Calm, Cool, Collected: The Only Way to Jelly Roll

overhead shot of a sliced and frosted jelly roll

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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Jelly rolls are a year-round classic, in part because of their lightness and versatility, but their beautiful spirals lend an especially festive touch to the holiday table. However, they're also notorious for cracking, tearing, and splitting—problems that can happily be avoided altogether with the right recipe and technique.

Traditionally, roulades or jelly rolls start with a sponge cake, a broad category of recipes based on foamed eggs and a relatively low proportion of added fat (think angel food and chiffon.

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, allowing the cakes to flex and roll.

side view of a spiraled jelly roll

[A pistachio roulade with homemade cranberry jam and apple cinnamon whipped cream.]

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.

Ingredients for a classic jelly roll

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.

A dense mixture of whole eggs and sugar prior to extensive foaming

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.

A light and foamy mixture of whole eggs and sugar, well foamed

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 and not God's own law. 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 an oil or melted ghee, followed by the flour.

Adding the oil, vanilla, and flour to the jelly roll batter and mixing by hand to incorporate the last bits

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 that's previously been 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.

Smoothing the jelly roll batter into an even layer, baking until golden brown, and cooling under foil

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.

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 thus 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).

Rolling the sheet cake with cranberry jam

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.

Removing the jelly roll from the parchment by pulling it out from the bottom

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.

overhead shot of a sliced jelly roll dusted in powdered sugar

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.

Exterior of a frosted jelly roll

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.

detail of a sliced and frosted portion of jelly roll

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.