Suppose you’re in a hurry and need to grab some kind of pastry on your way to your destination (maybe you’re visiting a friend for tea?). If that’s the case, Swiss roll cakes are one of the most reliable options: they’re widely available, come in many flavors, and go well with either coffee or tea.
The trick about not losing face when you’re bringing a Swiss roll cake along is knowing how to recognize a high-quality one.
In this article, we’ll break down what a Swiss roll cake is, how it may look in different iterations, and what a premium-quality Swiss roll should feel and taste like.
What is a Swiss Roll Cake?
Swiss roll cake is a type of two-layered cake that’s rolled into a log. It’s sometimes called the jelly roll, cream roll, roulade, or simply roll cake (though some patisseries tend to differentiate between Swiss rolls and roll cakes).
Traditionally the cake consists of two layers only - the medium-thick sponge cake layer and a filling layer that’s spread on top of the cake before rolling. But because the cake is rolled into a log shape, it often looks like there are between 5 and 8 layers.
It’s believed that the type of sponge cake originally used in Swiss roll cake was Genoise cake. It’s among the denser sponge cake varieties with a texture resembling pound cake more than a classic sponge. Genoise cake tends to be light but relatively dry, and it’s rarely (if ever) eaten plain. So it’s unsurprising that it was chosen by the original baker (whoever it was) as the basis for their new invention.
Nowadays, however, most Swiss roll cakes are made with either typical sponge cake, similar to Victoria sponge, or lighter, moist chiffon cake (this one is most common in Asian-style Swiss roll cakes). It’s also not uncommon to add additional flavoring ingredients to the cake (ex., cocoa).
The filling for Swiss roll cake tends to be sweet and on the denser side: fruit jellies, jams, and classic buttercream are common, especially in bakeries where they’re sold freshly baked. Hence the names jelly roll and cream roll.
In the commercially manufactured Swiss rolls, the fillings vary: they’re usually more varied in flavor, especially when it comes to cream filling (chocolate, hazelnut, dulce de leche, and coffee are comm), but the layer itself tends to be thinner, with the filling sweeter and denser to compensate.
Why is it Called Swiss Roll Cake?
The name is arguably the most confusing thing about the Swiss roll cake, considering:
- It’s improbable its origin story has anything to do with Switzerland;
- In Switzerland itself, it’s most often called roulade (in French and Swiss Standard German), and more rarely Biskuitroulade (in Swiss Standard German) or Rotolo (in Italian). In other words, the one country that should be calling Swiss roll cake the Swiss roll cake is the one that’s jumped through some hoops to avoid calling it that.
So why is it called Swiss roll cake?
Here’s a kicker: nobody knows. Even linguists (at least the ones who’ve looked into it) have been unable to come up with a solid theory connecting the Swiss roll cake to Switzerland.
Its origins are pretty cloudy, to begin with.
One thing that the sources agree on is that it originated somewhere in Central Europe in the 19th century. Experimenting with various sponge cakes seemed to be a common hobby among bakers of the time, and many famous cakes popped up during the era. England, for example, saw the birth of the Victoria sponge and Battenberg cake.
But who invented it, and where precisely in Central Europe? That’s shrouded in mystery. The most common theory is that it was created in Austria. There are also claims of it originated in Slovenia and is the simplified version of Potica (traditional rolled nut cake). But rolled cakes (especially nut and poppy seed rolls) are pretty widespread in other Central and Eastern European countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Romania, Poland, etc. So claiming that Slovenian Potica was the one that inspired it and not, say, Hungarian Bejgli or Polish Makowiec is quite a loud claim, one that hasn’t been proven as of yet.
In the end, the name is most likely a result of an honest mistake. The earliest references to Swiss roll cakes can be found in English sources dated the mid-19th century (around the 1840s-1850s). The name stuck and made its way across Europe, reaching the US in 1872, where a recipe for the cake appeared under the name of Swiss roll in a Detroit-published cookbook.
The rest, as they say, is history: the more widely the name “Swiss roll” was used, the more it became clear that it was here to stay, regardless of whether it was Swiss or not.
How is Swiss Roll Cake Made? What is a Swiss Roll Filling Made Of?
The basic building blocks of the Swiss roll cake are made with everyday ingredients, so the initial stage of making the cake is quite simple. That said, each chef (or industrial manufacturer) tends to have its own preference for the type of sponge cake they use as a base.
There’s no strict rule on whether classic Victoria sponge, Genoise, or Chiffon should be used for the “authentic Swiss roll” (and sometimes the choice is something in-between). However, most recipes tend to veer toward lighter, more moist options, so Chiffon (or something close to Chiffon) tends to be a common choice.
The hardest part about making the Swiss roll cake is assembling it.
The cake should be rolled while still warm. At this stage, it shouldn’t yet be filled. Once the cake is rolled, it’s covered and cooled for 2-3 hours in a sufficiently cool facility (not necessarily a refrigerator). This initial rolling phase is to avoid the crackings on the cake when it’s being filled.
Once the cake has completely cooled, it’s removed from the cooling facility, unrolled, and has the filling spread atop it.
The filling is most commonly either some kind of fruit jam or a dense and sweet cream (buttercream is traditional) flavored with either vanilla or chocolate.
Commercial producers tend to add a bit more pizzaz to their Swiss roll cakes, playing with more unique flavors, like espresso, cappuccino, hazelnut cream, etc.
Swiss Roll vs. Cake Roll: What’s the Difference?
Cake roll is a common alternate name for a Swiss roll cake, but interestingly, lately, it’s more often used to describe Japanese roll cake instead of a Swiss roll. It may not seem like an important distinction, as Japanese roll definitely has its roots in a Swiss roll recipe, but those who are detail-oriented consider the two distinct enough to differentiate between the terms as well.
Not that they’re the majority. If you Google the term “cake roll,” the first search result will still be the Wikipedia page for a Swiss roll.
Now, what’s the difference between traditional Swiss roll cake and Japanese roll cake - that’s an entirely different (and far more valid) question.
Swiss Roll vs. Roulade: Are They Really The Same?
While Swiss rolls are often called roulades in certain countries (most commonly in France, various Nordic countries, and Switzerland), they’re not strictly the same.
Or, to be more exact: a Swiss roll is always a roulade, but a roulade is not always a Swiss roll.
Roulade means “rolled up” in French, and technically, it’s an umbrella term that’s used to describe any dish made with the “rolling up” technique. This means Swiss rolls are roulades, yes. It also means other rolled-up cakes like the abovementioned Eastern European poppy seed rolls, French Yule Logs, and even cakes reconstructed into rolls even if they traditionally aren’t made that way (ex., Pavlova meringue rolls) are roulades.
What’s more, savory dishes are also called roulades. Rolled vegetable roulades, stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, and spinach, are pretty popular, but beef roulade, where the meat is pounded thin, stuffed with various ingredients, and then rolled into a log, is likely the most famous savory roulade version.
The Various Types of Swiss Roll Cake: European, Japanese, American, etc.
Over the last two centuries, Swiss roll cake has become one of the most recognizable pastries in the world. It’s easily found in most countries, if not at artisanal bakeries (it is, admittedly, not one of the most popular bakery options), then at supermarkets, where commercially packaged Swiss rolls are one of the most common pastry options.
So it should be expected that the original Swiss roll recipe has undergone quite a few changes, with most regions adding a bit of a signature touch, whether experimenting with the type of cake or the filling.
European-Style Swiss Roll (and its Sub-Types)
European-style Swiss roll is the most common one to this day and among the simplest: just a layer of sponge cake covered with a comparatively thin layer of filling, most often fruit jam or a dense cream. Depending on the quality of the bakery, the cake can be moist and airy (good quality) or dense and dry, with filling doing nothing to improve the texture.
However, many European countries also have local specialties, giving a unique flair to the Swiss roll cake. In Italy, for example, the classic Swiss roll is a popular and common cake, but it wouldn’t exactly be considered a traditional Italian pastry. There is, however, Rollò, which can be viewed as the “traditional Italian Swiss roll” made in Sicily. The sponge cake is flavored with cocoa, and the filling is made with ricotta cheese and marzipan.
Japanese Swiss Roll
Japanese-style Swiss roll is distinct enough that it’s not called Swiss roll anymore but Japanese roll cake. The cake base is made with a much lighter and moister Chiffon cake, and the most common filling is whipped cream instead of fruit jams and dense buttercream. The most significant difference between classic Swiss rolls and Japanese rolls is the amount of filling: the filling layer is much thicker. The cake is often only rolled once, with the center made entirely out of filling.
Despite the emphasis on the filling, Japanese rolls tend to be lighter and less sweet than European and American Swiss rolls: Japanese do not like overly sweet desserts and add much less sugar to the cake and the filling.
Latin American Swiss Roll
Latin American Swiss rolls are similar to their European counterparts, with the filling being the most significant difference. The sponge cake is most often wrapped around a layer of Dulce de Leche or Manjar Blanco (thickened milk) or jams from fruits that are more common in the area, like guava.
These cakes are often called Pianonos or Brazo de Reina (“queen’s arm”)/Brazo de Gitano (“gypsy’s arm”).
Southeast Asian Swiss Roll
Southeast Asia also prefers their Swiss rolls to be lighter and less sweet than their European counterparts. On the other hand, visually, they’re still more similar to the classic Swiss roll than the Japanese roll, with a thinner layer of filling.
Fruit jams are the most common filling option, with a big emphasis on locally popular flavors like kaya jam, pandan, sweet potato, taro, ube (purple yam), mango, and, less commonly, more controversial local fruits like durian.
However, classics like chocolate or vanilla cream, blueberries, strawberries, oranges, etc., are not exactly uncommon.
Ube Rolls (purple yam rolls) are a particularly well-loved roll cake variety in the Philippines.
US-Style Swiss Roll
In America, Swiss roll cakes don’t exactly have a specific rule. It’s a popular cake with many industrial manufacturers, and each company tends to determine for itself what the Swiss roll should look like. Commercially produced American Swiss rolls may have a look identical to European Swiss rolls, with a thin cake layer but a thinner filling layer, and rolled enough times to form over five layers.
But their look may also be closer to the Japanese roll cake, with fewer layers and a filling layer that’s as thick (or almost as thick) as the cake layer.
If the Pastry Chefs at artisanal bakeries and fine dining restaurants decide to put it on the menu (though, admittedly, it’s not the most common option in places like these), they tend to call it Roulade instead of a Swiss roll. It’s likely to give it a more “luxurious flair” and create an association with fine French cuisine while distancing it from the more commercial version of the cake.
These artisanal roulades tend to have moderately thick cake layers but are more generous with the filling, with the ratio often being closer to 1:1.