Grandma Ruth’s Chocolate Roll

IMG_3859I just put my second chocolate roll of the day in the oven, and I will know in approximately 25 minutes if it is a success. Baking a chocolate roll is never easy. I am sure there is some secret bakers use while mass-producing sponge cake, but I am not privy to that information. Today is my son’s birthday, and on all of my sons’ birthdays they are allowed to request any kind of birthday cake they would like.

Some years I have spent hours making a character cake that turned out as a total failure, but they have always loved them. In fact, these days they brag to friends about my baking abilities. I will just keep those early birthday cake pictures (such as the lopsided Spongebob Square Pants) hidden and let their memories prevail.

As my boys have gotten older they have begun to request chocolate roll for their birthday cake. Not just any chocolate roll, Grandma Ruth’s Chocolate Roll. Grandma Ruth was the chocolate roll master. She would triumphantly carry her chocolate roll to friend and family celebrations, and my boys attached all the love they had for Grandma Ruth to her chocolate roll. It was truly the best tasting treat in the world.

In her later years, Grandma Ruth had the help of Grandpa Gene in the kitchen. While Grandma Ruth had the look of satisfaction and joy delivering her chocolate roll, Grandpa Gene would look slightly fatigued and whisper tales of batches thrown away: burned cakes, too much salt, over beaten egg whites, not enough vanilla. According to Grandpa Gene, a chocolate roll was a multi-day affair involving several trips to the grocery store. It was a labor of love.

The copy of the recipe I have for Grandma Ruth’s Chocolate Roll is a faded photocopy of a recipe written in artistic cursive. I can barely make out the instructions, and some items, vanilla and whipping cream, don’t have amounts. It is an art of estimating, an uneducated guess on my part. I speculate at how stiff the egg whites need to be and how spongy the cake should feel when it is done cooking. I hope for the best.

Over time, recipes tell stories. One of my all time favorite cookbooks was a gift from my sister-in-law, the Nordstrom Friends and Family Cookbook by Michael Northern. The recipes are amazing, many of my Nordstrom Café favorites, but it is the short narratives describing childhood (or adulthood) memories of the recipe being prepared and served before each recipe that made me love the book. Cooking and sharing food with friends and family is one of my favorite things in life.

In a way recipes are our heritage. We all eat, and through food we can instantly be transported in time—much like songs or our favorite tall tales. Recipes tell stories of resources available, regional tastes, and agriculture of the time. Elders teach youngsters recipes through guidance, often with no written instructions. Cooking sustains us.

I have just run out of cocoa powder and sugar. I have already gone through a dozen eggs. If this batch is a failure, I will have to run to the store. I only have until this evening to pull off the perfect chocolate roll. If this roll makes it out of the oven, I still have the possibility of cracking while rolling, sticking to the parchment paper, and a number of other disasters. The pressure is on, but the thought of my son’s smile as he blows out his candles, and connecting a new memory to Grandma Ruth, makes it all worthwhile.

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