A Cake That Rolls With It

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A classic American jellyroll. Photo by Charles Perry

Women tell me they learned to make jellyrolls in home ec and haven’t made one since. The ambitious cooks disdain to make a teen-simple dessert, and the others are looking for something even simpler.

But we shouldn’t let home ec do to the jellyroll what it did to creamed chipped beef on toast. Sure, jellyrolls are quick and easy — probably even easier than the unambitious cooks remember. They mix in a flash and bake in a flash (about a 10 minutes in the oven, versus 25 or 30 for a layer cake), and you don’t need to make frosting. If you’re watching your fat intake, the layers themselves contain virtually no butter.

A fresh jellyroll is a slice of delight with a wonderful homeyness and informality. And don’t underestimate it on that account. The famous French Christmas dessert cake buche de Noel is basically a jellyroll with a non-jelly filling and tricked out with “Ace of Cakes”-type icing effects to look like a log.

In England the jellyroll is known as the roly-poly, a term that dates to 1848, when it wasn’t a cake but one of those English boiled puddings. You rolled up a sheet of suet pudding with jam, stuck it in a bag and boiled it. The English were still boiling or steaming their roly-polies well into the 20th century.

Over in the U.S., jellyrolls first showed up in the 1870s and seem always to have been baked. The earliest recipes called for the usual American yellow cake recipe baked in a thin sheet, but they note how hard it is to roll the cake up without having it crack and break apart. The culprit was butter, which tenderizes cake crumb. So the modern American jellyroll sheet is basically a butterless yellow cake.

For their own rolled cakes, French bakers use versions of their basic cake, the genoise. Unlike American cakes, which are leavened with baking powder, the genoise uses eggs and sugar beaten to foam in a double boiler, after which a small amount of flour is lightly folded in. It’s an eggier sort of cake than ours — French cakes use anything from two to six times as much egg as the American yellow cake. As a result, it’s light and springy but relatively dry, so French bakers usually moisten it with syrup before being frosting it.

These days, many American jellyroll recipes call for beating the whites separately from the yolks to make the cake lighter, and some even omit the baking powder, making a quasi-genoise. A lot of recipes call for cake flour, rather than all-purpose flour, or a mixture of all-purpose and cornstarch, to produce a softer crumb. I usually prefer the old-time recipe of all-purpose flour and whole eggs because I don’t think jellyroll benefits from a really soft crumb. To me, one of its delights is a slightly elastic texture. (The fact that these recipes, which use whole eggs, make preparation easier is totally irrelevant to me, I swear it.)

The traditional jellyroll filling is jam or jelly. You can also fill it with whipped cream or custard (with a chocolate glaze, this will be like the 1950s commercial pastry that was called the Boston cream pie) or softened ice cream.

Since they’re unfrosted, jellyrolls — no matter what recipe you use — dry out more quickly than other cakes, even if you roll them in plastic wrap. So eat ‘em quickly. (As if you’ll need to be told.)

Peanut Butter and Jellyroll

Ingredients

Butter for greasing
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 cup cake flour (This is one recipe where I prefer cake flour to all-purpose, because peanut butter stiffens the cake somewhat.
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup smooth peanut butter
3/4 cup blackberry or other fruit jam

Directions

  1. Generously grease an 11-by-15-inch jellyroll baking pan with butter. Line the pan with wax paper or parchment paper and butter that also. Sprinkle the pan with flour and shake it around until the bottom and sides are dusted. Tap the pan over the sink to get rid of the excess flour.
  2. Place a clean kitchen towel on a work surface that is at least 11-by-15 inches. With the long edge facing you,  sprinkle the towel evenly with the confectioner’s sugar.
  3. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl and stir with a fork until blended.
  4. Put the eggs in a mixer bowl and beat at high speed until bright yellow and thickened, about 2 minutes. Add the granulated sugar gradually, beating as you go, and beat until pale yellow and velvety, 3 or 4 minutes more. Add the water and vanilla extract and beat for 1 minute.
  5. Remove the bowl from the mixer (if using a hand mixer, set it aside). Sprinkle the flour over the batter in 4 batches, mixing between additions with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula by scraping upward from the bottom of the bowl repeatedly until the flour is absorbed.
  6. Scrape the batter into the jelly roll pan and spread out to form a smooth, even layer. (Do this carefully. The center of the sheet will bake up higher than you might think.) Bake at 400 degrees until the cake is lightly browned at the edges and springs back when touched lightly at the center, 8 or 10 minutes. The surface will have begin to take on a tinge of tan.
  7. Remove the pan from the oven and quickly overturn the cake onto the sugared kitchen towel. Peel away the paper, then carefully roll up the cake by lifting the long side of the towel next to you and folding the cake into the towel.
  8. Let the cake cool in the towel for 15 minutes, then carefully unroll. Warm the peanut butter in a microwave until it has a semi-liquid texture, 30-45 seconds. Spread the cake with the peanut butter, covering the cake up to about 1/4 inch from the edges.
  9. Force the jam through a sieve to make it easier to spread and spread it over the peanut butter.
  10. Roll up the cake tightly and place it on the towel, seam side down, to cool and rest 10-15 minutes.

If serving within two hours, transfer the cake to a serving plate. Otherwise wrap tightly and refrigerate, removing from the refrigerator an hour before serving.

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