Sponge, Genoise & Chiffon Cakes
The sponge cake and the genoise are the little black dresses of the patisserie world. Accessorised to the nines with flavourings, fillings and toppings - creams, mousses, fruits, nuts, chocolate and fondant coatings - these simple cakes are transformed into glamorous gateaux like the Black Forest cake, shiny bejewelled mousse cakes and so on.
However, these cakes are natural beauties on their own, particularly when made with fabulous free range eggs. Their delicate flavour and ethereal texture shine through best in the simplest of presentations. Is there anything quite like the old-fashioned jam and cream sponge sandwich, where two meltingly light, egg-y cake layers meld with luscious berry jam and fresh thick cream in every mouthful?
This uncomplicated jam-and-cream assembly is just as good with a chocolate sponge. A glaze of passionfruit icing and the addition of grated lemon zest to the batter are two embellishments that enhance without smothering.
A good cup of tea and a slice or two of Swiss roll with jam and cream or lemon curd filling would satisfy the most jaded palate.
The Difference Between Sponge, Genoise and Chiffon Cakes
While the sponge and genoise are often regarded as being one and the same, they are, strictly speaking, two quite different creatures. A true sponge contains no fat other than that occurring naturally in egg yolks, and the yolks and whites are usually beaten separately. With a genoise, clarified butter is used to enrich the batter, which is made by beating whole eggs, sometimes with additional yolks, together with sugar, over warm water.
The chiffon cake is a hybrid of the sponge and the genoise. The addition of oil gives this cake its characteristic moist and tender texture. The yolks and oil are beaten into the sugar, flour and other dry ingredients including a leavening agent (not normally used in the other two cakes). The whites are whipped separately and then folded into the mixture.
Popular in America, the chiffon cake is also much loved in South-East Asia, where flavourings include coconut milk and pandan leaf extract. The green-coloured pandan chiffon cake can be found in most Asian food stores and bakeries in Australia.
Tips for Making Light Airy Cakes
Getting air into the batter and keeping it in are the keys to lightness for sponge, genoise and chiffon cakes. Eggs aerate more rapidly when slightly warm. When the yolks are to be beaten with sugar, separately from the whites, use eggs at room temperature. When beating whole eggs with sugar, either beat over a saucepan of barely simmering water, or soak the eggs in hot tap water for a few minutes and beat them in a warm bowl.
Sponge cakes and their kin should be cooked in tins with unlined, un-greased sides. To cool, turn the tin upside down and balance it on four drinking glasses. If using a ring tin (as is usually the case with chiffon cakes), invert it and "hang" it over the neck of a bottle. This lets the cake cook and set at its maximum volume instead of settling.
When making any of the cakes, caster sugar should always be used as it dissolves easily.
Instead of just plain flour, a mixture of flour and starch such as cornflour or potato starch is often used, particularly when making Swiss rolls and the crisp slender sponge biscuits variously known as savoy or boudoir biscuits, ladies' fingers, or savoiardi.
Savoiardi biscuits, often used in desserts such a tiramisu, were eaten by French ladies when entertaining their close friends in their private rooms or boudoirs. In contrast, the English used to eat them at funerals. However, sometime in the early 20th century, they adopted the French name and in so doing, relocated this biscuit's place in life.
Powder Puffs: An Australian Classic
The funeral connection reminds me of a friend's first encounter with "powder puffs", also known as "sponge kisses". She first came across this now rarely seen Australian country classic at a wake. So taken was she by the bite-sized soft puffy pillows of jam-and-cream filled sponge ensembles that she approached a member of the bereaved family saying: "I know this is really bad form, but what are these and can I have the recipe please?"
I cannot say that I behaved much better when I first discovered them at a baby shower. One taste of these delicate frivolities and good manners went out the window. Whilst everyone was busy 'ooh-ing' and 'aah-ing' over the gifts, I proceeded to discreetly devour the entire lot on one of the tiered cake stands at one end of the buffet before moving on the second lot at the other end.
The following recipe was developed after rummaging through many old country women's cookbooks and cuttings.
Recipe: Powder Puffs
Makes about 25 assembled puffs
- 2 eggs (60 g), separated
- 70 g caster sugar
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Pinch salt
- 1 level tsp cream of tartar
- 35 g cornflour
- 2 tbsp plain flour
- 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
- Berry jam of your choice
- Thick cream (45% or more fat content)
- Icing sugar
- Beat the egg yolks with 40 g of the sugar until the mixture is thick and pale, and forms a ribbon. Beat in the vanilla extract.
- In a clean large bowl, using a balloon whisk, whisk the egg whites with the salt until they hold soft peaks. Then gradually whisk in the remaining sugar and half teaspoon of cream of tartar until the mixture holds stiff peaks.
- Sift together the cornflour, plain flour, half teaspoon of cream of tartar and baking soda.
- Whisk the yolk mixture into the stiff whites. Then carefully fold in the flour mixture.
- Line several flat baking trays with baking paper. Drop teaspoonfuls of the batter, spaced about 2.5 cm apart, onto the trays. Bake in a preheated 200ºC oven for about 10 minutes. They should be pale golden brown. Do not overcook ro they will dry out too much. Allow to cool for a few minutes on the baking tray before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely. Store the cold puffs in an airtight container until required.
- Assemble the puffs at least 1 hour before serving. Spread the underside of one puff with jam and the underside of another puff with cream. Sandwich them together. Repeat with the remaining puffs. Cover and refrigerate the assemble puffs for about 1 - 2 hours. They will be become soft and puffy.
- Just before serving, sift icing sugar over.
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