The Vintage Gourmet Dessert My Family Has Been Making for 22 Years
Birthdays in my family smell like candle wax and cocoa powder, plumes of the latter filling the air with every heeded call to “make a wish.” For as long as I’ve been sentient enough to register a birthday as a birthday, each year around the sun has been punctuated with Gourmet’s “Lighter-Than-Air Chocolate Roll,” a not-too-sweet flourless Swiss roll filled with pillowy whipped cream and dusted with cocoa. We just call it “roll cake.”
Working at Epicurious and Bon Appétit, I’m fortunate enough to bear witness to (and taste) the development of so many exciting new cake recipes, including the occasional Swiss roll. Still, the “Lighter-Than-Air” roll cake is timeless: It’s delicious and reliable in equal measures for its unchanging simplicity, with an ingredient list you can almost count on one hand. Sometimes the roll cake sees a fault line crack down its center, but that’s nothing that a little cocoa powder and handiwork can’t fix (or hide). I’ve developed a thicker skin for an imperfect roll cake: Next birthday’s version will always be better, and there are four chances every year on each of my family members’ birthdays to redeem a cracked one.
Relatively speaking, the process is simple, and the recipe’s demands are few. Melt bittersweet chocolate, fold it into beaten yolks and sugar, and lighten the mixture by folding it with towering egg whites beaten with the rest of the sugar. Bake, cool, swoop on some fresh whipped cream, roll, and serve. The cadence of the recipe, particularly when practiced dozens of times over, is soothing and familiar, with plenty of opportunities for repose.
My mom discovered this recipe in a January 2001 issue of Gourmet, and it was inspired, according to the magazine, by a roulade recipe from Dione Lucas, a pioneer in televised cooking and the first woman to host such a show in the United States. It’s since become a fixture in our house. “I like a lighter cake and thought the photograph looked very enticing,” my mom shares with me over text. “The recipe also seemed uncomplicated (honestly, I only had a cookie sheet but no round cake pans!).
I recall watching her—and eventually joining her—methodically folding beaten yolks and chocolate, whipping egg whites with hand mixers until soft-then-stiff peaks form, and then folding it all together into a cocoa-colored cloud. Roll cake was a lesson in pastry principle: She’d teach me how to preserve the precious air bubbles in the egg whites rather than folding them into oblivion. I learned how to carefully separate an egg, passing the yolk from one shell half to the other, leaving just enough space for the viscous whites to fall in slow motion into a bowl situated beneath.
Roll cake is its own tradition in my family, but it’s also become a vehicle for smaller ones over the years. As kids, my sister and I would wait eagerly to lick the beaters laced with sweet whipped cream; the imperfect end pieces of the finished product, sliced off to reveal that textbook interior swirl, constituted our mischievous pre-dinner snack. Despite the original recipe’s imperative to spike the filling with Grand Marnier and orange zest, we’re whipped cream purists: Heavy cream and powdered sugar is the golden formula. Cold, leftover roll cake for breakfast is nonnegotiable.
As my role in the kitchen has evolved from passive child-size observer, head barely reaching over the countertop, to sous alongside my mom, roll cake has become a quicker, more efficient endeavor. While one of us stands guard at the double boiler, devoting attention to melting bittersweet chocolate, the other is on egg-separation duty.
With our workflow now second nature, bordering on muscle memory, a number of kitchen advancements and ingredient discoveries have seen our roll cake’s quality heighten over the years. Our bright teal KitchenAid stand mixer, procured many years into roll cake’s existence, unshackled us from the hand mixer, salvaging my tired arms in turn. With the unmatched mixing prowess of the stand mixer, our beaten egg yolks became thicker and paler, our whipped cream loftier.
While Ghirardelli had historically been our unchallenged choice for bittersweet chocolate, we realized a few years back that Guittard lent a richer, smoother flavor. Even better: It’s sold in boxes of three two-ounce bars, wrapped elegantly in wax paper, producing the precise six ounces called for in the recipe. No extraneous squares rewrapped and stuffed in the back of the pantry!
The printout of the old Gourmet recipe sourced from Y2K-era internet is slipped into a filmy plastic sleeve and tucked permanently into our recipe binder—a family heirloom that we regard with biblical importance—and it’s survived more than one move. So has our shallow glass platter, which is long and narrow like roll cake and thereby the only appropriate receptacle for plating. It wouldn’t feel right to serve it with any other serving accoutrements.
For the first time, this year I made a roll cake alone from start to finish, a milestone that felt aptly full circle for my internal coming-of-age narrative. No, it wasn’t perfect, but so goes the ethos of roll cake, beloved not despite its cracks but because of them. I still cut off the imperfect-but-delicious end pieces to share with my sister.
Lighter-Than-Air Chocolate Roll
Originally Appeared on Epicurious
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