Why It Works
- Working with cold eggs minimizes the risk of over-whipping and shrinking for a light, airy, and stable cake.
- Flavorful oils such as pistachio or hazelnut lend character to the cake, but melted butter works equally well.
- Wrapping the hot cake in foil traps moisture, so it remains pliable for rolling.
Jelly rolls are a year-round classic because of their lightness and versatility, but their beautiful spirals lend an especially festive touch to the holiday table. However, they're notorious for cracking, tearing, and splitting—problems that can happily be avoided altogether with the right recipe and technique.
How to Get the Best Jelly Roll Texture
Because there isn't a lot of fat for tenderization, sponge cakes achieve a little more gluten development than richer cakes based on creaming together butter and sugar. While this is why a badly made sponge cake can seem rubbery or tough, it's also the quality that allows them to rise so high and roll up without cracking; gluten allows for structure, loft, and pliability, helping the cake flex and roll.
Many bakers go astray by fearing gluten development in jelly rolls and avoiding it by reaching for cake or pastry flour, claiming it makes a more tender cake. And that's certainly true! But it's that very tenderness that causes cakes to crack when they roll, as there isn't enough structure to hold them together through such a rigorous maneuver.
Excess tenderness can also come from proportions of sugar or fat that are too high, or from other ingredients that limit gluten development, such as nut flours, cocoa powder, and chocolate, or rich dairy products like sour cream.
It's admittedly a fine line. With too many tenderizing agents, sponge cake may be fluffy and light but too fragile and weak to roll. Meanwhile, with too few tenderizing agents, a sponge cake can be dense and rubbery; easy to roll but tough to swallow. But with the right proportion of ingredients, a sponge cake can be tender, fluffy, and flexible.
My recipe is simple: whole eggs, plain or toasted sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, vanilla, some sort of fat, and all-purpose flour. The fat can be almost anything, from melted butter or ghee to roasted hazelnut oil, depending on the desired flavor profile. Here, I'll be using roasted pistachio oil since I had a bottle leftover from making pistachio paste.
The technique is a comically straightforward, one-bowl approach, as I whip whole eggs with sugar rather than separating out the whites and yolks.
I start with sugar and cold eggs, straight from the fridge. This detail confuses many bakers because cold eggs don't whip as well as those that have been warmed or at least brought to room temperature, but that's the point. By using cold eggs, I'm proactively inhibiting the degree to which they can whip, thus making it virtually impossible to over-whip them, even on a stand mixer.
Over-whipped eggs reach their maximum potential in the bowl, which means they have no room left to grow, forcing cakes to shrink and collapse in the oven. When eggs aren't over-whipped, they haven't tapped their full potential, which means they have the strength and capacity to puff and rise in the oven, creating a cake that's fluffy and light. In the bowl, those properly whipped eggs will look foamy and pale, with just enough body to briefly mound up when allowed to run off the whisk.
The timing required to whip eggs to this stage can vary dramatically depending on the power and capacity of a given stand mixer; so while the recipe may list some approximate timelines for each stage of whipping, these are merely contextual cues. In any recipe, the physical cues are vastly more important.
When the egg and sugar mixture is foamy, light, and thick, I add the vanilla and liquid fat, be it oil or melted ghee, followed by the flour.
Once the flour is nearly incorporated, I shut off the mixer and grab the attachment to manually whisk the batter by hand. This ensures a degree of gentleness in the process to minimize the risks of deflation, but I can still make sure the flour is fully homogenized into the batter.
To make the jelly roll, the batter is spread into an even layer on a half-sheet pan lined with parchment and greased along the bottom and sides; this can be done with pan spray or oil, but it has to be done. As the cake itself is rather lean, the parchment will stick fiercely if preventative measures aren't taken.
The final step is the easiest: bake the cake until lightly browned from edge to center, well risen, and firm to the touch, but puffy enough that your fingerprint will leave a slight indentation in the soft crust.
Rolling Up a Jelly Roll With No Cracking
On removing the cake from the oven, immediately cover it with foil, and cool to about 70°F (21°C). If room temperature edges down to 65°F (18°C) or lower, do be aware that the cake may harden in the cold and crack when rolled, regardless of how well it's been handled up to that point.
Cooling the cake with a foil lid traps moisture, effectively causing the cake to steam itself, rendering it pliable and soft (much like my technique for storing freshly baked Fig Newtons in a closed container).
In that state, it's super easy to roll up with a filling (in this case, homemade cranberry jam) without any risk of cracking. And because the underlying parchment is still in place, I can use it to lift and maneuver the cake as I go.
My technique is a huge departure from traditional methods, which involve flipping the hot pan of cake onto a powdered sugar–dusted towel, then peeling the parchment from the bottom of a fragile and steaming hot cake. Next, the hot cake is dusted in more powdered sugar, then rolled up with the towel, cooled to room temperature, un-rolled, then re-rolled with a filling.
I have deep technical and philosophical objections to every aspect of the traditional method, to a point that renders me nearly blind with rage. It's messy and awkward, not to mention risky, as it involves manipulating a cake in its most fragile state, while hot and soft. Not only that, it subjects the cake to rigorous physical manipulation three separate times: rolling, unrolling, and re-rolling, with each occasion representing a new opportunity to crack or damage the cake.
No wonder so many bakers struggle with cracks!
That's not to say my jelly roll is foolproof—it can't help but require some degree of skill in the making. A poorly whipped egg foam will make the cake heavy and dense, and an over-baked cake will always be too brittle to roll.
Still, a good recipe can help bakers navigate unfamiliar techniques by creating more forgiving formulas and eliminating needlessly fussy steps, which is what I've tried to do here.
Filling and Customizing Your Jelly Roll
The finished, crack-free cake can be given a dusting of powdered sugar or a light frosting of whipped cream. Here, I've used the same apple cinnamon sugar that coats my cider donuts to flavor a batch of whipped cream, giving it a sweet, rich, and seasonal profile to complement the tart cranberry filling.
While jelly rolls offer a huge degree of customization in terms of the filling and finish, it's important to note that not all jams and jellies are equally eye-catching. My homemade cranberry jam works so well here because its color is naturally intense, with a thick body, thanks to the pectin in the cranberries, which keeps their moisture content bound to the jam.
The sponge cake comes by its name honestly, and will readily absorb any jam or jelly that's soft and runny, making the filling layer look scant and staining the cake with its juices. If you're not sure whether a jam or jelly will do well with the cake, save experiments for a low-pressure occasion; when the stakes are high, try filling the roulade with a thick, high contrast filling, such as our fruity whipped cream.
Mastering the jelly roll is part of any baker's journey, and will naturally involve a learning curve, but a finely tuned formula, unfussy technique, and bold flavors will at least make the process enjoyable.
November 20, 2019
For the Cake:
4 large eggs, straight from the fridge (about 7 ounces; 200g)
7 ounces plain or toasted sugar (about 1 cup; 200g)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon (2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 ounces pistachio oil, roasted hazelnut oil, melted ghee (shy 1/2 cup; 85g), or melted butter (about 6 tablespoons; 85g)
1/2 ounce vanilla extract (about 1 tablespoon; 14g)
4 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal blue label (about 1 cup, spooned; 127g)
For the Filling:
1/2 recipe (about 2 heaping cups; 21 ounces; 595g) Cranberry Jam, brought to room temperature; volume and weight for an alternative will vary substantially (see note)
For the Frosting (optional):
1/2 recipe Apple Cinnamon Sugar
12 ounces heavy cream (about 1 3/4 cup; 340g)
1/4 teaspoon (1g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
Getting Ready: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Line an aluminum half-sheet pan with parchment along the bottom, and grease with pan spray or oil.
For the Cake: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, combine the eggs, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Mix on medium-low speed until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is homogeneous, smooth, and runny, but with fine bubbles beginning to form throughout, about 3 minutes.
Increase speed to medium and whip until the mixture is pale yellow, thick enough to fall from the whisk in ribbons, and filled with fine, foamy bubbles, about 5 minutes. Finally, increase speed to high, and continue whipping until the mixture is quite pale, roughly double in volume, and thick enough that the whisk leaves a vortex-like pattern in its wake, about 5 minutes. When allowed to run off the whisk and into the bowl, the mixture should be able to briefly mound up on itself before leveling off. Please bear in mind all times are ballpark figures only, and may vary considerably depending on the power and capacity of a given stand mixer, along with factors such as bowl-to-beater clearance (more on that here). In all cases, the visual and textural cues should be the primary guideline to determine readiness.
Once the foamed eggs are fluffy and thick, reduce speed to medium-high and add the vanilla and oil or melted butter all at once in a steady stream. Immediately reduce speed to medium-low, and add the sifted flour all at once. When the flour is nearly incorporated, shut off the mixer and remove the whisk attachment. Grasping the attachment by its top, give the batter a few strokes of the whisk by hand to finish incorporating the flour. Fold the batter once or twice from the bottom up with a flexible spatula, then scrape into the prepared pan and spread into an even layer with an offset spatula. Bake until puffed and lightly browned from edge to center, and firm to the touch but still puffy and soft enough to retain a shallow impression when gently poked, about 12 minutes.
Immediately after removing the cake from the oven, cover the half-sheet pan with two large strips of foil, using a kitchen towel or oven mitt to crimp the foil around the edges of the pan. Allow the cake to cool until approximately 70°F (21°C) (if not allowed to cool sufficiently, it may cause the filling to melt; if cooled too much, it may harden in the cold and thus crack when rolled).
Loosen the edges of the cooled cake from the pan with a butter knife, and give the cranberry jam a good stir before spreading it into an even layer over the cake. Please see the note about using other jams or jellies, as the exact amount (in terms of both weight and volume) will differ substantially depending on the consistency and moisture content. Working along the widest end, lift the edge of the cake by the parchment underneath and gently fold it inward until it turns over itself. Continue rolling, using the parchment to lift and maneuver the cake; it will naturally peel away as you go.
After rolling, transfer the cake to a large platter and serve right away, or cover with plastic until needed. If you like, make a simple frosting by whipping the apple-cinnamon sugar, cream, and salt together until thick and stiff enough to spread; this can be refrigerated in an airtight container and used to cover the cake just before serving. Alternatively, the cake can be finished with a dusting of powdered sugar. Unfrosted, the cake will keep for about 24 hours at room temperature; if frosted with whipped cream, it will need to be covered, refrigerated for up to 24 hours, and then set out to room temperature about an hour before serving.
The exact appearance of the jelly roll can vary substantially depending on the texture of the filling. This style of cake tends to work best with thick and chunky jams or marmalades, such as the homemade cranberry jam pictured here. Soft, loose, or runny fillings may be readily absorbed by the cake, creating a scant appearance. Determining the best amount of filling for commercial jams or jelly will require an element of personal discretion; the loose consistency of most commercial options will limit the maximum capacity to about 1 cup (13 ounces, or 370g).
Make-Ahead and Storage
Unfrosted, the cake will keep for about 24 hours at room temperature; if frosted with whipped cream, it will need to be covered, refrigerated for up to 24 hours, and then set out to room temperature about an hour before serving.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 12 to 16|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 7g||8%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||18%|
|Total Carbohydrate 44g||16%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 31g|
|Vitamin C 3mg||16%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|