Variations on a Cake Roll

If you enjoy inventing new foods but the delicate chemistry of baking has scared you away from creating original desserts, cake rolls (i.e. jelly rolls) are a fabulous compromise: one basic cake with multitudes of possible fillings and toppings. I usually use the basic jelly roll recipe in Better Homes and Gardens. Joy of Cooking has a very similar recipe, though they recommend adding a bit of cream of tartar to stabilize the egg whites (I agree) and mixing the flour into the egg yolks (bad plan). My go-to favorite cake roll filling for several years has been ice cream, but recently I’ve been experimenting with some more sophisticated combinations. I’ve posted photos and some directions here for two varieties; however, I strongly encourage you to use your imagination and create your own unique, delicious cake roll!

A slice of strawberry lemon thyme cake roll.

Cake rolls are not as difficult as they look, but they do take some patience and dexterity.  A few words of advice:  First, don’t panic if you “ruin” your egg whites by adding sugar too soon; I’ve done it more times than not, and the cake is still quite edible. Second, waste no time in getting the cake rolled up as soon as you take it out of the oven (careful of the heat!). Having all your materials and tools prepped ahead of time will streamline this process. And finally, make sure you bake the cake far enough in advance to cool it completely before filling it (this is especially key if filling with ice cream and/or whipped cream). Including cooling time, you should probably leave yourself roughly four hours for this recipe.

Slicing a blueberry-almond cake roll.

Basic Yellow Cake Roll


4 eggs (should be room-temp for best results)
1/2 C flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cream of tartar (optional)
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/3 C sugar
1/2 C sugar
lots of powdered sugar (about 1 1/2 C)
your choice of filling(s) and topping(s)–see below for ideas


1. Grease and flour a jelly roll pan. I’ve used multiple sizes; 15”x10”x1” is the recommended size, but I’ve used larger as well. It all depends on whether you want a larger, thinner cake, or a smaller, fluffier cake. Set pan aside.

2. In a small bowl, mix flour and baking powder. I know this seems silly, but just do it. Minimizing mixing in the final assembly is important, and mixing them now ensures the baking powder is evenly distributed.

3. Separate eggs into two large mixing bowls (if different sizes, put whites in larger bowl). Beat egg yolks and vanilla on high for 4-5 minutes or until thick and lemon-colored. (I used to beat them for much less time, but they really do change color if you beat them long enough.) Gradually add the 1/3 cup of sugar, beating just until sugar is dissolved. Set egg yolks aside and preheat oven to 375ºF.

4. Thoroughly wash the beaters, and turn your attention to the egg whites. Essentially you are making a meringue here. Beat the egg whites on high until you reach soft peaks (this will take several minutes; don’t give up!). Add the cream of tartar, if desired. Very slowly, add the 1/2 C sugar, beating on high all the while. Continue beating until egg whites reach stiff peaks.

5. Mix a little egg white into the egg yolks. Then, gently fold the egg yolks into the egg whites, mixing until just barely combined (colors evenly blended). Sprinkle about half the flour mixture over the top of the eggs, and carefully mix in. Then blend in the rest of the flour in the same manner. Don’t over-mix, but do be careful of flour pockets, as they tend to hide.

6. Spread batter in prepared pan. Tease it into the corners, and avoid scraping your spatula against the sides or bottom of the pan, so as not to disturb the flour coating. Spread as evenly as you can, and shake/drop the pan to help level the batter.

7. Bake at 375ºF for 12 to 15 minutes or until the cake is golden and springs back when pressed gently. While cake is baking, clean a counter space and cover it with a clean tea towel. Coat towel in powdered sugar. Have a small knife and a large, flexible spatula nearby.

8. Remove cake from the oven and immediately run knife around the edges to loosen cake from pan. Slide the spatula under the cake (carefully!) to detach it from the pan as much as possible before turning pan over, upside-down, onto the powdered sugar towel. Ease cake out of pan and immediately roll up in tea towel. Cool cake in towel for 1-2 hours.

9. When cake is cool, unroll it and spread your choice of filling to within an inch of the cake’s edges. Re-roll and sprinkle with powdered sugar or cover generously with fresh whipped cream.

Spreading the whipped cream filling.

Rolling up the cake!

Cake Roll Filling Ideas

Some standard cake roll fillings are pudding, frosting, whipped cream, fresh fruit, jam, or ice cream. When using frosting, I usually use a half-frosting, half-whipped cream combination to give it more volume (and use the rest of the whipped cream to cover the outside of the roll). When using ice cream, make sure to leave it out on the counter for a while to soften it to a soft-serve consistency, or you may tear the cake when trying to spread it.

A few favorite combinations of mine are whipped cream and strawberries, vanilla ice cream with raspberries, or simply the most interesting ice cream I can find in the store. I almost always top my cake rolls with whipped cream because it’s light and pretty. The photos in this blog post are, as I said earlier, a little more sophisticated. For the first, I added almond extract to the cake, then spread the following fillings in the center: whipped cream, marzipan, and homemade blueberry syrup, in that order, topped with whipped cream and fresh blueberries. For the second, I flavored the cake lemon (using a combination of fresh lemon and Limoncello), then filled it with whipped cream, fresh sliced strawberries, and fresh chopped thyme. I left the roll bare, but spooned a thin lemon-thyme syrup over individual slices just before serving.

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