Rolled cakes are whimsical and fun. We know them by various names and adaptations—Swiss rolls, roulades, jelly rolls, and Yule logs, or buches de Noel. They call to mind a different era, when learning how to prepare a jelly roll was often taught in Home Economics class. But when sliced, the spiral sweets look graphic and modern, yet still retain a nostalgic charm. We're saying it's time rolled cakes made a comeback. More home bakers should get into the habit of serving jelly roll or roulade for birthdays, holidays, potlucks, or for just plain snacking.
It might surprise you to know that rolled cakes are easy enough for beginning bakers. The only tricky part is the rolling, but we're sharing more on that below. Because they are baked in long, shallow sheet pans (known as jelly roll pans, in fact), the batter bakes very quickly (most in about 10 minutes), so they're well suited to our time-pressed age. Once baked, they can go from simple and sweet to elaborately embellished and Instagram-ready. Most rolled cakes begin with a sponge cake such as genoise or chiffon, though you'll find interesting variations featuring sheets of baked meringue or angel food cake. Fillings can include jam, whipped cream, whipped ganache, mousse, lemon or other fruit curd—or any combination of the above.
Expert Tips for Making Rolled Cakes
The key to making any rolled cake is to have all of your ingredients at the ready before you begin (remember, it bakes so quickly that you won't have much time to spare). Prepare the baking sheet as directed: brush it with butter or oil, dust with flour or cocoa, and line with parchment. Dust a clean kitchen towel generously with either confectioners' sugar or cocoa powder, depending on the flavor of the cake. Use an offset spatula to spread the batter all the way to the edge of the pan; the cake will be thin, and it's important to keep the batter in an even layer for even baking.
Keep a close eye on the baking: You'll know the cake is done when it looks puffed and feels dry and springy to the touch. Don't let it bake any longer, that could cause it to dry out, and to crack when it comes time to roll. Transfer the cake to a wire rack and quickly run an offset spatula along the sides. Immediately turn out the cake onto the dusted towel and remove the parchment paper.
Rolling a Rolled Cake
While the cake is warm, begin rolling: Start from a short side and roll the cake and the towel into a log shape. Use a couple of clothespins or binder clips to hold the towel in place as the cake cools. This helps to set the cake and give it a "shape memory," making it easier to roll without cracking once it's filled. Unroll the cooled cake, keeping it on the towel. Use a clean offset spatula to spread the filling (or fillings) over the cake, leaving a border along the edge to prevent it from oozing out as you roll.
Roll the filled cake tightly, using the towel (or a ruler or other straightedge) as a guide as you go. (Do not incorporate the towel into the rolled cake this time!) Use the binders or clothespins again to hold the towel in place until serving time. Chilling the cake at this point can also help set its shape. Finish as your recipe directs, either with a dusting of powdered sugar or cocoa, a drizzle of glaze, or any number of garnishes.