the genoise that almost wasn’t

June 19, 2012 § 17 Comments

I was lucky enough to still be in Portland OR when I made Flo Braker’s French Strawberry Cake from Baking with Julia. Pastry chef Braker currently writes and has written “The Baker” column for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1989 and has also written a few pastry cookbooks, of which I own two. I considered myself lucky because

  1. Strawberry season was just getting underway with farmers’ market stands displaying flats of varieties new to me. My favorite was called Hood which had a nice balance of sweetness and acidity; one that is a little harder to grow and probably only available at local markets as I don’t think their tender juicy flesh would stand up to much handling.
  2. I also got a glass quart of local HEAVY cream from the PSU farmers’ market. Wow, was that a rich treat, worth every artery-clogging calorie.
  3. I was able to easily get a copy of “The Book” from the Portland public library, since I didn’t pack my tome to take on the airplane.
  4. And I got to bake a tricky cake recipe at sea level, instead of my mile-high home altitude.

That said, I had more trouble with Flo’s recipe than with my altitude-adjusted genoise that I’ve baked many times without a hitch. Should I blame it on the cold damp weather or baking in a foreign kitchen with an unfamiliar oven and the wrong size cake pans? Nah! Since I’m posting late today, I took a peek at some of your results already. Don’t feel bad if this recipe didn’t work for you either. It’s a little more delicate than some genoise with the use of cake flour (less gluten strength in the batter) and the generous dose of melted butter (I could hear the swoosh of air coming out of my egg foam when I made it the first time). If I try a third time, I might use all-purpose or even some whole wheat pastry flour like Lynn of Eat Drink Man Woman Dogs Cat did. Here’s how it rolled for me in my daughter’s small duplex kitchen in Portland…

Here’s the quick, easy and accurate way I like to cut the parchment paper to fit in the bottom of any round cake pan. Fold the sheet in half, then in quarters, then into triangles twice making sure you keep the long pointy end oriented where the center of the pan would be. Place the folded paper on the bottom of the pan and note where the edge is, cut it straight across and unfold it to see if it fits the pan. Refold and trim if it’s a little too big because you want the paper round to lay flat so batter doesn’t get underneath. Don’t worry if it’s a little too small as long as you’ve greased the pan’s bottom (which will help the parchment stay in place) and sides; be sure to grease all around the bottom’s corner edge too.

I sifted the cake flour with the dry ingredients three times to aerate and ensure that there were no clumps. Since I used a 6 quart KitchenAid mixer, I doubled the recipe so the whisk attachment could efficiently aerate the larger volume of egg-sugar foam (baked genoise freezes well as long it’s wrapped airtight).

Even though Flo’s recipe didn’t call for this step (common to many genoise recipes), I gently heated the egg sugar mixture in a bain marie (Mary’s warm bath in French) while stirring just until it was barely warm to the touch. This starts to “relax” (denature) the egg proteins slightly so it will be easier to incorporate air into the egg foam by beating. Turns out this allowed my first batter to over-aerate during beating and it started to collapse when I folded the melted butter in at the end and barely rose in the oven.

For genoise (which is simply a sponge cake made with whole instead of separated eggs) the egg-sugar mixture is beaten until it “ribbons”. The first time I made the recipe I beat until I got a very noticeable ribbon which lasted for several seconds when I dropped the batter from the whisk.

Since the first batter deflated and didn’t rise much in the oven, I knew that the egg foam had collapsed. I’d seen this problem before baking cakes and even soufflés at altitude. The air bubbles get too big when they expand from the heat of the oven and pop. So the second time, I skipped heating the egg-sugar mixture and I didn’t beat it as long. This gave a softer ribbon indicating less air was incorporated into the egg foam, so it hopefully could still expand in the oven. Can you see the difference?

I sifted the sifted flour mixture (yes, this is not a typo) over the egg-sugar mixture in three or four parts and gently but quickly folded it in without leaving any small dry lumps of flour. (Notice that I transferred the batter to a large shallow bowl to make folding easier and more efficient. I think those narrow KitchenAid mixer bowls with the bump in the center make folding more difficult.) A small amount of the batter was “sacrificed” by mixing it with the melted butter. This made it easier to fold the butter into the rest of the batter, deflating it less. (Were you able to keep the batter and butter straight?)

Cakes out of the oven looked promising, nice and level and with sufficient height, even in the 9-inch pans. I let them cool, then wrapped in plastic to let the cakes “settle” overnight.

Onto some beautiful Albion strawberries, rinsed, hulled, sliced and sugared. The Albions are less sweet and firmer than the Hoods, so they keep some of their texture as the sugar draws out their moisture. After a couple of hours they have softened so I mashed them and refrigerated overnight as well.

The bottom of this Rubbermaid cake keeper easily rotates when placed upside down on the cover so it provided me with a convenient makeshift decorating stand. I split the cake into two layers, and initially all looked well, but I noticed a heaviness to the bottom of the cake.

Sacré bleu! There was a dense tough “door mat” in the center of the cake where the batter collapsed during baking (though not as much) again. I switched from “prepare” mode to “repair” mode, and surgically removed the door mat, leaving a very thin bottom layer. Luckily, I made two cakes! So I removed the door mat from the second one, and then split it into two more even but thin layers.

Onto more pleasant tasks of whipping that wonderful cream and getting the strawberry filling from the refrigerator.

Since there’s just three of us eating this cake, I decided to take the best and prettiest layers and made a four-layer half cake! The troublesome melted butter does make for a more tender and moister genoise, and the sugared juice from the mashed berries made a perfect soaking syrup for this cake.

From the “front” you can’t really tell that I had such a problem with that genoise.

And since I made just half of a cake, there’s plenty of the whipped cream frosting and berry filling to serve alongside.

Which is just what we did! There was a bit of “leaning tower of Pisa” effect from all the cake surgery, but it was pretty delicious, and I would say even better the next day when the strawberry filling settled into the cake and soaked the layers even more. Would I make this again? With a little more work on the genoise recipe and excellent strawberries and cream available, I would say “oui”!

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§ 17 Responses to the genoise that almost wasn’t

  • Lynn says:

    I love the half-cake idea! Next time I’m going to do that, or get 6 inch pans. I heated the eggs too – I was afraid not to. ; – )
    I love your detailed process pictures, and thank you for the shout out.

    • Piebird says:

      The half-cake just kinda happened since I had already made all the filling and frosting before discovering the door mat which reduced my usable genoise by a lot. you know what they say about necessity’s offspring! thanks so much!

  • Sandy says:

    It turned out gorgeous, I decided not to macerate the berrie because I love the sweet taste of them without the sugar..and I too love the half cake idea

  • Miette says:

    Wow! great instructions. Not the easiest cake to make but worth it. I like the 1/2 cake idea. I need to make again for practice 🙂

  • oven chaos says:

    I think I might have used the same size shallow mixing bowl 🙂 I am still trying to decide if I would like to make this genoise recipe or not…If you have time, do you think you could post your go-to genoise recipe? Your half cake looks great!

  • judy says:

    Very informative post and great photos. I folded the parchment paper in half and then cut a half circle which was too big. Not knowing any better I trimmed it but not enough so that when the cake came out of the pan, I had to pull off some paper and a bit of cake. Now I know what to do next time.

  • mireia says:

    I love the trick you gave us!!!! The cake also looks amazing!!

  • I don´t about the foreign kitchen and wrong cake pans, your step´by´step pictures are great! Clever idea to make two cakes. Your final masterpiece looks stunning.

  • Great post! Genoise is an artform, I think. I have yet to make mine, but I will keep some of your tips in mind when I do. It’s been a really long time since I have made a vanilla genoise. Usually, it is chocolate and I have yet to figure out how to get rid of those little flour pellets.

    • Piebird says:

      Thanks! cake flour really wants to clump. that’s why I go to the trouble of sifting 3X’s. even then, I find an occasional pellet. also be sure to get your spatula to the bottom parts of the bowl and lift the batter to see if there’s still some dry that needs to be incorporated. I think chocolate is harder to make than plain ol’ vanilla, so you know your genoise!

  • Cathleen says:

    Ha! Half cake – so creative! Thanks for that awesome tip of how to cut parchment to fit the pan.

  • Creative way to salvage the cake…looked delicious to me! Thanks for the parchment tip!

  • Cher says:

    I like how you salvaged the cake into a four layer half cake. It is so neat to see how all the different bakers in this group over come challenges as they come up.

  • […] cakes, like genoise (remember June’s French Strawberry cake) rely heavily on the nature of eggs, in this case separated yolks and whites. Since I used these […]

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