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Roll Cakes

Roll Cakes: A Delicious History

Ah, desserts, or even better, breakfast sweets. What a wonderful treat for finishing your meal or beginning a day. At least, that’s a productive way to look at it, the feeling of earning your treat or an extra morning boost. Then again, if you’re an adult then having a treat is having a treat. Ever wonder where some of these desserts come from? Like roll cakes and their variations? Fun little trivia to think over while enjoying the sweet little cake.

Here at the Old European, we only serve traditional European food, but roll cakes are pretty interesting because no one is quite sure where they come from. Roll cakes include several other pastries as well, and roll cakes are sometimes known as Swiss rolls. Although, that title doesn’t extend to the other sweets that fall under roll cakes oddly enough. 

While there is some debate over the origin of the roll cake and their cousins, all anyone can agree on is that they originated somewhere in Europe. Well, almost everyone.

You might be thinking to yourself: “Who cares?! They’re delicious!” True, but it’s good to know whether you’re eating authentic and traditional European roll cakes from a place claiming to only serve authentic and traditional European food. 

So, let’s go over what is known about the roll cakes.

What are Sweet Cakes and European Rolls?

Well, they’re a daunting task to whip up. That’s for sure what they are. Baking is, in general, a difficult cooking path, and kudos to those who pull it off deliciously. That doesn’t really answer what roll cakes are, but it’s important to note and thank those who take the time to sweeten our day.

Roll cakes, or Swiss rolls, go by many names and can be filled with an array of sweet fillings. You’ll most commonly find them filled with jelly, but just because a dessert has a jelly filling doesn’t mean it’s a kind of roll cake. After all, a donut is not a Swiss roll. 

Roll cakes are a kind of sponge cake made of eggs, flour, sugar, and baked in a shallow sheet pan. You’ll find buttercream or jam, and sometimes chocolate filling in them. Depending on where you’re eating these little indulgences, you may also find them filled with fruits from strawberry to pineapple or coffee. Yup, you guessed it, a coffee cake is technically a Swiss roll. 

Different fillings were born out of different regions and changing tastes, but no matter what they’re filled with they’re still of European origin. So, then, which region or country created these desserts that sweep plates across the globe?

Where Do Sweet Cakes Come From?

The short and most honest answer is that no one is entirely sure. The first known use of the roll cake or jelly roll comes from 1852 when a recipe for a sponge cake with jelly smear was published in upstate New York.  Now, that’s only where the term jelly roll originated. Similar recipes have been found all over Europe, and while the fillings changed, the names always did. Funny how food is like an oral tradition.

One thing is for sure when it comes to the Swill roll, it didn’t originate in Switzerland. Recipes in old English predate the roll cake, or Swiss roll when compared to their northern neighbor. Some food scholars have suggested Australia, Germany, Hungry, or France. It may be disappointing to know that it may never be discovered who came up with the delicious dessert, but thanks to whoever did. 

Whoever created the now globally famous roll cake, it wasn’t till it became popular in Northern America that it began being known as the jelly roll. No one is entirely sure when or how it became known as the Swiss role, except for maybe the swirls of filling when you cut into the cake. It is certainly a mystery to ponder while having a sweet snack, like a cinnamon roll. Yup, a cinnamon roll is a sweet cake, a.k.a roll cake, a.k.a Swiss roll. 

The Many Sweet Cakes: Hot and Roll

While cinnamon rolls fall under a roll cake, what about hotcakes and french toast? That’s where the delicious divide comes in, except the origin part. 

“French” Toast?

Let’s start with french toast and how it isn’t actually French at all. Little known fact, but french toast was originally called Pan Dulcis and the earliest recorded recipe comes from the 5th century A.D. in the Roman Empire. How did it become known as french toast? The best guess is that Americans began calling it due to French immigrants, who called it “pain perdue” or “lost bread”.

Hot Cakes

When you see hotcakes, you usually think of pancakes, as they’re generally interchangeable. It needs to be pointed out though that hot cakes are an umbrella term that can refer to many kinds of, well…hotcakes. This matters in case you’re ever surprised at a restaurant and find a dish only reminiscent of pancakes, like our buckwheat hot cakes for example. Now, where does this popular breakfast sweet come from? There is a bit of a debate, but we know that the earliest record of a pancake or hotcake recipe comes from the 1st century C.E. and hails from Rome. There is also evidence of hotcake recipes in Greece at the same time. Now, you could qualify hotcakes as Mediterranean, but that would be splitting hairs as they both are on the European continent. 

A Sweet History

Some may say it isn’t important to know where a food came from, but if we’re going to serve authentic and traditional European food then we have to ensure we’re serving what we’re selling. It isn’t known who originally came up with the idea for the soft and sweet dessert, but it is a sure bet it came from one of the European cultures before spreading around the globe. 

So, thanks to whomever and thanks to wherever the roll cake was created. Every sweet tooth owes you a large debt of gratitude, and the Old European does as well. Without this dessert making the world rounds and no matter who calls it what or fills it with what, it’s a great dish that we’re proud to make and serve. 

Enjoy the roll cake and cheers to its maker!


  • May 11, 2022

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