Reader Favorites: Jean Brown’s holiday Pumpkin Roll

Eugenia "Jean" Brown, 90, makes her pumpkin roll dessert every year for holiday guests. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)


Eugenia “Jean” Brown of Santa Rosa grew up in the small hamlet of Bay Village, on the edge of Lake Erie just west of Cleveland, where her father served as the mayor.

“I started cooking when I was 8 years old,” said the blue-eyed, great-grandmother, who is now 90. “I used to make green mashed potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day.”

When the cool weather rolls around, Brown likes to roll out one of her favorite desserts, Pumpkin Roll, a soft, pumpkin cake filled with sweet cream cheese. The recipe came from an old college friend, Rosemary Stock.

“I’ve done this recipe for 68 years,” said Brown, who keeps the hand-written recipe on an index card. “Every autumn, we savor the flavor and remember our college days and the many, mini-reunions we’ve shared over the years.”

Brown first met Rosemary, as well as her late husband, Elmer Brown, at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Her husband was a passionate educator who taught history and boys’ cooking at Santa Rosa High, where he also served as head coach. His name lives on at the $3.5 million Elmer Brown Stadium at Elsie Allen High in Santa Rosa.

When the weather turns chilly, Brown likes to share some sugar-dusted slices of Pumpkin Roll with her friends at the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, where she has volunteered for the past 36 years.

Although she no longer drives, Brown still rides her red, 50-year-old Raleigh bike all over town, including from the home they built 50 years ago in Hidden Valley to the Burbank Home at Santa Rosa and Sonoma avenues. She works there in the gift shop and volunteers at the annual Holiday Open House, set for this weekend, Dec. 5 and 6.

“I will be Mrs. Claus this year,” she said, “and my dulcimer teacher, Steve Wharton, is going to be Santa Claus.”

No fan of TV dinners, Brown still cooks all of her own meals and makes sure her plate is full of vegetables, along with lean proteins like chicken and fish.

“You’ve got to watch what you eat,” she said. “I always have vegetables and a big, green salad with no dressing. I love the taste of raw vegetables.”

A lover of chocolate milkshakes as well, Brown enjoys baking desserts during the winter holidays, when the Pumpkin Roll can be dressed up like a yule log, with a sprig of holly and some cranberries.

“Baking is fun, and it’s fun to eat, too,” she said. “This is a seasonal recipe, even though you can get canned pumpkin all year round.”

The Pumpkin Roll requires a few crucial pieces of equipment: a 10” x 15” jelly roll pan, a sifter for the powdered sugar and some waxed paper. The walnuts are optional but add a nice crunch to the soft cake.

“Every year, a guy from a nut ranch in Rio Oso sells me 250 pounds of walnuts,” she said. “I crack them and package them up and send them to friends before the holidays, so they can cook with them.”

Although it is a simple dessert, the Pumpkin Roll does require a bit of finesse. Brown has perfected the art of turning the freshly baked cake out of the pan onto a clean dish towel. She adds a sheet of waxed paper and rolls up the warm cake, being careful not to let it crack. Then she puts the rolled cake back into the refrigerator for a few hours, to cool.

“When you unroll it, gently push it down,” she advised. “Then work a knife under the waxed paper to separate the cake from the paper.”

Once the cake is flat again, Brown adds the filling in dollops, then spreads and smooths it with a knife. After rolling the finished cake back up, she lets it sit in the refrigerator overnight.

“You make it the day before and get it chilled,” she said.

When it’s ready to serve, all you have to do is give the cake a sprinkle of powdered sugar “snow,” then slice it and add another dusting of powdered sugar to the slices.

“We always thought of Rosemary when we were eating the cake,” she said. “It brings back memories.”

To make this recipe gluten-free, Brown substitutes Bob’s Red Mill All-Purpose flour (same amount) and adds ½ teaspoon of Bob’s Red Mill xanthan gum, which imitates the texture of gluten.

Holiday Pumpkin Roll

Makes 1 cake

For cake:

3 eggs

2⁄3 cup canned pumpkin

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon

3⁄4 cup flour

1⁄2 cup chopped walnuts

For filling:

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 8-ounce package cream cheese

1 cup powdered sugar

For cake: Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Grease a 10” x15” jelly roll pan. Line with waxed paper.

In a bowl, mix together the eggs, pumpkin, sugar, baking soda and cinnamon. Fold in the flour. Spread evenly in the prepared jelly roll pan. Sprinkle with the walnuts. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 15 minutes.

Turn out hot onto a clean dish towel dusted with powdered sugar. Immediately and carefully remove waxed paper.

Cover with a clean sheet of waxed paper and roll up from the end (with the waxed paper inside). Cool in the refrigerator for several hours.

Unroll, gently pushing down ends, and remove the waxed paper, working it loose with a knife.

Beat the filling ingredients in a bowl — butter, vanilla, cream cheese and powdered sugar.

Spread the filling evenly on top of the cake. Roll up again and refrigerate overnight, covered loosely with plastic wrap.

When ready to serve, remove from refrigerator, dust with powdered sugar and cut into ½-inch slices. Dust the slices with powdered sugar and serve.

Do you have a favorite recipe that is a reliable crowd-pleaser, year after year? Please send it to Staff Writer Diane Peterson at We are gathering reader’s favorite recipes and sharing them on a regular basis. Please include your name, city and a phone number where you can be reached during the day, as well as a few details about the dish, including where it came from and what kind of occasion it may suit. Snail mail may be sent to Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, 427 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, CA, 95402.