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A Chocolate Roll Is Well Worth the Effort

Christmas chocolate roll
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Christmas chocolate roll Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

M y mother is both a very good cook and baker, and is unafraid to try her hand at desserts that involved real labor and expertise, desserts requiring molds, gelatins, fine pastry crusts.

She was able to turn out, with practiced ease, estimable angel food cakes, tarts, jelly rolls, nut rolls, mousses, whips, blanc manges, floating islands, tarte tatins and chocolate rolls, desserts that I don’t have the ambition or skill to make. Dessert is architecture, and ornamentation, and in the kitchen I’m less the architect and more the person digging a trench.

But Christmas is the one time of year when I try to elevate desserts beyond the usual run of chocolate chip cookies, apple crisps and banana breads. With fond memories of my mother’s chocolate rolls, which I remember as luscious and creamy creations, I decided to make one.

My resolve faltered, however, when I looked at the instructions. So many steps! And the act of rolling up the cake sounded like a disaster waiting to happen.

I read the recipe a few times to familiarize myself with it and realized it wasn’t quite as complicated as it had seemed. When it came time to make it, I saw that I didn’t have one key ingredient — cream of tartar, which helps to stabilize egg whites — but faint heart never won fair lady, or, in this case, chocolate roll. So I plunged ahead.

Assembling the chocolate roll takes a number of steps. Making the cake batter, making the filling and rolling it. It also calls for garnishing the chocolate roll with whipped cream piped through a pastry bag, but my previous experiment with pastry bags — trying to make dainty rosettes for a cake — had resulted in a volcanic explosion of whipped cream all over the kitchen counter. Better to quit while still ahead.

I also don’t have the professional dough mixer that many desserts call for. But in my view, if you’re not a professional chef who absolutely has to achieve a predictable outcome, you can usually get good results with less equipment.

I use a plain old whisk to whip cream, egg yolks and egg whites. It does take longer, and sometimes my results are uneven, but on the whole I’m just as happy with what comes out of the oven. It is not the kind of dessert you’d ever find behind the window of a bakery — not pretty enough, sometimes misshapen, but the taste is the thing.

And I was pleasantly surprised by the chocolate roll. To my astonishment, it turned out as it was supposed to, even though I didn’t have cream of tartar and omitted two small steps. With a trial run under my belt, I am going to make it for Christmas.

Chocolate roll with Cappucino cream, adapted from “The Gourmet Cookbook”

My best advice is not to stint on the quality of the ingredients: buy good chocolate, good heavy cream that hasn’t been over-pasteurized (locally produced creams are available) and, if you can get them, local eggs. These will make much more of a difference than any equipment you may or may not have.

You will also need a jelly roll pan or a baking sheet, 15 x 10 x 1 inch. And if you’re going to decorate it with whipped cream, you will also need a pastry bag with a small fluted tip.

Cake batter

7 ounces good bittersweet chocolate, chopped. I used a mix of Ghirardelli and Caillebaut chocolate.

¼ cup water

6 eggs, separated

2 / 3 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

Filling

1 cup cold heavy cream

1 tablespoon instant espresso powder (available at King Arthur Flour).

teaspoon ground cinnamon

5½ tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1½ tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

Garnish (if using)

1 cup cold heavy cream

1 teaspoon espresso powder

pinch of ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and place a rack in the middle of the oven.

Butter the jelly roll pan or baking sheet. Then liberally butter a piece of aluminum foil and fit it into the pan. Next, liberally butter a piece of wax or parchment paper and fit that into the foil in the pan.

Melt chocolate in a saucepan over a pot of barely simmering water, stirring to keep it smooth. Once it’s melted, let it cool for 10 minutes.

Beat the egg yolks with⅓1/3 cup granulated sugar in a bowl, or mixer, until they are thick and pale yellow. If you’re using a whisk, this will take longer than the five minutes it will take in a mixer. Beat in the chocolate mixture and the vanilla extract.

In another large bowl beat the egg whites with the ¼ teaspoon salt until they are frothy, and then add the cream of tartar, beating until the egg whites form soft peaks. Gradually add 1/3 cup granulated sugar, a little at a time, until the egg whites hold stiff peaks.

Carefully fold ¼ of the egg white mixture into the chocolate mixture, to lighten it. Add the remaining egg white mixture to the batter, and fold in gently. Pour the batter into the pan or baking sheet and spread it evenly, using a metal spatula or knife. Bake in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes. It will look a little puffy and underdone, but take it out and let it cool on a rack.

Now beat 1 cup cold heavy cream in a bowl with the espresso powder and cinnamon until it forms soft peaks. Add ¼ cup or 4 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar a little at a time and beat until it forms stiff peaks. Refrigerate for at least 10 minutes.

Now comes the slightly tricky part: filling and rolling the cake. Stir together the 1½ tablespoons cocoa powder and 1½ tablespoons confectioners’ sugar. Sift that mixture over the cake’s surface.

Cover the cake with a piece of wax or parchment paper and invert the pan onto a baking sheet or dish large enough to hold the chocolate roll; the foil will be rightside-up. Now very carefully peel away the foil and the wax or parchment paper that lined the pan.

Spread the filling over the cake, leaving an inch border at the shorter ends, and a ½-inch border on the two long sides. With the long side nearest you, and using the wax paper onto which you inverted the cake to guide you, slowly roll it up. The cake will crack a little, but that’s fine. The wax paper will act as a kind of mold, keeping the roll in place. Refrigerate the roll for an hour, leaving it on the baking sheet.

After an hour, move the chocolate roll to a platter or plate, and remove the wax paper. Now, if you’re using the garnish (which I didn’t), beat the cream with the espresso powder, cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar until it forms soft peaks. Transfer to a pastry bag and pipe it onto the chocolate roll in decorative fashion.

An alternative filling, which I’m going to try next, is to substitute orange flavor for mocha flavor. Use 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier with 1 teaspoon orange zest when you whip the cream for the filling. Or you could also make a plain filling of cream and confectioners’ sugar, minus the espresso powder and cocoa powder, and serve the chocolate roll with a raspberry sauce or coulis.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.