Jelly roll cakes, yule logs, and the like used to scare the bejeezus out of me.
Not like, I’d run away if I saw one. I’ll happily eat cake when it’s there.
No – the process of rolling and filling a cake seemed like a waste of time at best, and a swearing party at worst at my inevitable failure at rolling up a cake. After all, I’d made plenty of mistakes with butter cakes in pans, including cakes coming out in chunks rather than, y’know, cakes, as well as the usual burning, underbaking, and the like. So why on earth would I make this process even more complicated by trying to roll it into a spiral?
And then, someone called me and asked me (begged, really) to make them an emergency pumpkin roll cake. (Yes, those exist.)
Oh dear. And I said yes. I didn’t even have time for a trial run – that’s how “emergency” this cake was. Oh dear oh dear.
Long story short, the pumpkin roll was a success. Hooray! And not just relatively easy, but fun to make. Why? Because, unlike a butter-based cake, a jelly roll cake (like a pumpkin roll or yule log) is egg-based, which makes it springy and spongy, rather than thick and crumby. This meant no sadness in turning out a ruined cake in chunks, because the cake doesn’t chunk like a butter cake.
Anyway, all this is to say that if you’ve been putting off making roll cakes because they’re “scary,” give them a shot. You can customize them with lots of different flavors and fillings, and it’s pretty fun and weird rolling up a cake. And even if you do crack or break the cake, you can cover it with powdered sugar or ganache, and slice that bugger up. Seriously, no one will notice.
And now, all this is to say, you can get really, really fancy with a roll cake by trying your hand at a yule log, or buche de noel. This is a cake that’s designed to look like a wooden log that you might burn for the winter solstice, but instead of burning it, you’ll want to eat it. It’s a roll cake that’s often coated in chocolate ganache, and decorated with all sorts of things, from colored candies and piped leaves to marzipan mushrooms. Or nothing.
And like any roll cake, you can choose your flavors. I’ve gone pretty traditional with a chocolate cake and vanilla cream filling, but I’ve seen espresso fillings with a yellow cake, and I may do a peppermint filling one of these days. Any way you make it, however, you’ll be making a pretty exciting cake for any holiday occasion, solstice or otherwise.
A few notes:
- I like to use a genoise cake, rather than a straight up sponge cake, for the cake. (In simple terms, a genoise is a sponge cake with more fat.) Genoise is a bit sturdier and forgiving than sponge, and I like butter.
- I roll my sponge cakes down the short side rather than the long side. This, in my experience, is both easier and results in fewer chances to screw up and crack your cake. However, it does result in a fatter, squatter cake, so if you’re wanting a longer, skinnier cake and more room for decorating, you can roll it up longways.
- Speaking of rolling, many recipes call for dousing your rolling towel in powdered sugar to keep the cake from sticking. I find this often results in pockets of packed powdered sugar on your cake (yuck) and/or still results in sticking. A tip I got from America’s Test Kitchen that I still use, is to use a damp (not wet), clean kitchen or tea towel for rolling. Not only will it not result in said sugar clumping or sticking, but it’ll keep the cake nice and moist throughout the process.
Last note and shameless plug: if you’re a local wanting a yule log, but want someone to just make the danged thing for you, I’m your gal! Just send me a message or email and we’ll get something started for your holiday celebration.
Okay, onto the recipe. I’ll likely make a video within the week, or next couple of weeks, to accompany this process. Let’s yule!
Chocolate Yule Log
This is a project cake, but one well worth it for both looks and taste. You can customize the cake flavor, filling, and ganache coating. I like to decorate mine with piped leaves, pomegranate seeds, and/or marzipan shapes, but feel free to use colored candies and other piped decorations.
you will need:
- For the cake:
- 4 tbsp butter, melted and cooled
- ¾ c all-purpose or cake flour
- ¼ c unsweetened cocoa powder (regular or Dutch process, depending on your preference)
- ¼ c strong brewed coffee, cooled (optional)
- ¾ c granulated sugar
- ¼ tsp kosher or sea salt
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 6 eggs, separated
- ⅛ tsp cream of tartar (optional – it helps stabilize the egg whites)
- powdered sugar, pomegranate seeds, frosting, marzipan shapes, etc. for decoration For the filling:
- 4 oz (½ c) cream cheese, softened
- 1 c heavy cream
- ½ c powdered sugar, sifted
- 1 tsp vanilla extract For the ganache coating:
- 1 c heavy cream
- 8 oz dark chocolate (no more than 60% cocoa), chopped
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a rimmed jelly roll pan (either 12×17 or 15×10 inches) with butter, line with parchment, and grease parchment. Set aside.
- In a large bowl or bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt until white and frothy. With the mixer running (or with your crazy fast hands with a whisk – go you!) add ¼ c of the sugar and beat on high speed until the mixture forms stiff peaks (meaning, when you pull the whisk out of the bowl, there will be a little point of meringue like a triangle hanging down, and not dripping profusely). Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, and baking powder. In a large bowl or bowl of a stand mixer (I tend to do this by hand since, y’know, I have only one stand mixer), beat egg yolks, remaining ½ c sugar, and vanilla until creamy. Add the melted butter and coffee (if using), and beat well to combine.
- Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and beat until well combined. Using a spatula, take a scoop of egg white meringue and fold it into the cake batter, being careful not to beat all of the air out. Add the rest of the egg whites, a scoopful at a time, and fold until no streaks of egg remain, but the batter is fairly light.
- Carefully pour the batter into the prepared pan, gently spreading the cake to the edges with your spatula or by tipping the pan to evenly distribute the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, just until the cake springs back gently when pressed. (The cake may still feel a little sticky, but should not be raw. Do not overbake, or the cake will crack, and you will not have a yule log today.) Cool briefly on a wire rack, but make sure your cake is just cool enough to touch for the next step (as in, still kind of hot), or it will not roll.
- Carefully invert your still-warm cake onto a clean dish or tea towel. I do this by putting the towel over the cake in the pan, placing a cooling rack over the towel, and carefully flipping the cake so that the cooling rack and towel are on the bottom. Remove the parchment from the cake.
- You have a choice here: for ease and for a chubbier cake, I like to roll my cake from one of the short ends. However, if you want a skinner, longer cake, which is the more common look, you’ll want to roll from a long end. Either way, choose an end, and use the towel to tightly (but not enough to crack or break the cake) roll the cake into a spiral. Place the cake seam-side down, and cool for at least 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a large bowl or bowl of a stand mixer, beat cream cheese until fluffy. Add the powdered sugar and beat until well combined. Gradually add the heavy cream, making sure that the mixture is well-combined before adding more (you may need to stop and scrape the bowl), and beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and beat for a few seconds more.
- Unroll your cake and remove the towel. Spread the filling on the inside of the cake, leaving a 1-inch border along the edges of the cake. Carefully roll up your cake in the same direction as before (without the towel), wrap tightly (you can use a towel, but straight up – this is one of the few times I go for plastic wrap, which can be washed!), and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days.
- Remove cake from the fridge. Trim the ends to show off the filling. You can leave the cake as is (just as a log) or cut off a small slice and attach it with ganache to the side of the log as a “branch.”
- Prepare the ganache coating: place chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Heat heavy cream in a saucepan over medium heat until steaming, then pour cream over the chopped chocolate. Allow to sit for 3-5 minutes, then stir until the chocolate is melted and glossy. You’ll want to use this quickly before it hardens and becomes difficult to spread.
- Using an offset spatula or butterknife, spread the ganache evenly over the cake roll, smoothing it out. If you want to make wood designs, allow the ganache to cool briefly (but not so much that it sets completely) and drag a fork across the surface, swirling as you wish. Allow the ganache to set before serving. Decorate as you wish with pomegranate seeds, frosting decorations, and/or marzipan shapes. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired, for “snow.” Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.