would host a traditional meal in their humble home: rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, roasted vegetables, and always a yule log (known as a cake roll in the 1960s). Eleanor made one chocolate log filled with whipped cream, and a vanilla log filled with strawberry jam.

I didn’t learn about those yule logs until years later, and not from my mother. My aunt told me over the phone last year, after I’d begun seeking out stories about my mother from family members. Here I’d always thought the yule log had been my mother’s novel idea. Instead, it was a bit of home she’d found in the wake of her parents’ deaths, something she’d woven back into our lives as they began to unravel once more.

By the eighth year after her diagnosis, my mother was declining rapidly. At first she had responded well to treatment, but when the cancer returned, as it so often does, our optimism began to fade away with her. Her rapid bodily transformations alarmed me, just as much as they must have frightened her. First she lost her hair again, then breasts, then her energy, and then her soul. The woman who could once command a room (for better or worse) could now barely feed herself. It was as if she had transformed into a baby.

Here I’d always thought the yule log had been my mother’s novel idea. Instead, it was a bit of home she’d found in the wake of her parents’ deaths.

Cover anything with enough meringue and you can hide the cracks. Even the sense of coming doom. The finality of death. The enormous weight of her absence. My mom died that June. It’s been nearly 10 years now since she passed, and in all honesty, sometimes the yule log is just too much to deal with.

But I don’t need a cake to remember her. My mother lit up every room she entered. She had the dewiest skin and the sort of nose you could ski off of. When she hugged me, she sometimes smelled of roasted tomatoes from the farmers’ market, and other times of lavender essential oil. I feel her pride whenever my roast chicken comes out perfectly crispy, or my pies perfectly baked.

I didn’t make a yule log last year—maybe this year. Either way, I’ll think about how lucky I was to be the daughter of Miss Management, food revolutionary, queen of yule logs, and the most fiercely loving mother I knew.

Lettermark

Manami Takashina is a food writer and food stylist based in New York City. She has held positions at Eater, Via Carota, and The Jewish Food Society, and is a graduate of the Food Studies Master’s Program at New York University. After hours, you’ll find her in a contemporary dance class or testing out a new recipe at home.