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Every great fest deserves a celebration cake and if you are planning on making a layered Easter Cake as I plan to do for Sunday, then this is the cake you’ll need to start with. It’s all about creating even layers, (without waste) and the answer to creating the perfect sponge that gives you the freedom to slice beautiful layers like a professional, is the Genoise Sponge.

The great misconception is that the Genoise sponge originated in France but in actual fact, it was created centuries ago by an Italian pastry chef and went on to be named after the city of Genoa. It’s easy to understand why people make this common mistake though – it is the most used sponge in a wide variety of French pastries, making the French term, genoise more widely known.  My go-to method for a basic sponge has always been the Victoria Sponge which is the British method of creaming butter, sugar and eggs together before adding flour and baking powder. It was only after I arrived in Genoa that this cake piqued my curiosity to the point where I decided to give it a go and since then I’ve enjoyed my time making layered cakes. In the past the thought of making a layered cake frightened me, but not anymore.

It was in the spring of last year when I was desperate to make a layered cake for my husband’s birthday, that I set my sights on the genoise.  Since meeting him, he’s given me a number of European pastry books where I found the use of the genoise reoccurring so often from book to book.  What I was in search of was a well risen cake with a flat top, to make the slicing of layers less daunting. I’ve done many Victorian sponges and while I fell back on the security of using baking powder I often had to remain content with the slight curve around the edges as a side effect of using a raising agent. The wonder of the genoise is that it doesn’t require chemical leaveners, which in truth, intimidated me. But realising I had nothing to lose, I armed myself with a good whisk and greater confidence then went ahead and baked my first sponge without the super-powers of baking powder …………. and it worked!

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You see that table top finish? Thats the awesomeness of a genoise. Hats off to the Italians for this, this cake bakes amazingly even and it’s feather-light, perfect to be stacked between rich layers of fresh creams, butter creams and pastry creams. It’s this contrast that makes it work exceptionally well for layered celebration cakes that’s always covered with something luxurious.  It’s as light as a Savoiardi biscuit (lady finger) and actually if you pipe the batter into batons the result is a lovely, light Italian Savoiardi. Also, if flattened out on a sheet pan, it takes only a few minutes to bake and would make a perfect base for a trifle, as well as for the delicate, thin bases often required in mousse and other desserts. It’s delightful for tiramisù cakes where you can stack the layers of cake brushed with coffee syrup in between zabaione cream, set inside a large ring mould which I actually did when my Mum came to visit and she loved it. The chocolate variation is most well known in the use of the Austrian Sacher where the light batter balances the sweet apricot jam and chocolate ganache.

The best part of all, is that it literally takes three steps to make the batter and a good 90 per cent of those steps require whisking with an electric whisk which does all the work for you. Think about how a meringue is made, preferably a Swiss meringue where the whites and sugar are heated over a bain marie before being whisked into meringue. Making the batter for this sponge is very similar except that here, whole eggs and sugar are lightly whisked over a bain marie and then whisked vigorously with an electric whisk to ribbon stage meaning light, airy and weightless where the sheer lift of the whisk creates delicate ribbons on top of the mixture. This method is called aeration and through aeration a natural form of leavening becomes possible, which gives the cake its impressive rise.

The use of a beurre noisette is another plus meaning I don’t have remember to keep the butter at room temperature before getting started, which I’m notably fond of doing. Beurre Noisette means hazelnut butter and what it actually refers to is the aroma that butter takes on during the melting process. Beurre Noisette stage is reached shortly after the butter changes to light brown and you’ll know it because if you put your nose close enough, you can smell it.  Lastly flour is folded in after the butter is incorporated and then it’s ready to be baked.

Three simple steps to achieving a sponge that once you perfect, there’s no telling just how many cakes you will be using it for in the future. At this time of the year we all want something that marks a celebration, especially for the children. Whether you fill it with fruit, spread it with ganache, layer it with cream, ice it or glaze it, once you have a great basic sponge in your hands, the sky’s the limit.


*Note – I usually prefer to bake these in 2x18cm round tins and then cut the cakes in half to make four even layers, for a layered cake. Of course the choice is yours depending on what you prefer. It can be baked in wider tins however going with a wider tin you will yield a wider cake but not so tall unless you are planning to heighten with various fresh fruit and cream or other fillings.

Ingredients
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 200g whole eggs (approx 4)
  • 50g butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 125g flour
Preparation
  1. Grease and line 2x18cm round cake tins and preheat oven to 160°C gas fan / 180°C electric fan / 200°C conventional.
  2. Create a bain-marie ro double boiler by placing a pot on the stove with filled with 1/3rd of water.
  3. In a large mixing bowl add eggs and sugar.
  4. Once the water comes to a simmer, place the eggs over the bain marie ensuring that the water is not touching the bottom of the bowl and lightly beat with a hand whisk for four to five minutes to dissolve the sugar.
  5. Remove the mixing bowl from the bain marie and beat the mixture on medium speed for ten to fifteen minutes with an electric whisk until the mixutre is pale and quadrupled in size. The whisk should leave a trail on top of the mixure when it is lifted. At this point the mixture is ready for the next step.
  6. Melt the butter until it starts to take on a nutty aroma for flavour, and whisk it in followed by vanilla.
  7. Sift flour delicately on top the mixture in three batches folding it in gently between each addition. Ensure that all the flour is incorporated throughly but without the mixture deflating too much.
  8. Transfer to prepared tins and bake for 30-35 minutes.
  9. Remove from the oven when the cake springs back when touched. let cool thirty minutes and it will begin to pull away from the sides. Run a knife or offset spatula around the cake to loosen before turning out onto a wire rack and leaving to cool completely.
Maestros Need to Know

*Be very mindful when whisking the eggs and sugar over the bain marie, the water must be only simmering, never boiling. You want to keep the whisk beating the eggs all the time so that at no point do the eggs get hot enough to scramble.

*Remember that the air that we put in by whisking is the only contributor to the rising of this cake and therefore when adding the flour be mindful not to lose too much air by mixing carelessly. Make sure to fold the flour in delicately and patiently.

*If the butter melts to a point where there are solid particles noticable in the liquid, pass it through a sieve before adding it to the main ingredients. 

*When cracking your eggs make sure that they are cracked separately if you are unsure about the freshness. Once you know each one is fresh then you can proceed to add them to your mixing bowl.

*Freezing the cakes will allow more even slicing and create less crumb. If freezing, wrap well in plastic once completely cooled. Place in the freezer and remove once frozen. Let it sit out for ten minutes before slicing.
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