I realize no one makes roll cakes anymore, but they should, because a) they taste nothing like the sweet jelly sponges that spend altogether too much time wrapped in plastic on grocery store shelves, and b) it will make life easier for anyone who is charged with making birthday cakes on a semi-regular basis. They bake quickly (under 15 minutes!) and are easy to roll and fill, then spread (messily, even) with frosting or lemon curd or jam or Nutella and roll back up. You get a perfect ratio of cake:filling in every bite, and it’s easy to slice and serve, each piece a more reasonable serving size than a slab of traditional cake, without looking stingy. Sold?
We got home from Vancouver on Friday afternoon, which was Mike’s birthday, with no dinner or cake plans and a nephew surprising us by installing a dishwasher in the kitchen. (Read: water off.) Which was totally amazing, of course (we’ve been without a dishwasher since last Christmas, and it goes without saying that I generate a lot of dirty dishes), but all added up to not a whole lot of time or space to make a fancy cake. Or rather, an excuse not to.
I went through the usual round of cop-out cakes in my mind: sunken chocolate? cupcakes? ice cream? But Mike really loves lemon, and not having enough time to make a lemon meringue pie, the idea of a lemon roll came to mind. I hadn’t made a cake roll in years, but I have a funny story.
It involves squirrels.
The first time I made a roll cake was about a decade ago, when I was foodstyling for Dana McCauley when she came through town to promote one of her books, a holiday baking book that contained a chocolate Yule log made with a coffee cream-filled cake roll. I was astounded at how simple it was – even the decorating part, which was frosting with a fork dragged through to create a bark texture, and flaked hazelnuts and wee meringue mushrooms. We brought it to the morning show, then came home in between for a couple hours’ break before the noon show.
When I went to leave the house for the noon news, I couldn’t find the Yule log. How does one lose a Yule log? I remembered bringing it from the car, and looked all over the house with no success. Finally I went outside, thinking I might put it on the roof of the car? and when I opened the front door, there on the step was the log – I had set it down to unlock the door. The chocolate log, decked out with its toasted hazelnuts and teeny mushrooms, was surrounded by squirrels, who froze in their chocolatey tracks and turned and stared at me. They had devoured the hazelnuts and were starting to dig through the cake itself. All had frosting covered faces and paws.
The story concludes with me refrosting the cake – at that point there wasn’t enough time to start again from scratch – and topping it with more hazelnuts and meringue mushrooms to cover the squirrel tracks. And making sure we kept the TV crew from eating it after the segment. The end.
I thought I’d share a plain vanilla cake roll here because you can use it with so many fillings – frosting, curd, Nutella, preserves – you name it. It’s a spongy cake with very little fat, it’s easy to mix up and pour into a rimmed baking pan to bake for 12-14 minutes. It’s nice and thin, so bakes quickly. I used a silicone mat, but next time will go back to parchment or foil – with so little fat in the cake batter it stuck to the silicone a bit on the edges. (I could also alleviate this by spraying the mat with nonstick spray.) You just want to line it with something so that when you flip it out onto a tea towel it will stay in one piece; you then peel off the parchment or foil or silicone mat. So easy.
This is all done while the cake is still warm; you then roll the cake up with the tea towel inside it, then let it cool. It’s like curling your hair – wrapping it around something warm and letting it cool will set the curl. Once cooled, you unroll it, spread it with whatever filling you think will be delicious, and roll it back up. So easy.
Ta da! The lemon mascarpone cream sounds fancy, but really it was a way of using up a tub that was opened in the fridge; my original thought was to make a quick batch of lemon curd. I was lazy and dusted my cake with icing sugar; alternatively, you can spread it with any kind of frosting, or even top it with meringue and run it under the broiler, like a lemon meringue pie.
Vanilla Cake Roll with Lemon Mascarpone Cream
4 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tub mascarpone or cream cheese
1 cup icing sugar (plus extra as needed)
finely grated zest of a lemon
juice of half a lemon
Preheat the oven to 375F.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar for 3-4 minutes, until thick and pale yellow. Beat in the water and vanilla. Beat in the flour, baking powder and salt, beating just until smooth.
Line a shallow rimmed baking sheet – about 10×15 inches – with parchment or foil, and if you use foil, butter it or spray it with nonstick spray. Pour in the batter and smooth it to fill the pan to every edge. Bake for 12-14 minutes, until golden and springy to the touch.
Run a thin knife around the edge of the cake and invert onto a tea towel that’s been dusted with icing sugar. Peel off the parchment or foil, then starting on a short side, roll up the cake with the towel and set aside to cool completely.
To make the filling, beat the mascarpone or cream cheese with the icing sugar, lemon zest and juice until creamy and spreadable.
Unroll the cake (it’s OK if the inside edge stays curled – don’t try to flatten it) and spread with the filling. Roll the cake back up, transfer it to a plate and dust with icing sugar.
Serve in slices. Serves 8-10.