This Gluten-Free Dessert Will Put Your Name in Lights
Need to make dessert for an important dinner? (Hint: Mother’s Day is just around the corner!) One that looks great and tastes even better?
Enter this Walnut Roll Cake. It’s a time-tested recipe (dating back at least to the 1950s) and it’s not hard to make (though it does take time). Your guests will rave about the flavor. And it’s gluten free!
This drop-dead delicious recipe is so good it helped Paula Wolfert shine at one of her first big catering jobs — more about that later — and it will make you a star among your friends. It will also become the dessert that everyone asks you to make.
Indulge their requests if you can. After all, we were all little people at one time, weren’t we?
Recipe: Walnut Roll Cake
Although this recipe has several steps — and does dirty some cooking utensils — it’s pretty straightforward. First you make a cake in a half-sheet or jelly roll pan (11 x 17 inches). Once made, the cake needs to chill for at least 30 minutes. In the meantime, you make the filling. Then spread the filling on the chilled cake, roll it, and chill again. Dust with confectioner’s sugar (and garnish if you like) right before serving.
Because this recipe has a few steps, things will go smoother if you read through the Procedure and Notes a couple of times before you begin.
Mrs. Kitchen Riffs is the baker in our household, and this cake is hers. She slightly adapted it from a recipe in Paula Wolfert’s World of Food. So when you see “I” in the Procedure and most of the Notes, that’s Mrs K R talking.
This recipe takes about an hour and half from the time you begin until you’ve finished the last step, but part of that time is baking and resting time. Actual hands-on time is 45 minutes to an hour. This recipe serves 8 to 12 (it’s quite rich, so most people will be happy with 1/12). You can make this ahead and freeze for up to 2 weeks before serving.
For the cake:
- 5 or 6 eggs, separated, preferably at room temperature (consider using pasteurized eggs; see Notes)
- 5½ ounces (~1½ cups) ground walnuts
- ½ cup sugar
- pinch of salt
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ~1 tablespoon butter for greasing baking pan
- 6½ ounces (~1¾ cups) ground walnuts
- ½ cup warm milk
- ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons Cognac
- 1 cup heavy cream, whipped
- confectioner’s (powdered) sugar (½ cup or so)
- sprigs of mint and/or berries (optional; strawberries and blackberries both work well)
For the cake:
- Set the eggs out to warm to room temperate (not strictly necessary, and a step we often skip, but the whites beat better if they’re not cold; see Notes for what to do if you haven’t let the eggs warm before starting).
- When ready to proceed, preheat oven to 375 degree F.
- Butter a half-sheet pan or jelly roll pan (11 x 17 inches), then line the pan with parchment paper or waxed paper. Be sure to leave about 2 inches of paper hanging over at each end. Butter the paper.
- Grind the walnuts finely (it’s easiest to do this using a food processor). I usually grind 12 ounces of walnuts at one time, use 5½ ounces in this step, and then set aside 6½ ounces for the filling.
- Separate the eggs (see Notes).
- Place egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a medium bowl if beating by hand). Beat the egg yolks, and after a minute gradually begin to add the sugar and a pinch of salt. In a few minutes (perhaps 5) the eggs will become light and creamy. Add baking powder and then ground walnuts, beating to mix.
- In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they are stiff (you can add a pinch of cream of tartar if necessary). Using a rubber spatula, fold into the egg whites into the walnut mixture.
- Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared baking pan. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
- Cover the cake with a damp cloth or dishtowel and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- I usually wait about 10 or 15 minutes before beginning this step (while waiting, I generally hand wash some utensils; see Notes). If you haven’t done so in Step 4 above, grind 6½ ounces of walnuts.
- Heat the milk until it's warm (the microwave works well for this), then add it to the ground walnuts. Set aside to cool.
- In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer (or in a medium bowl if doing this by hand), cream the butter, gradually adding the sugar. Continue beating until the butter/sugar mixture is light and fluffy.
- Beat in the Cognac and then the walnut/milk mixture.
- In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until it becomes whipped cream.
- Fold the whipped cream into the walnut mixture.
- Remove the cake from the refrigerator (make sure it’s been chilling for at least 30 minutes), and sprinkle the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar.
- Put a piece of waxed or parchment paper (at least 20 inches long) over the cake.
- Keeping the waxed/parchment paper on top of the cake, grip the baking pan at both ends and quickly turn it 180 degrees (upside down).
- Remove the pan, and peel the paper off the cake.
- Using a spatula, spread the filling evenly over the top of the cake.
- Roll the cake, using the remaining waxed paper to help roll it up into a jelly roll shape.
- Cover the cake roll with foil, and refrigerate until firm (at least an hour or two).
- Dust the top of the cake roll with confectioners’ sugar just before serving. Add additional garnish (such as mint or berries) if desired.
- Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. So I suggest using pasteurized eggs. Although it’s unlikely that the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk? I don’t know about you, but I find it’s impossible to make a dish like this without tasting as I’m preparing it!
- You can easily identify pasteurized eggs because they usually have a red “P” stamped on them.
- When separating eggs, it’s important that not a speck of yolk be included with the egg white, otherwise you’ll have beating problems.
- Here’s the easiest and fastest way to separate egg whites from their yolks: First wash your hands thoroughly. Then crack an egg, open the shell into the palm of your hand, and let the egg white run through your slightly open fingers. I find that it’s fastest if I transfer the egg from one hand to the other once or twice during this process. Lately I’ve been using disposable food service gloves, which work quite well for this.
- I always separate eggs one at a time into a small bowl, and then transfer each egg white into a mixer bowl (and the yolk into another bowl). That way, if I accidentally get some egg yolk mixed in with its white, I ruin only one egg, not the whole batch.
- When I bring eggs to room temperature before separating, I always put out an extra egg or two just in case I have an accident with one of the eggs I’m separating. That way, I’ll have a spare.
- Speaking of which, you’ll notice that this recipe calls for 5 or 6 eggs. The original recipe specifies 5, but I often break one of the yolks while separating them. I generally just add the broken-yolked egg (white and all) to the cake batter in Step 6 of the cake procedure. It works fine!
- If you haven’t warmed the eggs to room temperature before starting, no worries — the egg whites will be fine. Just rinse your mixing bowl with hot water and dry it off — the heat from the bowl will warm the egg whites to “beating” temperature.
- Step 3 of the cake procedure instructs you to butter both the baking pan and the waxed/parchment paper. Do this — seriously. You want to make sure the paper peels away cleanly after baking (see Step 4 of the final assembly procedure).
- You’ll need four separate mixing bowls for this recipe: one for beating the egg yolks, another for beating the egg whites (both for the cake), then another for creaming the butter, and, finally, one for whipping the cream (both for the filling). I generally use my KitchenAid stand mixer for all these tasks, but I have only two mixing bowls and two sets of beaters/wire whisks that fit the mixer. So I hand wash my mixing bowls and other utensils while waiting to begin Step 1 of the filling procedure. If your kitchen is stocked with four sets of mixing utensils, you can skip hand washing. Or you can use a hand mixer for some of the tasks.
- You’ll also need to make room in your fridge to chill an 11 x 17-inch sheet pan for 30 minutes. If your refrigerator looks anything like ours, you’ll find this gives you a great opportunity to pitch out some of the weeks-old odds and ends that are accumulating at the back.
Fit for a Queen (or at Least a Queen Bee)
“Great cake!” I enthused to Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “You don’t make this often enough.”
“I’m only making this one when we have guests,” she replied. “Or to take to a dinner party. It makes way too much — and it’s too rich — for just the two of us.”
“It is a big cake,” I admitted. “Say, remind me of how this helped Paula Wolfert with that catering job. I’ve read it, but it’s been awhile.”
“She writes about it in the headnote to this recipe in her book, World of Food,” Mrs K R replied. “It was 1959 and she was fresh off a one-year apprenticeship with Dione Lucas . . . .”
“That’s a name you don’t hear much anymore,” I interrupted. “She was the first woman to have her own cooking show, I believe.”
“Yes indeed,” said Mrs K R. “Anyway, after finishing the apprenticeship, Wolfert got in touch with the great James Beard — another name we don’t hear so much anymore — because she was looking for work. And Beard recommended her for a catering gig.”
“Some rich dowager in Connecticut,” I remembered. “Wasn’t this a luncheon for like 150 people?”
“Yup,” said Mrs K R. “And the hostess specified that for dessert she wanted a ‘delicious cake.’ Wolfert wasn’t sure what kind of cake to make, so James Beard gave her this recipe. She whipped up 15 of these beauties for the luncheon.”
“Right, and took them with her on the train from New York to Stamford,” I said. “It’s coming back to me. And wasn’t the dowager shocked at how young Wolfert was?”
“Correct,” said Mrs K R. “Because Paula Wolfert wasn’t yet, well, Paula Wolfert. The hostess was so horrified that she dramatically ‘took to her bed,’ wailing ‘Why have they done this to me? Sent a child to cook the lunch!’”
“And then Wolfert sent a piece of cake up to the hostess,” I prompted.
“Yes, and after tasting it, the lady decided that maybe Wolfert knew her stuff after all,” said Mrs K R. “And the luncheon was a big success.”
“How could it not be, with this cake?” I said, looking wistfully at the leftovers. “<Cough, cough> – I think I’m coming down with something! Maybe I should take to my bed.”
Mrs K R rolled her eyes heavenward, and cut me another slice.
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Sounds delish, love your blue and white too!
Hi Chris, this one is a real winner - really worth making. Thanks for the comment.
I'd want another slice, too! I can just imagine the fluffy creamy filling all rolled up in this nutty, tender cake. It's the stuff of every little girl's dream tea party. ;)
I love your pictures and recipes. I'd like to inform you of a great new website www.foodieportal.com. I would like to invite you to come and join us and share your wonderful pictures with us. We are simply foodies and we are not photography snobs, so picture perfection is not important, all we care about is delicious food. We're pretty new so give us a chance. :)
Hi Carolyn, this really is a superb cake. After a big meal one slice really does me, but any other time? Two, at least. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi foodieportal, thanks, I'll check you out.
How classy and delicious, I love the filling and the flavours :)
Choc Chip Uru
It's gorgeous! And it sounds divine too ... another winner, Kitchen Riffs!
What a great cake recipe. Yes, it's perfect to bring to a party, in deed. But with my family's appetite, we have no problem in finishing this cake in 2 days. :P
Hi Uru, it's a great cake! One I think you'd like. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kimberly, this is a terrific cake - totally divine. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Amy, there's only 2 of use, so there's no way we'd ever finish this in 2 days! So it's always a party cake for us. Thanks for the comment.
A beautiful looking cake! You are so lucky you can buy pasteurized eggs, we don't have them in Australia and I really wish we did :(
I love cake rolls...and this is surely a winner!!! Love the story of how Paula Wolfert first made this...priceless!
Hi Christine, bummer that you can't get pasteurized eggs! But fortunately you can make the cake with regular eggs, even though you might want to be cautious abut tasting the batter. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Liz, this really is a good cake. And I've always found that Paula Wolfert story really interesting too! Thanks for the comment.
What an absolutely scrumptious cake! This would be perfect for Mother's Day! Wish I were near my mother so I could make it for her. She'd love it! Mrs KR has outdone herself with this one so please thank her for sharing this awesome recipe! I have a couple of gluten-free friends that I will be sharing this with.
Your cake looks wonderful. I have made an ice cream roll cake for years that my family looks. I will have to give this one a try.
my mum loves walnut in all forms i guess this would be a lovely mothers day dessert for her.
I just love this recipe. It's pretty and versatile. Mrs K R knows her stuff. Just like her hubby.
Hi MJ, isn't this a great recipe? Mrs K R is a keeper, I must say! ;-) Thanks for your kind word, and comment.
Hi Dawn, roll cakes are fun, aren't they? So many different varieties. I think you'll like this one - I've yet to meet someone who doesn't. Thanks for the comment.
Hi milkteaxx, your mom would like it, and so would you! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kim, it's a great cake - truly. Mrs K R really does know her stuff. Thanks for your kind words, and comment.
You haven't posted anything sweet for a while! I love the look of this walnut cake. I think we call them Swiss Roll cakes in Oz because we make them in a 'Swiss Roll' pan (but I don't think the Swiss have much to do with it). I don't think I've made one with walnuts before. Too true, this is a great looking dessert for Mother's Day xx
Hi Charlie, it's been a bit since I've posted something sweet, hasn't it? So to make up for it, they'll be another sweet later this week. ;-) I know the term "Swiss Roll" pan, vaguely - I should look up sometime what exactly a Swiss roll is! This dessert truly is delish. If you like walnuts, this is heaven. Thanks for the comment.
I love walnuts, and I love that this cake is gluten-free! I am definitely putting this on my "to-make" list! Beautiful work!!
That must have been some sight with Paula Wolfert carrying 15 of these cakes on the train from New York to Stamford (or was it the other way around?) I had never heard of Paula before, but your post got me to look her up on the internet- she has her own website http://www.paula-wolfert.com/
Look at that filling, irresistable
This looks like something my mom and my aunts will like!
I'll have to give this cake a try. The last rolled cake I made cracked when rolling...hopefully I'll have better luck with this recipe.
I have not attempted anything like this and I have a bag of walnuts just waiting to be something wonderful. :) Dirty dishes are never a deterrent to something delicious and the process sounds pretty easy. If it launched a catering career, it must be worth trying, right?!
Hi Kristi, this is really a super cake - you'll be happy with it. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Fran, I was surprised, too, when I read she carried them on the train. Thanks for the reminder that Paula has her own website (though I don't think she does much with it - she spends most of her time researching and writing books). Thanks for your comment.
Hi Raymund, it really is irresistible! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Peachy, it's a wonderful cake - everyone will like it! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Karen, I don't believe Mrs K R has ever had that problem with the cake - it's a fairly moist cake, so hopefully cracking isn't a problem. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Judy, it's definitely worth trying! And it is easy, though there are a number of steps to it. Enjoy! Thanks for the comment.
My mother is too far away so for this Mother's day I'll send her flowers. But I can make it for me as a comfort food :)
Hi Marta, it makes for woonderful comfort food. And a slice would be excellent for breakfast. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
That looks amazing John and I love that it is naturally gluten-free!
Totally decadent and indulgent-perfect for mothers anywhere. And of course, even those who aren't. I could use a Mrs. KR to spoil me. What a great team you are!
Hi Alyssa, it really is a wonderful dessert. ;-) And it was gluten-free way back before most people even worried about that! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Abbe, this really is a decadent dessert. Which, of course, is why we love it! And Mr K R and I really are a great team. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
You truly are a man of many talents! Loving the sweet spin to this week's post, you're getting me to think of Mother's Day desserts to wow the family with and this seems like a good contender!
Hi Ala, this recipe is right in your wheelhouse: tons of flavors, loads of wow factor! If not Mother's Day, you definitely need to make this. You'll thank me. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
This is one beautiful -- and rich -- cake! I'm going to bookmark it so that I can find it when I've guests. Being GF is a big advantage, too. Not having a hand mixer nor multiple bowls for my stand mixer, this cake would pose some logistical problems. Thanks for the heads-up about the bowls. Love, too, the reminder about making room in the fridge. I never remember to do it beforehand. Never.
I must say I'm glad to see your recommending pasteurized eggs. It really isn't worth the risk, no matter how small, especially if serving the elderly or very young. Thanks to you, John, and to Mrs. K R for a great recipe and informative post.
A delicious and fancy dessert. Love the walnuts here :)
Hi John, there are a few logistical problems with all the mixing needed, that's for sure, but nothing too major. And that tip on clearing out the refrigerator comes from experience! ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kiran, it's really a nice cake. Thanks for the comment.
Love the cake John, well done to Mrs KR. Perfect for Mother's Day, I know I wouldn't mind one. I love nuts in cakes and this sounds wonderful!
Hi Nazneen, I hope you get something great for Mother's Day! Thanks for the comment.
This would put a smile on any Mom's face if served a piece of this yummy cake. I've tried rolled cakes and had them ended up a big messy (tasty mess) but mess the same. I might have to get the nerve up and revisit them. What a nice story. Hope you and the Mrs. have a good holiday weekend.
Thank you, John, for a gluten-free recipe and it looks scrumptious. Great tips on separating eggs too.
Hi Gina, rolled cakes can be a bit tricky, but this one is pretty accommodating. At least Mrs K R has never had problems with it. And if you have problems, just dust some extra powdered sugar on it! Or add an extra dab or two of whipped cream (whipped cream cures most ills). I hope you have a nice weekend too, and thanks for the comment.
Hi Suzanne, this might have a few too many nuts for your liking, but otherwise it's something I think you'd enjoy. Thanks for the comment.
I'll pass on this wonderful recipe to my family so they know what I would like them to prepare for Mothers Day Brunch:)
Thank you for sharing!
Hi Daniela, I'm sure they'll be happy to surprise you with this! ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Looks delicious this walnut roll, nutty with the creamy filling...next time I know what to do with all the walnuts that I get from Costco...this will sure make a great dessert!
Have a wonderful week John :)
It really does sound delicious. I'm not much of a baker so when we have guests over, we usually serve a store bought pie or desserts. I love rich cake, so I think I might be able to eat more than 1/12. :) Thanks for sharing this recipe.
Hi Juliana, this really is a nice use of walnuts, that's for sure. One of my favorite desserts. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Sue, when we run short on time we've been known to buy bakery stuff, too. But it's been awhile since we've had to do that, thank goodness. Thanks for the comment.
Happy mum's day to Mrs. Riff. Beautiful light and delicate cake with a smooth delicious filling and nuts and gluten free. A gorgeous cake. I will send this over to my boys and see if they can take a little hint to make this for me this weekend... (I won't hold my breath while I wait to hear a response from them, but it never hurts to try) Did you help her at least with the dishes? After all it is mum's day week. Take care, BAM
Isn't this cute :) Terrific cake and one I'm going to save for company.
I am so saving this for company. (Because I could eat it until I make myself sick). Oh - do love the tale of Paula and her early days. And food is all about the stories, right?
Who wouldn't love that pretty cake? And who wouldn't love your gorgeous cake shots? ....Many thanks for describing the 'complex' recipe in an effortless manner.
Hi Bam, one of these days your boys will probably surprise you! But not holding your breath is probably wise. ;-) Hope you have a super mum's day! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Maureen, cute indeed! And this cake is really up to the standard your guests expect (and that you routinely deliver)! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Claudia, a lot of food is about stories - which makes it both interesting and tasty! This cake really demands lots of people, because although you'll be tempted, you really don't want to eat the whole thing on your own. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Suborna, it's a great cake - everyone who has ever had it ended up licking their plates (while, figuratively!). Thanks for the kind words, and comment.
Wow, such a pretty cake, I'd have half of it for myself alone!
Hi Gourmantine, it's a superb cake. Although trust me, you'd fill up long before you got the the halfway mark! ;-) Thanks for the comment.
I read your recipe over and over just as you suggested and now I'm convinced that I could do this one. You see I don't bake a lot of cakes or pastries but a classic recipe such as yours is something to try. Will definitely try this one.
May I have another slice, please. Very elegant. Love the flavors and the filling.
Hi Malou, glad you think you can do it! It's not difficult, although there are several different things going on. But it's a pretty straightforward recipe, and the payoff sure is worth it. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Lail, isn't this nice? Definitely worth having a second slice! Thanks for the comment.
Hi John, that's a very nice roll cake. Great combination and love the filling. I don't mind to have 2 slices please.:)
Hi Amelia, two slices coming up! ;-) It's a wonderful cake - I think you'd enjoy it. Thanks for the comment.
Oh, I do love walnut cakes and Paula Wolfert, so this sounds perfect! What a beautiful cake. I enjoyed reading about her first catering job, too! I would happily eat quite a few slices and I appreciate that it's gluten-free. Thanks for sharing!
Hi Hannah, isn't that Paula Wolfert story fun? This is a great cake, and it'd certainly tempt most of us to have more than one slice! Thanks for the comment.
The walnut roll cake looks really yum, I would not think that it would be to rich though. Mind you I will just have to bake it to find out. I did not know that Dione Lucas was the first lady to have a cooking show.
Hi Lizzie, all that whipped cream - and the nuts - make it pretty filling. But you definitely need to give it a try! Thanks for the comment.
It's been my dream to make roll cake, but I know it looks so difficult to make, so I'm postponing it... yours look wonderful! I don't have courage to roll... I'll just stick with sushi and practice. Haha. No, seriously, rolling cake is a lot harder! I love your walnut roll cake!
Hi Nami, rolling this cake is somewhat similar to rolling sushi, although of course it's much bigger and you don't roll it as tightly. You're a really good cook, so I know once you try it, you'll wonder why it took you so long. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
A beautiful roll cake and perfect afternoon treat! That filling must taste amazing.
Hi Rosa, it's really a great cake! The whole thing tastes amazing. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Oh my! Walnuts are a favourite in my kitchen, as my mother used them in her Hungarian baking. I LOVE the sound of this... and your instructions are wonderful!
Hi Lizzy, isn't this a nice recipe? If you like walnuts, you have to make it! Thanks for the comment.
What a gorgeous looking cake! I love nuts in my dessert and I can almost imagine how great this tastes with walnuts through it.
Hi Amanda, isn't this a great cake? Truly delish. Thanks for the comment.
How did I miss this? I love making cakes like this and I've become so enamored of walnuts in the past couple of years. Doggone I would have made it for ME for Mother's Day it looks so fabulous!
Hi Barb, this is really a terrific cake! It's one of those ones where conversation pauses for a few minutes because everyone is so busy eating. I think you'll really like it. Thanks for the comment.
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