A perfect springtime treat, pretty, dainty Jelly Rolls conjure up images of ladies tea parties, bridal showers and fancy brunches. A Victorian era creation, these delicious confections are made from very thin layers of sponge cake spread with fruit preserves or jelly, rolled up into a neat cylinder, and then sliced into elegant spirals.
Light and delicate, Jelly Rolls are not to be confused with Jelly Cake (also known as Washington Cake, Washington Pie or Lafayette Cake), a popular 19th century dessert made with thin layers of rich cake that had been baked in round shallow pans (called jelly cake tins) and stacked one on top of each other, with the jelly spread in between. Similar to pancakes, some recipes even suggest making the thin cakes on a griddle, such as Eliza Leslie’s 1828 Jelly Cake recipe from Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats: “Have ready a flat circular plate of tin, which must be laid on your griddle, or in the oven of your stove, and well greased with butter. Pour on it a large ladle-full of the batter, and bake it as you would a buck-wheat cake, taking care to have it of a good shape.” However, unlike a pancake, “It will not require turning,” she says.
Different from the airy sponge cake used in a Jelly Roll, these thin cakes were rich and substantial (like a pound cake), made with copious amounts of butter, sugar and eggs, as well as flour, nutmeg, and rose-water. Leslie’s instructions call for baking “as many of these cakes as you want, laying each on a separate plate.” She says to spread each one with jelly or marmalade, and then stack them until the pile is five or six cakes high. The top was also spread with jelly, then sprinkled with powdered sugar or iced and decorated in a triangular pattern with nonpareils or sugar-sand (colored sugar). To serve, it was cut in three-cornered slices like a pie. These Jelly Cakes were actually the descendants of today’s layer cakes – as baking power and other rising agents became available, cakes got fluffier and fewer layers were used.
According to the Betty Crocker Cookbook, the Jelly Roll is a product of the Depression era – a relatively inexpensive indulgence during that timeframe with its lower-cost homemade jelly filling. But while the delicate cakes might have been a popular, economical treat during the 1930s, they actually began showing up in cookbooks way before that – right after the Civil War.
Some food historians surmise that Jelly Rolls evolved from Genoise sponge, a light sponge cake named for the city of Genoa, Italy that became popular in the mid-19th century. Unlike typical sponge cake where the egg yolks and whites are beaten separately, Genoise sponge calls for beating whole eggs with sugar until thick, and then folding in the flour, which is also the case with jelly roll cake. And like a Jelly Roll, Genoise sponge is traditionally paired with a jelly, cream, or fruit puree filling.
Ironically, the first Jelly Roll recipes were also called Jelly Cake. The earliest one I found was in an 1864 issue of American Agriculturist (contributed by Lizzie Davis of Venango Co., PA). The ingredient list is short and sweet: 1 cup of sugar, 4 eggs, 1 cup of flour, 4 teaspoons baking soda dissolved in a tablespoon of milk, and 1 teaspoon cream of tartar. The instructions are to mix these ingredients and “bake in one long tin, then spread with jelly, roll up, and cut in slices.”
A slightly later recipe from The Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints (1870) is a little more detailed as to the mixing process: “To three well beaten eggs add one cup of powdered sugar, one of flour; stir well, and add one teaspoonful of cream of tartar, half a teaspoonful of saleratus (an early form of baking soda) dissolved in three teaspoonfuls of water. Bake in two pie-pans; spread as even as possible. Have ready a towel, and as soon as done, turn the cake on it, bottom side up; then spread evenly with jelly, roll up quickly, and wrap in a towel.”
This recipe specifies the importance of getting the cake out of the pan as quickly as possible, a real necessity with Jelly Rolls due to their extreme thinness (unlike thicker cakes which need to cool in the pan a bit before inverting). One odd thing about this recipe is that it suggests pie pans (similar to the stacked Jelly Cake recipes) instead of the long shallow pan that is key to a successful Jelly Roll. As Jelly Rolls gained in popularity, special pans (called jelly roll pans) evolved. These low, elongated pans, measuring 15 ½ x 10 ½ x 1, are basically baking sheets with 1-in straight sides, perfect for baking the thin sheets of cake. The batter for Jelly Rolls is rather sticky, so today’s recipes (and some of the more detailed 19th century ones) recommend lining the pan with parchment or wax paper to prevent sticking to the pan, then inverting it immediately on a towel.
The Jelly Roll recipe I tried from Anna Maxwell’s diary was actually called Sponge Jelly. As with many recipes of the time, it was simply written and not very instructive:
SPONGE JELLY. One cup sugar, 1 cup flour, 3 eggs, 1 tablespoonful milk, 1 teaspoonful baking powder mixed in the flour; bake in thin sheets; when cool spread jelly and roll it.
This single sentence doesn’t indicate what temperature oven, how long to cook the cake, what kind of jelly, how to line the pan, etc. Luckily I had been looking at other Jelly Roll recipes from various timeframes so I was able to decipher specific directions. After cobbling together different versions, here is the final recipe for Jelly Roll I came up with based on Anna Maxwell’s.
SPONGE JELLY (based on Anna’s Maxwell’s recipe)
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1 cup flour (I used cake flour)
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2/3 cup jelly (I used raspberry for one cake and apricot for the other)
Preheat oven to 375. Line a jelly roll pan with parchment paper (I didn’t have the specific sized pan, so I used two smaller pans – which worked fine and then I was able to use two different types of jelly for a nice contrast on the plate); grease paper generously. Beat eggs on high speed for 5 minutes until thick and lemon colored. Gradually beat in sugar, then milk. Gradually add flour and baking powder, beating just until batter is smooth. Pour into pan, spreading to the corners.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Immediately loosen cake from the edges of pan and invert onto a clean towel generously sprinkled with powdered sugar. Carefully remove paper. Trim off stiff edges of cake if necessary. While hot, carefully roll cake and towel from narrow end. Cool on wire rack at least 30 minutes. Unroll cake and remove towel. Beat jelly slightly with fork to soften and spread over cake. Roll up and sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Sources: Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson; Betty Crocker’s 40th Anniversary Edition Cookbook; Seventy-five receipts for pastry, cakes and sweetmeats by Eliza Leslie; Baking in America by Greg Patent; Larousse Gastronomique; American Agriculturist, Volume 23 (1864); The Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints By Sarah Annie Frost; American Cookery by James Beard; Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, ed. by Andrew F. Smith