Pumpkin Roll. What is it? Does it bleed? Can it be stopped? These are the questions they hire me to find out. I’m Jon O’Guin, I’m from Project Monarch’s culinary division. And just as my colleagues have failed to stop King Kong and Godzilla, I’ll bet I’m unlikely to bring this behemoth low. Today, it’s going to be a Kitchen Catastrophe of Holiday Mayhem.
LAISSEZ LES BONS PAINS ROULEZ!
For a man who doesn’t speak French, I make decent jokes in it. That’s because I have a pundemental understanding of humor (fundamental punderstanding?) that transcends mere language barriers. In any case, let’s review what we know of the beast wreaking havoc on our winter dessert boards, spawned high in the mountains of Europe, but enhanced, mutated by American industrial components, the Pumpkin roll is a dish best served like revenge: slightly chilled, patiently, and with frankly offensive quantity of whipped cream.
Sweet, creamy, vengeance.
The dish called “pumpkin roll” is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. By which I mean that it’s cream cheese wrapped in cake. But who could engineer such a dastardly dessert? Therein lies the shadows of superstition, and the labyrinth of history. Grab your torches, boys, this minotaur needs taming.
The time is the mid 1800’s, the place: all of goddamn Europe. A soft and sweet sensation has been sweeping every nation for its second sequential century: sponge cake. Light and airy, served with dairy, sponge cake is the dessert du jour of dukes and earls, served with a dollop of cream, or a smear of sweet jam. Too long has it held the throne, and so it spawns its own replacements:
-The Victoria Sponge, essentially a sweet sandwich of cake with a filling of jam and cream.
-The Battenberg: a colorful confection made of two colors of sponge cake, glued together with jam (seriously, apparently “Cake+Jam” was THE hit dessert in England while America sorted that whole “Civil War” business out.) and coated in marzipan.
-The Swiss Roll. Son of Sponge, and Papa of Pumpkin. Let’s tear this cake apart and find out what makes it thick.
The Swiss Roll (note: despite the name, not from Switzerland.) was…look, it was fucking sponge cake smeared with Jelly and ROLLED UP. Seriously, what the hell was going on in Europe at the time? I’ve seen MIRRORS that innovated more than these recipes!
Funnily enough, it doesn’t really matter why all the chefs of Europe were copying each other, because the oldest recipe we have for what would come to be called the Swiss Roll is actually from New York. In 1852, a journal for farmers published “To Make Jelly Cake”, with instructions. The instructions were “Bake a thin ass cake, then cover it in jam and roll it up before it cools”.
Over the next 20-30 years, a bunch of names were used for this carnal confection of cake and (sometimes) cream: the Jelly Cake. The Jelly Roll. Roll Jelly Cake. Alright, hold up, are you guys just fucking with me? These are the same three words just rearranged at random. Next you’re going to tell me it was sometimes called “Cake Rolled Jelly.” What? “Rolled Jelly Cake” is another ACTUAL name? Shit. No wonder we stuck with “Swiss Roll”. We were probably sick of hearing the word ‘cake’!
As someone who's had to listen to Rihanna's "Birthday" multiple times in a road trip, I can relate.
Interestingly, the name “Swiss Roll” just appears, in the same year, in two vastly different cities: London publishes a menu including the dish in a book about travel in 1872, while across the pond, a cookbook featuring a recipe with the same named is published in Detroit. By the 1880’s and 90’s, London had decided the dish was the Swiss. (America wasn’t so set, as both “Jelly Roll” and “Rolled Jelly Cake” were actually first published AFTER the Detroit cookbook.)
Finally, in Chicago in 1894, a cookbook is published featuring a “Basic Jelly Roll Mixture”, listing multiple variations. Such as the chocolate roll, the Swiss Roll, the Venice Roll, and the Paris Roll.
This is where the turn occurs. To the untrained eye, nothing connects this end point of the evolution of the Jelly/Swiss Roll, and the dessert juggernaut we judge today. But those people simply forgot to bring the right gear, and a…CAN-do attitude.
Straight from Libby’s, and I’m not talking about G. Gordon.
Not the least because his name is “LIDDY”, not “LIBBY”. Man, I was gonna do a great bit here, tying in the secrets of the Pumpkin Roll to Watergate, and all that, but I just honestly forgot that’s not his damn name.
Actually, can I drop the whole “intense government agent” voice I’ve been doing this whole time? It’s kinda tiring, and really, the next step is kind of silly, so I think it had a good run.
Like Sean Connery's James Bond: had a good run, time to get out before things get too silly.
So, yeah, as the title implies, the next step, as far as I can tell, is tied to the Libby’s Corporation, and is really kind of just luck. See, in Chicago, in the 1890’s, the Libby’s company had just expanded from meat products to canning fruits and vegetables as well. And, if you’ve forgotten, Libby’s is the company that sells like, 85% of the canned pumpkin in America.
Now, I can’t find any proof of this claim, but stick with me here for a moment: right now, if you buy a can of Libby’s Pumpkin, it comes with a Pumpkin Pie recipe bright and bold on it, and right underneath, it says “Check inside label for a Pumpkin Roll Recipe”. And people are certain it’s been a thing for at LEAST 50, 60 years.
So we’ve got a dish that looks suspiciously like a Swiss Roll, served up by America’s Premiere Pumpkin Pushers, who got into the veggie game just as a big Swiss tip was touching down mere blocks from their business. I hope my old buddy Occam doesn’t need a shave, because I gotta borrow his razor: looks like Libby’s lifted the recipe to push more pumpkin.
Which, given the size of cans they're pushing, meant there was some serious shit being pushed down our throats.
Thank you, thank you. Please, hold your applause. Actually, no, keep clapping. Your adulation sustains me. I know, these kind of keen culinary insights are why you tune in week after week, to bask in my brilliance. But, let us cease the totally-deserved and still-perhaps-not-quite-strong-enough fanfare, and speak intimately for a moment.
Because, I can tell you, it didn’t really MATTER where the recipe originally came from (Spoilers: the basic “roulade” idea was a big thing in Bavaria and Austria, so…technically the same place both World Wars started from. That’s worrying.)
Can't imagine how a place like this would breed decadent desserts and a national sense of arrogance and entitlement.
JOKING, Austria! No need to get upset!
BUT THE REASON that it didn’t matter is because it’s a dish that I have an intense familiarity with: see, it’s perhaps my father’s favorite holiday dessert. And my youngest brother’s as well. So I’ve had Pumpkin roll at least once a year for…yeah, my entire life. Even when I didn’t live with my parents, I made the trip home for ONE of Thanksgiving or Christmas, and it was certain to be at both.
And in my head, the dish had a sort of mystique to it, since it needed so much space and time. Remember that recipe from 1852? “Bake, smear, roll up and cool?” Well, in the version my family uses, we just move one of the steps. We bake the cake, roll it up, cool it down, and then smear on the frosting. I’ve been told it’s because the filling we use, a sweetened cream cheese mixture, melts too much on the hot cake/cools the cake down too much, causing it to cracked when rolled. Maybe when I get an hour or two I’ll test it.
But to a kid, it’s an elaborate process. You bake a cake, and, while it’s baking, you dust a kitchen towel with powdered sugar. You have to find a place for the sugared towel to lay flat, so you can flip the cake onto the towel once it’s cooked. (The sugar serves as a sweet barrier, keeping the cake from clinging to the towel.) Then you roll the whole thing, and let it sit for a couple hours, wrapped up. Then, later, you come back, unroll it, frost it, and re-roll it. That FEELS like a lot of steps.
I was going to use a bigger staircase, but I liked the idea of maintaining the "too much for a child, but not much for an adult" idea.
But really, from the perspective of an adult, it’s pretty simple. Yeah, you need some space, and a little bit of dexterity, but every step is easy, it’s just the number of steps that can be daunting. Let’s unpack it.
It’s A Piece of Cake
The cake batter itself is easy as pie. Probably EASIER than most pies. It’s your basic “wet-and-dry cake mix”. If you’ve not made a cake, or haven’t really paid attention, whenever you make basically any baked bread product, but especially cakes, you mix all the dry components on one side, and all the wet on another, and then mix them together. Why do you do this? Because liquid is what causes gluten structures to begin developing in flour, and also liquid is what causes baking powder to make the gas that lightens the crumb. So if you add the liquid too soon, your cake will be tougher and denser, because you’ll have more gluten and less trapped gases.
The dry ingredients themselves are as simple as can be: Flour, salt, baking powder, ground ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Probably. This could be almost anything, when we get down to it. Also, there's almost no flour here.
The cinnamon and nutmeg are common pumpkin flavorings (you know, Pumpkin Spice and all) and the rest is basic cake mix. The liquids are just eggs, sugar, and pumpkin. Mix the two batches, and then mix them together. You get a nice little batter, and you pour it into a greased up jelly roll pan. What the heck’s a jelly roll pan? It’s the smaller size of rimmed baking sheet. Just get a baking sheet with sides that’s about 10” by 15”. Or, be like me, and just use the baking sheet you’re comfortable with.
Accidentally draw a dick on it, like me, too.
Sure, it’ll make the cake a little thinner than usual (Doing some math, to cover the excess surface area, you’ll end up with a cake…70% the normal size.) which means it will bake faster (Cook around 10 minutes, instead of 15.) but whatever. I think we baked ours for 11.
BEFORE it bakes, however, you do need to do one thing to it. Now, the recipe says it’s optional, but I assure you, as far as I’m concerned, it’s mandatory. You need to get nuts. Specifically, walnuts. And you chop up about a cup of them. Now, if you’re an cooking enthusiast, you likely have plenty of tools for chopping nuts. From the aggressively advertised Slap Chop, to, you know, a knife. But every year, my family busts out the tool we use.
A Victorian-era Finger Torturer?
That is a Hand-crank Nut Grinder. You can buy them at Wal-mart, and that one’s at least 30-40 years old. It’s rattly, weird, and it’s just part of the whole tradition. I know for a fact that newer, probably better and safer models are available for under $20 (You wanna know what stops you from putting your fingers in the grinding teeth while you’re turning it? Common goddamn sense, that’s what.) That glass bottom is roughly 10 oz, meaning that it’s a little more than the cup you’re looking for. It’ll take a bit of time to grind, but, hey, isn’t weird manual labor what the holiday are all about?
Throw those ground-up walnuts on top of your spread-out cake batter, and marvel at how good your roll looks before baking.
Like really crappy chocolate bark.
While that little beauty’s baking, get yourself a nice thin CLEAN kitchen towel that’s hopefully at least 12 by 18 inches, lay it over a cutting board or wire rack, and dust it with powdered sugar. This will feel kind of cool. Almost ceremonial. A thin white cloth, anointed with powders, awaiting its piping hot offering, already anointed with hand-ground nuts. There’s almost always some stress and confusion when it comes time to flip it: Someone’s holding the hot pan, while someone else is adjusting the landing pad, because you never actually discuss the process beforehand, or you DO and then something changes your mind at the last second.
There’s no picture of the flip itself, because I was the guy holding the hot pan. But we landed the bad boy, and honestly, it looked alright.
It looked like cake, in essence.
A quick dusting of powdered sugar on top of the roll (To keep that side from sticking to the towel as well, and we rolled the whole thing up. We prefer to roll the shorter side, creating a thicker 12” long pumpkin roll, rather than a very thin 18” one. The longer roll creates a better looking spiral in the cross section. Once it’s rolled up, you can toss it on a wire rack and let cool.
The Frosting…look, I don’t know how hard the frosting is to make. IT was the night before Thanksgiving, and I had plans to go out drinking that night with friends who were also in town for the holiday as that day’s post attests. So I just made the cake part in the afternoon and left it there for somebody else to finish. My understanding is that it’s just cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and butter mixed together. You unroll the cooled cake, spread it, and roll it back up. Then you wrap it tightly in plastic wrap to press the whole ensemble together, and refrigerate overnight.
I don’t have any pictures of us eating the pumpkin roll itself, as it was Thanksgiving, I was hung-over, and fuck you, that’s why. But I did stop by the fridge later, and take a picture of the finished product.
Hot DAMN, that's a sexy cold dessert pic.
Honestly, that’s pretty damn spot on. Exactly how it’s supposed to look. Flavorwise, it’s creamy and cool, with just enough pumpkin flavor to feel really grounded in the season. It’s a soft and creamy cake confection. Maybe Europe (and New York/Detroit) was really onto something back then.
Tis’ the season of giving, and while Jon would love to give something to you all for your support, he’s still broke as shit, so it’ll have to be handmade. Maybe he’ll get it to you for Christmas itself. If you have any goodwill toward the men of Kitchen Catastrophe, consider supporting us on Patreon! You get audio logs, secret videos, a bonus catastrophe, and you get to vote on upcoming posts and stay abreast of Jon’s weekly descent into madness. If you can’t afford to support us financially, cash in your sweet social status, and share our Facebook page, or our posts themselves, with your friends! Every time we get a spike in viewership numbers, Jon’s frozen heart grows half a size that day. Currently, he has roughly 3.75 hearts!
THURSDAY: WITH CHRISTMAS ALMOST UPON US, AND THE DREARY SKIES OF WINTER HEAVY OVERHEAD, JON SHARES SOME FLAVORS TO HELP FIGHT OFF THE BITE OF THE SEASON, WITH WINTER SPICES!
MONDAY: DUDE, IT’S LITERALLY CHRISTMAS. I’LL BE BUSY. BUT, IF CAN CRANK SOMETHING OUT IN TIME, I MAY HAVE A PRESENT FOR YOU ALL. ASSUMING YOU’VE BEEN NICE. OR AT LEAST, THE RIGHT KIND OF NAUGHTY.
Makes 14 servings
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup LIBBY'S® 100% Pure Pumpkin
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)
1/4 cup powdered sugar, for towel.
1 pkg. (8 oz.) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
6 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Powdered sugar (optional for decoration)
- Preheat oven to 375° F. Grease jelly-roll pan or baking dish. Sprinkle a thin, cotton kitchen towel with powdered sugar.
- Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt in small bowl. Beat eggs and granulated sugar in large mixer bowl until thick. Beat in pumpkin. Stir in flour mixture. Spread evenly into prepared pan. Sprinkle with nuts.
- Bake for 13 to 15 minutes (8-9 minutes in a larger pan) or until top of cake springs back when touched. (If using a dark-colored pan, begin checking at 11 minutes. (7 for the big pan)) Immediately loosen and turn cake onto prepared towel. Carefully peel off paper. Roll up cake and towel together, starting with narrow end. Cool on wire rack.
- Prepare the frosting by beating all ingredients until smooth. Carefully unroll the cake, spread the mixture on top, and re-roll. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 1 hour, preferably overnight. Sprinkle with additional powdered sugar if desired, and serve with whipped cream.