Bolo de rolo (“roll cake”) is an exquisite sweet delicacy from the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco.
While somewhat similar in appearance to a jelly roll, bolo de rolo is unique for its numerous and fine layers, made up of thin sheets of cake alternating with a luscious fruit filling. Most traditionally, the cake is filled with a rich, melted guava paste, and then sprinkled on top with a dusting of granulated sugar. It’s regarded as such a distinctive contribution to the culture and gastronomy of Brazil that in 2008, Pernambuco officially designated it in law as a cultural legacy of the state.
Bolo de rolo traces its origins way farther back. It was developed in the seventeenth century as an adaptation of a Portuguese dessert colchão de noiva (bride’s mattress), a type of sponge cake with an almond filling.
History alleges that the ladies newly arriving in Brazil from Portugal, despite having brought along their “Old World” cooking utensils, found some of the traditional ingredients for this cake missing from their new tropical homeland. So, they ingeniously substituted melted guava paste and sugar—both of which were found in abundance in northeastern Brazil—in place of the traditional colchão de noiva filling.
Over time, the cake underwent another peculiar alteration: The layers grew thinner and thinner, until finally reaching a customary total of 8 sheets of cake that, when rolled, results in a total of 16 cake layers. Modern versions have increased the number of layers even further. And the final form that the cake adopted was similar in shape to that of a rolling pin—hence the origin of the name, bolo de rolo(“bolo” means cake; “rolo” means rolling pin).
For many years, access to this cake was restricted, reserved for the exclusive indulgence of the sugarcane plantation magnates, and later on, the governors of Pernambuco. In subsequent years, however, it gained immense popularity within the entire state of Pernambuco, and from there, its fame spread far and wide all over Brazil. More recently, bolo de rolo has been imported by special order to many different countries around the world, among them Portugal, England, France, Saudi Arabia, and Japan.
High demand for the cake has even given rise to the invention of a machine to facilitate its manufacture. The Drop Top machine, from Bralyx, is capable of dispensing the layers of cake in mere seconds, with a thickness as fine as 3 millimeters. Although nowadays bolos de rolo may vary in the type of filling (chocolate, dulce de leche, sweet prune paste, coconut, passion fruit, and other flavors are available), as well as in the overall number of layers, the thinness of the layers is its most immutable characteristic.
Bolo de rolo is a beloved fixture in Pernambuco on the menus of most cafés, bakeries, some restaurants, and even in the airport—as well as on a smaller scale in other states of Brazil. It can be savored as a dessert or snack all by itself, paired with queijo do reino (a Brazilian version of Edam cheese), or served warm with ice cream. It also happens to be the perfect companion for cafezinho, a small cup of strong coffee.
If you ever visit the gorgeous state of Pernambuco, or even Rio de Janeiro, where bolo de rolo is also quite popular, don’t miss out on the opportunity to sample this delicacy. Otherwise, come into the kitchen and try your hand at preparing bolo de rolo for yourself.
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