IN ENGLISH it's sponge cake, in France it's ge'noise, but in many cases it is translated into a misnomer. Americans love to bake it in cup shapes, plop ripe strawberries and whipped cream on top and call it strawberry shortcake, which is not at all correct because a shortcake is a biscuit. The British place it at the bottom of a bowl, drench it in liquor, smother it with pastry cream, candied fruit and whipped cream. They call it a trifle. If not a misnomer, it's at least an understatement.
The Germans and Austrians bake ge'noise in tart pans with raised bottoms. They fill the cake's indentation with sliced fresh fruit and cover it with a pectinous gel, sold, like Jell-O, in envelopes as a dry powder under the trade name Dr. Oetker.
And the French, well, as far as they're concerned, there is no other cake. They cover it with every buttercream imaginable, or they dip it in fondant or soak it in cognac and imbed it in chocolate.
Ge'noise, or ga teau a la ge'noise means, literally translated, "cake in the fashion of a Genoese housewife." Its place of origin is the medieval city-state Genoa. The spread of the ge'noise cake can be attributed to the navigational and shipbuilding skills of a hardy and fearless race of seafarers. For hundreds of years, the Genoans fought with other ports along the Italian peninsula for supremacy over trade routes. Their greatest obstacle to becoming the Mediterranean's busiest port was the Venetians, with whom they battled for trade with Crete, a center point in the sugar and spice trade.
From Crete, the Genoese brought back loads of refined sugar fully three centuries before the rest of Europe could afford it. In combination with eggs, that sugar became the ingredient that distinguished Genoan light, fluffy, flavorful cakes from the flat, bready, greasy and honey-laden cakes of their poorer Mediterranean neighbors.
During the Renaissance, when much of Italy was torn by invasions from France, Spain and the Ottoman Empire, many young Italian cooks and bakers immigrated to the courts of the dukes of Burgundy and France's cha teau-building king, Francois I. Along with this immigration came the art of Genoese pastry and cake-making.
The ge'noise cake, as prepared by the Italian court chefs, was cut into thin layers, soaked in various liqueur-flavored syrups, spread with apricot jam, pastry cream and filled with candied fruits. Their French students gradually dropped the syrups and candied fruits, which they found too sweet. Instead they substituted fresh fruits and delicate, rich buttercreams.
Today, French ge'noise cakes come in many flavors. The ge'noise a l'ancienne (old-style) is a distant relative of meringhe genovesi, a pastry popular even today in Genoa. In addition, popular French ge'noise cake flavors are coffee, chocolate, lemon and Grand Marnier.
Here are some delicious but not-too-demanding recipes.
INTERNATIONAL GENOISE (Makes 2 layers for an 8-inch cake)
There are two ways to make ge'noise, both involving the same recipe. This first method is to separate the yolks from the whites, beat each separately and then fold together along with the cake flour and melted butter. The resulting cake is light and moist, but a little chewy. It is used by everyone but the French, who prefer their lighter, drier, more crumbly version.
2/3 cup granulated sugar
11/4 cups cake flour
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Separate egg yolks from whites and put them into separate bowls. Whip the egg yolks on high speed until light and foamy, adding 1/2 of the sugar gradually.
Clean the mixer whips thoroughly, then whip the egg whites to soft peaks and add the remaining sugar. Whip until the whites form semi-firm peaks.
Pour the whipped egg yolks onto the eggs whites. Sift 1/3 of the flour into the bowl, fold briefly, sift in 1/3 more, fold, and sift in the last 1/3 with the melted butter. Fold gently to incorporate the flour, butter and vanilla extract, divide the batter in half and pour into 2 greased and floured 8-inch cake pans. Bake at 375 degrees until the cake turns light brown on top and begins to pull away from the sides, about 20 minutes.
FRENCH-METHOD GENOISE (Makes 2 layers for an 8-inch cake)
The French method makes a cake that is light, dry and crisp around the edges but tender in contrast to the cake of the first method. This can be prepared in one bowl if your electric mixer bowl is made of stainless steel.
2/3cup granulated sugar
11/4 cups cake flour
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a metal bowl, place the eggs and sugar. Nestle the bottom of the bowl into a saucepan containing boiling water. Whisk the eggs vigorously by hand, touching all surfaces of the bowl to prevent egg from coagulating and forming lumps. Whisk and heat for about 90 seconds or until this mixture is foamy and hot.
Set this bowl on the mixer or transfer the egg foam to a mixer bowl and beat on top speed for about 10 minutes -- until the foam turns light and the air bubble size diminishes considerably. The beaters should leave traces in the foam and when withdrawn should drop a thick ribbon of falling egg foam. If not, then reheat the foam and repeat the procedure.
Sift 1/3 of the flour onto the egg foam, fold briefly, sift 1/3 more and fold. Finally, add the final 1/3 plus melted butter and vanilla extract. Fold until smooth. Transfer half the batter to each greased and floured 8-inch cake pan and bake at 375 degrees until the cake is light brown and its sides begin to shrink.
GENOISE A L'ANCIENNE (Makes 1 8-inch cake)
1 cup apricot jam
1/4 cup apricot juice (from the can)
2 8-inch layers of ge'noise
4 egg whites
11/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon dark rum
6 canned apricot halves
Heat apricot jam and juice to a boil, then pure'e through a sieve, food mill or blender.
Slice each 8-inch cake in half horizontally and spread layers with apricot pure'e as you stack them. Place the smooth bottom of the top layer facing up. Do not spread apricot pure'e on it because the meringue will then slide off.
In double boiler or stainless steel bowl set in a saucepan of boiling water, heat egg whites and sugar while whisking vigorously. Continue to beat until the meringue becomes quite hot and the air bubbles quite small.
Pour meringue into bowl of electric mixer and beat on high speed until stiff. Add the tablespoon of rum.
Spread this "Italian meringue" around the sides and on top. Press the 6 apricot halves on top -- not too close to the edge or they will fall off.
Bake in 500-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes until the meringue has turned a golden color. FRUIT BUTTERCREAM GENOISES
For each fruit ge'noise, prepare the buttercream recipe and add the peel and juice of that particular fruit. One buttercream recipe will fill and ice an 8-inch cake. If you cut the layers in half to obtain 4 layers, you might extend the buttercream by adding 1/2 stick (2 ounces) of unsalted butter and a little more fruit.
If you want to use berries other than strawberries, simply substitute on a one-to-one basis. Even peaches can be substituted in the strawberry recipe.
All of the fruit genoises are extraordinarily light, delicate desserts. They could, therefore, be presented on large china cake plates and decorated with sprigs of mint and freshly cut flowers.
BASIC BUTTERCREAM (Enough for a 2-layer 8-inch cake)
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
2 egg yolks
1/2 pound softened, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Bring sugar and water to boil and cook until the thread stage, that is, when a spoon emptied of syrup leaves long threads of syrup hanging. The thread stage should just be reached, not passed, because sugar syrup at the hard crack stage will also form threads. And if you were to add syrup at the hard crack stage, the buttercream would be full of sharp, broken pieces of sugar.
Place the egg yolks in the small bowl (6-cup capacity) of your electric mixer. Turn the mixer on medium speed and add the sugar syrup, gradually at first, then faster. After the syrup, add the pieces of butter one by one. When half the butter has been added, turn the mixer on high speed and whip for 30 seconds to remove any lumps. Then turn back to medium speed and finish adding the butter. Again, turn the mixer on high speed and whip until light and smooth. If desired, increase the volume of the buttercream by chilling it for 20 minutes and whipping again.
Into the recipe of basic buttercream, mix in the grated rind of 2 lemons and the juice of 1 lemon. Slice 2 whole lemons very thin -- no more than 1/16-inch thick -- and arrange the lemon slices around the cake's sides.
Into the recipe of basic buttercream, mix in the grated rind of 3 limes and the juice of 2 limes. Slice 2 whole limes very thinly and arrange around the sides of the cake.
Into the basic buttercream recipe, add the grated rind of 1 orange, juice of 1/2 orange and 1 teaspoon of Grand Marnier or Curacao. Cut a whole orange in half lengthwise and slice one half very thinly crosswise. Arrange these slices around the sides of the cake.
Into the basic buttercream recipe, add 3/4 cup of quartered strawberries and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Whip until the strawberries disintegrate and the buttercream turns rose.
Slice whole strawberries and press them into the buttercream of the first layer. Chill for a few minutes, then spread another layer of buttercream over the strawberry slices. Put the second cake layer on top, ice the sides and bottom and arrange cut halves of strawberries around the sides and top edge. If there are any strawberries left, put them in a bowl next to the cake as protection against the ravaging and raving hordes.