Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Twenty: Génoise


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

This lesson will be short in the write up, because it's pastry ... for those of you who are unaware of the difference between "pastry" and "cooking" -- cooks are frenetic, kitchens are hot, things are done on the fly, lots of shouting, a handful of this, a pinch of that -- the typical "mad chef" stereotype. Pastry people, in contrast, measure stuff carefully, tend to work methodically, practice stuff over and over, and there is a more meticulous sculptural quality about their work. They also have to control temperature more exactly, and have infinite patience. They even carry digital scales in their toolbags!

Sure, we'd done tartes before, but a pie is different from a cake or pastry. Pies are more forgiving and can suit the cook, ingredient availabilities, etc. Pastry is a more exact art, and today we are making a classical génoise, which is a sabayon sweetened with sugar, stabilized by flour, and baked. That's it. No other leavening than the air you whip into the eggyolks when making the sabayon. The result is a dry-ish cake which takes sauces, crèmes, fruit, syrups, very well. It's also quite stable when cooked, so is the basis of light wedding cakes in which buttercream frosting is the sculptural medium. It's good as the base for any cake when you want the sauce or frosting to shine. An example: chocolate mousse cake, with mousse held between layers of chocolate génoise, or a rich chocolate birthday cake, with ganache as the frosting and filling.

The sabayon is familiar -- eggyolks and flavorings are beaten hard over a steambath to heat the yolks, but not to curdle them. It's the start of hollandaise, of course. This time, you add sugar to the yolks and beat like mad. Boil an inch of water in a sautoir, then turn down to a simmer. Place a large, good-fitting bowl on top of the pan of water, add the yolks and sugar, then whisk with a balloon whisk for volume. The mixture is done when you lift up the whisk and the mixture drips back into the bowl in a thick, pale stream that can fold back on itself like a ribbon. Take it off the heat and whisk madly for another minute. Then carefully and in bits sieve a thin layer of cake flour over, and fold in with a spatula, being careful not to break the air bubbles you worked so hard to capture into the sabayon. Depending on the humidity, properties of the flour, your sabayon, etc. you may not need all the flour. Stop sieving when it's like a thick pancake batter.

By the way, use cake flour here -- it's low in gluten, meaning it's not as stretchy when mixed, and will make a more tender cake. In contrast, bread flour is full of the gluten protein, meaning it gets stretchy, enabling fermentation gases to be trapped by the protein strands. This allows bread to rise, and to form those holes in the dough. There is one thought that all-purpose flour is a mixture of bread and cake flour. Wonder if that's true?

Prepare a cake pan by first buttering it, then cutting parchement paper to fit on the bottom, then buttering the paper. Using cake flour, coat the pan with a thin layer of flour, tapping out the excess. Put the batter carefully into this pan, and spin in a couple of times to distribute the batter -- do not bang it! That will just burst air bubbles and you'll use your leavening. In fact, this is the cake that everyone knows can fall if you slam the oven door or make a ruckus. So clear everyone out of the kitchen and be gentle (remember the difference between cooks and pastry chefs?).

Cook till done, about 25 minutes, when a fingertip imprint on the top bounces back up. Remove the cake and place it upside down on a fine-meshed rack till cooled. This levels any "hills" on the cake, a nice tip! When cool, remove and de-pan. You'll need to remove the parchment from the bottom of the cake ... for most purposes, leave the cake upsidedown -- the nice level bottom becomes the top of the cake. Isn't that clever?

Split the cake and paint all surfaces with simple syrup -- a one-to-one mixture by weight of sugar dissolved in water. You can flavor this -- vanilla, alcohol, extracts; you can even replace the water with another liquid if you'd like. Paint the cut surfaces and uncut -- a génoise is quite dry, and the syrup moistens it and also "seals" it for the frosting applications. (I wondered if the tradition of the American Jell-o "poke cake" comes from this idea -- dissolve Jell-o crystals in very little water to make a syrup, which is poured over a white cake in which holes have been poked. Hey, just because it's American corporate produced food, doesn't mean it's a total bastard!)

We filled with buttercream, then scraped a thin layer of buttercream on all outside surfaces to "seal" the crumb layer. This means when you go to ice the cake and decorate it, it won't pick up stray crumbs and ruin the look of your frosting. Chill the cake with crumb layer iced, then decorate. We chose to put more buttercream all over, then press sliced almonds which had been roasted on a perforated sheetpan on the sides for a very nice Euro look. The top was decorated with sliced fruit. Simple, elegant, beautiful, and everyone who saw it coveted not only the cake, but the skill needed to produce it.

So, should I tell them ... it has to do with whipping the hell out of some eggwhites? Brawn as well as beauty? As well as the gentle touch to keep the bubbles in? No real "magic"?

Actually, it might be skill too, since about a third of the class's cakes fell disastrously. This happened because someone turned off one of the ovens ... or the pans were not buttered properly and the cakes didn't rise evenly ... or the batter was overbeaten when the flour was added ... or the flour was not sieved properly and instead it clumped down into the batter ... or they opened the oven doors too often, causing thermal shock to the cakes ...

But you know, I wasn't all that careful. My sabayon was not the lightest. I dumped in flour through a coarse sieve, and not evenly over the surface either. I tossed my cake into the oven and didn't check it. Maybe it is having a "touch" after all?

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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