Mrs Cummings’ Swiss Roll

Sliced Swiss Roll (Photo by Cynthia Nelson)

Hi Everyone,

The Swiss Roll, like the Pau I wrote about a couple of months ago, is another one of those outstanding treats that was frequently offered at cake sales back in the days of my growing up. Like the Pau, the Swiss Roll always arrived at a time much later than everything else. Like the Pau, the Swiss Roll rarely made it to the table for sale to the public. Like the Pau, the Swiss Roll would be already bought by the women manning the stall or be packaged for regular customers who would have pre-ordered.

Mrs Cummings, a prominent member of the then Sacred Heart Church, was the one who made the Swiss Rolls. For every cake sale, tea party or any such gathering, she was always tasked with making the Swiss Rolls and her signature butter cookies. Oh she made the best butter cookies I have ever known. Light, delicate and buttery. They were small enough that you could just pop one into your mouth but honestly, you had to have at least six – one after the other – they were addictive.

While her butter cookies were addictive, her Swiss Rolls were perfection. The sponge gently browned, almost tanned; the texture was exquisitely airy and subtly kissed with the flavour of vanilla, the strawberry jam evenly circled in the roll. For the final touch, the Swiss Roll was sprinkled with granulated sugar that made the Swiss Roll twinkle and sparkle when the light hit it. You could almost hear the angels singing. It was a work of art.

While still in my tweens I had learnt to make buttery rich short crust pastry and other baked goods but Swiss Rolls? No, I thought that that was something completely out of my league. I felt that it required specialist knowledge and great skill, none of which I felt I had yet acquired as young teenager. And so I was content to just live off of Mrs Cummings’ Swiss Rolls.

Sliced Swiss Roll (Photo by Cynthia Nelson)

Several years ago I happened to find myself in a pastry shop and saw that they had some perfectly sliced Swiss Rolls in their showcase. I immediately ordered not one but two slices and raced home. The setting had to be right for the feasting on the Swiss Roll – feet up, relaxed, a beverage of choice and no pressing tasks or chores at hand. I was about to take a trip back in time so it was important that I be prepared. I had to be present in the moment. I took a bite, closed my eyes and began to chew… I waited and waited and waited… in vain. The Swiss Roll was dry and turned to dust in my mouth, the jam tried its best to combat the avalanche of cake dust but alas it was smothered. I grasped the cup of tea, held it firmly in both my hands, brought it to my lips and drank as if my life depended on it. I was not only very disappointed. I felt sad. I felt as if I had violated a great memory. Now every time I think of Mrs Cummings’ perfect Swiss Roll I will forever have to think about this cake-dust-in-my-mouth experience for I had no immediate way of cancelling out this bad experience.

Although I’ve made sponge cakes before (the base for any good Swiss Roll), somehow I never felt confident enough to try making the Swiss Roll. After all, all I had to do was spread the batter out in sheet pan instead of a tube pan. It’s the same sponge cake but fear was at the heart of it. What if I really messed it up? Then I’d have another bad experience to add alongside Mrs Cummings’ work of art. I was content to never have another slice of Swiss Roll again. The taste memory of Mrs. Cummings’ Swiss Roll was enough to last me a lifetime. It was that good.

Chalk it up to getting older and feeling braver, conquering fears etc, a couple of weeks ago, with much trepidation, I embarked on making a Swiss Roll. When I had finished making the Swiss Roll – sugar sprinkled and all, it looked just like Mrs. Cummings’ Swiss Roll; but would it taste nearly as good? Don’t get me wrong, I was not hoping that it would taste exactly like Mrs. Cummings’ I would be content with it just tasting good or very good. With hands shaking, I sliced the Swiss Roll, okay, at least the inside looks the same. I brought the slice to my mouth and immediately there was that distinct and familiar smell of the sponge cake with the hint of vanilla. I hesitated; I didn’t need to put it in my mouth… the previously bad Swiss Roll-eating experience was wiped out. I almost cried with relief. I took the first bite; my eyes wide open this time; no right setting and circumstance this time. The flower trees outside my kitchen window blurred, I could barely make out the tall coconut trees in the distance, the sky seemed to have disappeared. And then I felt it, thick tears falling from my overfull eyes. Am I crying?! I quickly dabbed my eyes in embarrassment even though there was no one around. What the heck is wrong with me, it’s only cake and jam!

I knew all too well that it was more than the cake and jam. It was about the amazing women I was fortunate to grow up around. It was about knowing that I’d never see many of them again, at least not in this lifetime. It was about feeling far away from my loved ones. But I am thankful that I have you to share this with. Thank you.


Swiss Roll


5 eggs, room temperature, separated

½ cup plus 1 tablespoon white granulated sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla essence

½ cup all-purpose flour

1/8 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

4 tablespoons icing sugar, divided

½ cup plus 1 tablespoon jam of your choice


1 (18 x13-inch) sheet pan, lined with parchment paper. Butter the paper

1 large kitchen towel (not terry cloth)

2 medium bowls

1 hand mixer or whisk

1 rubber spatula

1 sieve

1 icing spatula

1 wire rack

Plastic wrap


1.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees F with the rack in the middle

2.  Add egg yolks and ½ cup sugar to bowl and beat on high speed until thick and pale (about 5 – 6 minutes). Add in essence and continue to beat to incorporate. The batter when lifted should fall back like ribbons. Set aside

3.  Add egg whites to bowl and whisk until foamy. Now add the salt and cream of tartar and continue to beat until you get soft peaks. Gradually add the 1 tablespoon of sugar while whisking and continue to whisk until the egg whites become stiff (firm peaks) and glossy

4.  Sift and gently fold the flour into the beaten yolks

5.  Add one-third of the egg whites to the yolk-flour mixture and gently fold in first then add the remaining egg whites and fold until just incorporated

6.  Pour batter into pan and use icing spatula to smooth evenly

7.  Bake for 7 minutes or until golden brown (a toothpick when inserted should come out clean)

8.  Spread kitchen towel on a clean surface and dust with icing sugar. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, invert the pan onto the dusted surface, remove the parchment paper, sprinkle with icing sugar and roll up and place on a wire rack to cool completely

9.  Unroll the cooled sponge cake, spread with jam in an even layer. Roll up the sponge cake again. Wrap in plastic wrap and let sit for at least 6 hours so that the roll can set. You can put it to chill in the refrigerator if you like but be sure to bring it to room temperature before dusting with icing sugar or granulated sugar before serving. Slice with a serrated knife


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