A Fabulous, Flourless Chocolate Cake Roll - No. 175
And how to cook a perfect Christmas steak in cast iron. When sickness and frigid weather visit us at the holidays, we can find comfort in Dione Lucas, cake and steak!
THIS HOLIDAY WE JUST have to roll with it.
A text from a daughter a few days ago wasn’t what I wanted to read: ‘’We have Covid.’’ Long-planned travel was upended. Tickets bought, presents wrapped, and meals planned were put on hold. And there’s a blizzard en route to much of the United States as I write this letter to you!
So diving into a classic flourless chocolate cake roll—roulade—right now might seem out of touch? But actually, it’s a pretty delicious place to go hide oneself.
Plus, in our family, cake has its place at Christmas.
The holiday cakes of my youth were fruitcake, chocolate layer cake, orange layer, and something peppermint, usually the ice cream or the King Leo peppermint sticks. Those four flavors pretty much sum up festive to me. Add eggnog or boiled custard and a platter of decorated sugar cookies, and that’s a dream team.
My mother forever baked a cake she clipped out of Southern Living called Perfect Chocolate Cake. It was devil’s food layers spread with whipped cream and then enrobed in a thick chocolate fudge frosting you stirred in a sink of ice water until it was so thick a wooden spoon could stand up on its own.
The frosting alone had two sticks of butter. It was decadence on a cake stand, and that cake festooned with holly set a bar too high for most cakes to reach. Until about seven years ago when I baked Dione Lucas’s Chocolate Roulade. One bite, which melts in your mouth, and I knew it was a Christmas cake.
Covered in ganache or just a thick dusting of cocoa, it could very well take on a Yule log, or Buche de Noel, vibe with a bit of greenery, sugared cranberries, and turning those rounded ends into a branch. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
Getting woodsy with Buche de Noel
I remembered a cake book with a Buche de Noel recipe published just this fall, so I ran upstairs to search the stacks of cookbooks I thought I was trimming down until I started writing about Southern baking and started amassing cookbooks all over again. (Does anyone else suffer from this problem?)
Anyway, Molly Gilbert’s book, Sheet Pan Sweets, was calling my name. Her premise is that you can bake any cake in a sheet pan and then stack it or make cut-outs and also roulades. She believes the sheet pan is the one-size-fits-all pan. And while the streamlined concept is clever, I kind of like my batterie de cuisine, those stacks of well worn layers and springform, and what about the Bundts? Could I ever not bake a Bundt cake? But I’ll have to admit, how she constructed the Yule log out of a chocolate sheet cake was pretty interesting.
Her chocolate hazelnut Buche is a little fussy with the hazelnut flour in the cake, but I like her filling of 1 cup Nutella mixed with 8 ounces mascarpone bringing in some savory undertones. And I like how she avoids the contrived meringue mushrooms and opts for creating a bump on the log with the end slice and dusts the entire thing with cocoa and powdered sugar plus ‘’a scattering of whole hazelnuts for extra woodsy vibes.’’
My Buche trick is to cut off the rounded ends of a roulade, place them end to end, and run them off the side of the cake at an angle like a branch. Covered with cocoa, the log might have fallen in the woods in the icy weather about to arrive.
Molly adds that it’s not just flavor tang that mascarpone brings to a filling. The thick Italian double-cream cheese makes the filling more stable than whipped cream, so if you are rolling with your chocolate roll, taking it places, this is a good filling to try.
So clever, she also offers a Sticky Toffee Date Roll with a four-ingredient toffee sauce (1 stick butter, 6 T cream, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 teaspoon kosher salt simmered until it coats the back of a spoon), a Strawberry & Cream Roll with a mix of mascarpone and whipped cream plus strawberry preserves, and a Pumpkin Tiramisu Roll with pumpkin spice cake wrapped around the filling of mascarpone, espresso powder, whipped cream, vanilla, sugar, and rum.
Her trick to roll up the cake? While the cake bakes, lay a clean dish towel on a work surface and fill a fine-mesh strainer with 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar. When the cake is done, immediately, run a paring knife around the edges of the pan to loosen it. Working quickly while the cake is hot, sift a thin layer of sugar (or cocoa) over the cake, then turn the cake out of the pan onto the dish towel, sugared side down. She lined the pan with parchment before pouring in the batter, so now she peels that off and sprinkles more sugar (or cocoa) where the parchment used to be. Gently, she rolls up the cake and the towel, letting it cool in the towel for 35 minutes. Then, once the cake is cool, she unrolls it onto a work surface, spreads on the filling, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Tightly but gently, she rolls it back up with the filling but without the towel. Trim the edges with a serrated knife, and transfer to a platter, seam side down.
Chocolate cake rolls came into vogue and never left
I learned to make cake roulades the first time with Nathalie Dupree at her cooking school in Rich’s department store in Atlanta back in the late 1970s. The second time I made them I was in Paris at La Varenne École de Cuisine. And the third time, I was writing American Cake and came across Dione Lucas.
This daughter of a London architect, Dione Lucas was the first woman to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and was instrumental in starting the London Cordon Bleu. She moved to New York in 1940, opened restaurants, taught cooking classes in her apartment kitchen, wrote cookbooks, and appeared on TV. Her first show called To the Queen's Taste aired more than 15 years before Julia Child would dazzle viewers as the French Chef.
Lucas would never be as well known as Julia, but her signature chocolate cake—roulade Leontine—would be what James Beard aptly described as a ‘’chocolate souffle in a roll.’’ And it’s likely that Lucas changed the way we look at chocolate cake with that one recipe and introduced us to the idea of baking chocolate cake without flour for better texture and intensity of flavor.
The recipe, writes Lucas in The Dione Lucas Book of French Cooking in 1947, came from a French chef named Leontine who was cooking in the Adirondacks. "When I arrived in New York the temperature was 101, and a cousin took me by train to the cool air of the Adirondacks.’’ This chocolate roll followed a meal of fresh sea bass and corn.
What I learned baking Dione’s and Leontine’s chocolate roll was that cocoa can act as a flour in baking. And without the flour, the cake is more profoundly chocolate, which in my mind, at Christmas and every other time of the year, makes sense!
Without flour, these roulades are also more fragile and finicky to work with. I shared Molly’s method for rolling up a roulade, and honestly that method has worked for me and also produced a cracked cake. In the recipe below you will see a second method of cooling the cake down in the pan with the help of wet paper towels. The objective is to avoid cracking the cake, but honestly, if the cake cracks you can always cover it with more cocoa, powdered sugar, or a chocolate ganache, right?
After Dione Lucas, McCall's magazine published a chocolate cake in 1959 with only a small amount of flour and a texture wet like cheesecake. Then two more cakes follow, one in the New York Times in 1969, and the other from restaurateur Narsai David, of Berkeley, CA, in the early 1970s. Both were dense, pate-like, briefly baked, you ate them with a spoon, and they became vehicles to show off good chocolate.
Flourless chocolate cake has zeroed in on our love of chocolate and still appeals today what with gluten-free baking going mainstream. It was likely born in Jewish kitchens and a riff on Passover cakes made light with ground nuts. Chocolate cake rolls are very much a part of regional Jewish American baking, and they have been baked and sold in places like Sumter County, South Carolina, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
I can’t think of a better cake to bake for winter weather, family dinners, Covid recuperation, or celebrating a holiday birthday than chocolate rolls.
Roulades are like life, a bit fussy, but well worth the effort!