Perfectly spiced, soft pumpkin sponge and a tangy cream cheese filling combine for this festive family favorite. This pumpkin roll is easier than you think and will make you a holiday dessert superstar.
My Nana was an amazing baker and was always up for involving me in her kitchen. She’d perch me atop a bar stool and, side by side, I’d take in her talent and mimic her techniques the best that I could.
Despite my young age, she undoubtedly had a tremendous amount of confidence in me. She never questioned my ability to use a knife or remove baked goods from a piping hot oven.
I was her sous chef and during our bake-a-thons, I was treated like an adult – not a 7-year-old kid with a permed mullet and retainer.
There is no question that I inherited my whirlwind styling of baking from her. We would tear up her kitchen and dig our way out hours later.
But she also instilled a fearlessness with food that I will forever be grateful for. How many second graders do you know that can whip out a perfect pumpkin roll with little to no guidance?
My Nana’s Pumpkin Roll Recipe
As far back as I can remember, Thanksgiving was pretty much synonymous with pumpkin rolls. We would set aside a weekend and systematically crank out about 30 pumpkin rolls that Nana would give away as holiday gifts to friends, family and fellow church members.
To this day, those pumpkin-roll-filled days are some of my fondest childhood memories. Nana often baked and cooked from memory, so I don’t have her exact pumpkin roll recipe.
But I do remember her “doctoring up” the Libby’s recipe with secret ingredients, which I am pretty certain was pumpkin pie spice, so that’s pretty much what I’ve done for years with delicious results.
What is a Pumpkin Roll?
Pumpkin rolls are a type of swiss roll – also known as a jelly roll, cream roll, or roll cake. These types of cakes are made from a thin sponge cake that is rolled around fillings such as whipped cream, jam, or frosting.
In the case of a pumpkin roll, the cake is flavored with pumpkin puree and warm spices and the filling is traditionally a tangy cream cheese frosting.
Unlike a layer cake (such as chocolate strawberry cake) that looks impressive from the outside, the “wow” factor of a pumpkin roll hits once you slice into it. The slices show a beautiful spiral of cake wrapped around the cream cheese filling.
They really are fun to make and beautiful to serve!
How to Make the Perfect Pumpkin Roll
The beautiful swirl in a Pumpkin Roll might make it look hard, but this pumpkin roll recipe is actually quite easy! I’ll walk you through each step, as well as a number of frequently asked questions I get.
Ingredients you’ll need
You need just a handful of standard cake and cream cheese frosting ingredients to make this recipe.
For the pumpkin sponge, you will need:
- ¼ cup powdered sugar to sprinkle on towel
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ⅔ cup pure pumpkin puree
The most important thing is to get the right kind of pumpkin.
Make sure you get a can of pure pumpkin puree. The ingredient list should simply say “pumpkin.” My favorite brand is Libby’s.
Do not get pumpkin pie filling – it has added salt, spices and other ingredients that we don’t want in our pumpkin sponge.
You might notice that there’s no fat – such as butter or oil – in the sponge cake aside from the egg yolks. Don’t worry, that’s not a mistake! That’s just the type of sponge cake this is.
For the cream cheese filling, you will need:
- 8 ounces softened cream cheese
- 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
- 6 tablespoons softened butter
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Before you get started, make sure you know how to measure flour correctly so this pumpkin roll turns out perfect every time.
- Make sure your butter and cream cheese are softened before making the filling. If you forgot to set them out ahead of time, check out my tips for softening butter and softening cream cheese.
- If you run out of powdered sugar, learn how to make a powdered sugar substitute and save yourself a trip to the grocery store.
Making the pumpkin sponge cake
The first step to making a pumpkin roll is making the sponge cake.
This cake is baked in a jelly roll pan, which measures about 15x10x1 inches. Line the pan with parchment paper and spray it with nonstick cooking spray. Set this aside.
Next, lay a clean tea towel out on the counter and sprinkle it with powdered sugar. Leave that there until you need it later.
To make the cake batter, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice, and salt in a medium bowl.
In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the eggs, vanilla, and sugar until thick. Add the pumpkin and mix until combined, then stir in the flour mixture.
Spread the batter evenly into the prepared jelly roll pan and bake for just 13-15 minutes. The cake is done when the top springs back when lightly touched.
Now it’s time to move fast on rolling up this baby!
Rolling a pumpkin roll
Unlike sweet roll recipes that are rolled and filled before being baked, pumpkin rolls are rolled up after they come out of the oven.
The trick is to do this the instant the cake comes out of the oven.
Remember the tea towel we dusted with powdered sugar? Very carefully, but quickly, turn the cake out onto that towel and remove the pan and the piece of parchment paper.
Now tightly roll the cake and the towel together, making sure to start from the short end and not the long end.
Place the cake – still rolled in the towel – on a cooling rack and let it cool completely. Don’t take it out of the towel until it’s completely cool!
While it cools, make the cream cheese filling.
Once the cake has completely cooled, unwrap it from the towel. It will retain some of the curved shape.
Add the filling and re-roll the cake. Since you already rolled it up before, this should be pretty easy.
Wrap the pumpkin roll in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour before serving.
Storage and Freezing Tips
My Nana and I would make 30 pumpkin rolls at a time, so I’m sure you’re wondering how we stored them.
Pumpkin rolls make a great hostess gift or make-ahead Thanksgiving dessert because they freeze so well.
Prepared pumpkin rolls can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
To freeze, wrap the pumpkin roll tightly first in a layer of plastic wrap and then in a layer of foil. Store it in the freezer for up to 1 month.
When you’re ready to serve, remove the frozen pumpkin roll to room temperature 1 hour before serving.
I personally prefer my pumpkin roll chilled instead of served at room temperature. I even love it while still frozen!
Pumpkin Roll Tips & FAQs
Over the years, I have had many readers send me their questions on making the perfect pumpkin roll. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions I’ve received to help you as you make this recipe:
What’s a jelly roll pan? Can I use a 9×13-inch pan instead?
A jelly roll pan is a baking pan that is similar to a cookie sheet. It has raised sides, which will keep your pumpkin roll batter from spilling over the edges.
You do need to use a jelly roll pan for this recipe; it won’t work in a 9×13-inch pan. But the pan is useful for making other recipes, such as banana bars, as well.
Do I need to use parchment paper? If so, where can I find it?
Yes, lining the bottom of the jelly roll pan with parchment paper will help the cake come out of the pan much easier after flipping it onto the sugar-covered tea towel.
You can find parchment paper near the foil and plastic wrap at your local market. Make sure you spray the parchment with non-stick cooking spray as stated in the recipe.
How do you ensure an even layer of batter in the pan?
Once my pan is prepped according to the directions, I pour the batter in and spread it around using a small offset spatula. Once it looks pretty even, I’ll tap the pan on the counter a couple of times.
By spreading the batter evenly, you’ll end up with a uniformly shaped rectangle, which will create a visually appealing and even roll.
How do I turn my cake out onto the towel without it cracking?
Since you are working with a hot pan, be sure to wear oven mitts when turning your cake.
Place your tea towel directly onto a cooling rack. Hold the sides of the towel tightly against the cooling rack and invert the cooling rack over the top of the baked cake.
Flip the pan and the cooling rack together and your cake will end up on the tea towel. Now you can peel away the parchment and roll the cake.
What kind of towel do you use?
I don’t recommend using a regular kitchen towel because the fibers can distribute onto your cake. I use a variety of tea towels that I purchased from Cost Plus World Market.
Tea towels are typically made from linen and are lint free, so they are ideal for this recipe.
Make sure your towels are clean, but as a reader pointed out, you definitely don’t want to use highly fragranced laundry soap or fabric softener to wash your towels because the scent and flavor will permeate your cake.
I’m thinking a lavender-flavored pumpkin roll may be a bit of a Thanksgiving flop!
My pumpkin rolls always crack; what am I doing wrong??
I always recommend that the cake get rolled into the towel as soon as it comes out of the oven. When the cake is rolled while warm, the heat and moisture will help lead to a crack free cake.
The cake is much more likely to crack if it is rolled when cooled.
You also want to pull the cake from the oven as soon as it is done baking. An over-baked cake is much more likely to crack, even if rolled while it is hot from the oven.
How tightly should I roll the cake?
Once you turn the cake onto the tea towel and peel away the parchment, you’ll need to roll the cake in the towel. I usually roll them pretty tight – this will ensure that you end up with those gorgeous spirals of filling.
Once rolled, how long should I allow my cake to cool?
You want the cake to cool completely before filling it. This will ensure that your cake holds its rolled shape.
The cake will likely take at least an hour to cool, but it may need longer if your kitchen is really warm.
Your filling is so even! How do you fill your pumpkin rolls?
I simply unroll my cooled cake and pile the cream cheese filling into the center. Then I use a small offset spatula to evenly spread the filling across the cake.
I like to leave about ½ inch around the perimeter of the cake bare. This keeps the cake filling from oozing out the sides after it is rerolled.
More Uses for Canned Pumpkin
You might have noticed that my pumpkin roll recipe uses only ⅔ cup of canned pumpkin puree, but a typical can of pure pumpkin contains almost 2 cups.
I like to make multiple pumpkin rolls to use up the full can, but here are some other favorite recipes that only use a partial can of pumpkin:
For the Cake
For the Filling
- 8 ounces cream cheese softened
- 1 cup powdered sugar sifted
- 6 tablespoons butter softened
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a 15 x 10-inch jelly-roll pan with parchment paper and spray with non-stick cooking spray. Sprinkle a clean tea towel with powdered sugar. Set pan and towel aside.
- In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice and salt.
- In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat eggs, vanilla and sugar until thick.
- Add in pumpkin and mix to combine.
- Stir in flour mixture.
- Spread batter evenly into prepared pan.
- Bake for 13 to 15 minutes or until top of cake springs back when touched.
- Immediately loosen and turn cake onto prepared towel. Carefully peel off paper. Roll up cake and towel together, starting with narrow end. Cool on wire rack.
- In a medium bowl, beat cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter and vanilla extract until smooth.
- Carefully unroll cake; remove towel.
- Spread cream cheese mixture over cake. Reroll cake.
- Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour.
- Store prepared Pumpkin Roll in refrigerator for up to 5 days. You can also wrap tightly in a layer of plastic wrap and then foil and store in freezer for up to one month. Remove frozen Pumpkin Roll to room temperature one hour before serving.