This is one of my family’s three cakes. The first one, a sour cream cinnamon chocolate chip coffee cake, came from my grandmother and her sisters, and my husband occasionally (but very quietly) threatens to skip family events if nobody is planning to make it. Nobody knows the origin of the second cake, my mom’s apple cake, but if you’ve gone to a housewarming party, well, ever and not brought it, well, I think you should have. And this is the third one. We make it on Passover but frankly, there’s nothing especially Passover-ish about it, aside from the absence of flour. There’s no ground matzo, theme of exodous or anything particularly religious about the way it is put together. In fact, while we’re being honest and stuff, there’s something particularly unholy about the way it’s put together in that growing up I used to call it the “sh*t” cake in honor of the word that kept slipping from my mother’s mouth as she tried to roll it without it cracking. It always cracked. I’m surprised my mother hasn’t killed me yet for sharing her yearly spasm of colorful language on my internet website, but I disappear after this post, well, you know…
I attempted to sidestep the expletives a few years ago and shared a doubled version with you that was stacked four high, a layer cake of the finest proportions. I included directions for making it as a roll cake — i.e. like a Yule log, or a Yodel, or a Ho-Ho… — but it seemed wrong not to have a post entirely devoted to the way we actually make it at home, and so I decided I would update the rolled recipe this year. Seeing photos of the process helps, I reasoned.
Of course, they only help if I manage to pull it off with some semblance of success but while the cake usually cracks once or twice, the version I made on Monday must have sensed that a) I was on my fourth day of being sick and really not in the mood to be cooking and then shuffling off to the suburbs for dinner and b) that I was expecting the cake to be ready for its photographic close-up and decided to rise to the occasion by sighing and then slumping into itself like a shuffled deck of chocolate cake chips after it was rolled.
Um, delicious cake chips but seriously, this take was so bad that I decided it high time to find a new approach to my family’s beloved cake. I was on a mission! And food blogs, I love you. There are a million big food machine websites out there, but not a single one of them offered the tip I consistently saw across food blogs, which was to roll the cake while still warm in a tea towel and let it cool in a spiral. This seems to set the threads of the cake in the right direction, so that when you unroll the cooled cake, spread the filling and re-roll it, it doesn’t groan and fight you at every turn. I’ll admit that I didn’t wait for my cake to fully cool before unrolling it — patience has never been my particular virtue — so there was a crack, but it was on the inside and all but disappeared when re-rolled. 36 years later — my mother has been making this since 1975! It’s older than me! And him! — this might be the most intact version of the cake yet. Sheesh, I mean, it took long enough!
One year ago: Classic Cobb Salad and Lime Yogurt Cake with Blackberry Sauce
Two years ago: Cinnamon Swirl Buns and Pickled Grapes with Cinnamon and Black Pepper
Three years ago: Caramelized Shallots, 17 Flourless Dessert Ideas and Peanut Sesame Noodles
Four years ago: The Most Tart Margarita
Heavenly Chocolate Cake Roll
Adapted from Jean Hewitt for The New York Times, June 8, 1975
Every time I have a slice of this cake, I wonder why we don’t make it more often. The realm of flourless cakes tends to be populated with brick-like truffle cakes but this one manages to be intensely chocolaty but also featherlight. They also tend to be flooded with butter and while you will never hear me complain about the presence of butter in a cake, the absence of it in this cake allows it to almost float away. We can’t let that happen, so it is anchored it with the most minimal frosting we know, whipped cream. The cold sweet cream against the airy bittersweet cake is, as far as I’m concerned, perfection itself. And it doesn’t exactly hurt that the cake looks like a pinwheel. Or a Yodel. Or a Ho-Ho. You know, whatever your poison may be.
[Updated 5/9/11: To clarify some cake rolling confusion, pointed out by a helpful commenter. The prior directions had you roll the cake with a piece of waxed paper underneath, towel on top. In hindsight, the cake is much easier to roll with a towel underneath, as my photos show. Apologies to anyone who ended up with (delicious) cake chips because of this!]
6 ounces semisweet bittersweet chocolate, chopped or 1 cup semi- or bittersweet chocolate chips
3 tablespoons water or strong coffee
6 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, divided
1 cup heavy or whipping cream
2 to 3 tablespoons powdered sugar (use more if you prefer a sweeter filling)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1 to 2 tablespoons liqueur of your choice, such as Grand Marnier
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter or oil a 10-by-15-inch shallow baking or jellyroll pan. Line the bottom lengthwise with a piece of waxed or parchment paper that extends up the short sides one inch.
Melt chocolate with water or coffee in a small saucepan over very low heat until it is 75 percent melted. Remove from heat and stir until the remaining chocolate is smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.
Beat egg yolks with an electric mixer until pale and creamy. Add sugar gradually, and continue to beat until yolks are pale and ribbony. Gently stir the chocolate into the yolk mixture.
In a clean bowl with clean beaters, beat egg whites with salt until they hold stiff peaks. Stir 1/4 of egg white mixture into the chocolate-yolk mixture to lighten it. Fold the remaining whites into the cake batter in three additions. Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until cake layer feels dry (but very soft) to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. It will still seem a little underbaked.
Transfer to a cooling rack and cover the top with a light damp towel or two layers of damp paper towels for 10 minutes. Gently remove towels; don’t fuss if they have a bit of cake stuck to them. Run a knife around the edges of the cake. Sift one tablespoon cocoa over the top of the cake and cover the cake with a thin tea or flour sack towel [Updated, see Note above] that is a little longer than the pan. Place the back of a baking sheet or a large flat tray over the towel and invert the cake and paper onto it. Gently peel back the parchment or waxed paper that lined the pan. Sift the remaining tablespoon of cocoa powder over the top of the cake (that was, one minute ago, the underside). Using the towel underneath to help lift and roll the cake, roll the cake from short end to short end with the towel inside. Let cool completely, encased in its towel.
Once cool, beat heavy cream with powdered sugar and vanilla until it holds stiff peaks. Get your serving plate ready and place it near your cake roll. Gently unroll chocolate cake and remove tea towel. [Try to get the tea towel to the hamper without touching anything, as it is saturated with smudgy cocoa and trust me, can mess up a white kitchen fast.] Spread whipped cream filling evenly over cake. Gently use waxed or parchment paper once again to reroll cake. Place on serving platter, seam side down.
If you’re fancier than us, you can now garnish it with shaved white or dark chocolate or even a drizzle of each, melted; raspberries are pretty too. Serve immediately in 1-inch thick slices or refrigerate until needed. This cake is best to serve on the first day it is made. It’s still delicious after that, but the whipped cream filling does begin to deflate a little into the cake spiral.
About this cake’s origin/name: When I first wrote about this cake in 2007, I was unable to find the original New York Times article my mother had clipped the recipe from but after finding an almost exact match of my mother’s recipe in a 2001 Gourmet, attributed the name and cake to it. Now that The New York Times online archives are in better order, I was able to find the actual article my mother read on a June day the year before I was born promising that you couldn’t go wrong if you made this heavenly chocolate dessert on Father’s Day. In this version, there are a bunch of minor changes, such as using coffee instead of water with the chocolate, vanilla extract in stead of Grand Marnier, and much less of it, more whipped cream filling (which I find unnecessary) but less sweetener in it (which I preferred) and the option to roll the cake from the short end, which my family always does. I prefer most of these original nuances, as that’s the way my mother always made it, but give some hybrid suggestions above. Neither recipe origin recommends pre-rolling the cake with a towel, but I picked that tip up from various food blogs and find it essential in virtually eliminating cake cracks.
Note: There’s a four-layered version of this cake in the archives.