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What's the Difference Between Sponge, Genoise and Chiffon Cakes?

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Foodstuff is a freelance food writer and published author who enjoys exploring various recipes and techniques.

The sponge cake and the genoise are the little black dresses of the patisserie world. Accessorised to the nines with flavourings, fillings and toppings—from creams and mousses to fruits, nuts, chocolate and fondant coatings—these simple cakes are transformed into glamorous gateaux like Black Forest cakes, 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, eggy 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.

Pandan (screwpine) flavoured chiffon cake—a popular Asian treat.

Pandan (screwpine) flavoured chiffon cake—a popular Asian treat.

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.

Strawberry jam & cream filled Swiss roll.

Strawberry jam & cream filled Swiss roll.

Tips for Making Light and 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.

Savoiardi Biscuits

Savoiardi Biscuits

Sponge Biscuits

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.

A plate of powder puffs.

A plate of powder puffs.

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.

Ingredients

  • 2 eggs (60 grams), separated
  • 70 grams caster sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 level teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 35 grams cornflour
  • 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • Berry jam of your choice
  • Thick cream (45% or more fat content)
  • Icing sugar

Instructions

  1. Beat the egg yolks with 40 grams of the sugar until the mixture is thick and pale, and forms a ribbon. Beat in the vanilla extract.
  2. 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.
  3. Sift together the cornflour, plain flour, half teaspoon of cream of tartar and baking soda.
  4. Whisk the yolk mixture into the stiff whites. Then carefully fold in the flour mixture.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 assembled puffs for about 1 to 2 hours. They will become soft and puffy.
  7. Just before serving, sift icing sugar over.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can I add milk to the genoise batter? What amount can I add? What is the effect of milk on a genoise cake?

Answer: First of all, why do you want to add milk to the batter? You will immediately affect the ratio of dry to wet ingredients for the batter and unbalance it.

Question: What is thick cream? Is it the same as American heavy whipping cream? And do you beat it the same?

Answer: Thick cream that I am referring to here is pure cream that has at least 45% fat content. This is within the Australian context. The cream is extremely thick i.e. it doesn't flow. It is almost solid.

As I understand it, "heavy whipping cream" in the US is cream with fat content of between 36% to 38% fat content.

Question: I want to make these. I’m from Washington state in the USA. Can you convert the recipe into U.S. Customary Units?

Answer: What you can do is use an online conversion tool to convert grams (g) to lbs and ounces or to cups (if you are using volume measurements). I just do a search with "convert ... grams of (ingredient eg flour, sugar etc) to... (your choice of measurement)"

Hope this helps for this recipe and for future reference for other recipes.

Question: I have leftover sabayon after making tiramisu. I’d like to fold in some lemon curd and use it as filling for a cake roll. Which type of cake would be best for a sabayon cake roll: sponge, Genoese or chiffon?

Answer: I'd do a sponge cake.

Question: For the reader looking for "thick cream" in the US, you can get jars of clotted cream in grocery stores that carry UK imports. Or you can make it at home from heavy cream: there are tutorials online. It's probably not exactly the same, but you can spread it the same way. Would "thick cream" be an acceptable substitute for clotted cream? It's delicious on scones.

Answer: Fat content is what you should be looking at when substituting cream. The fat content of clotted cream is between 55% to 60%. Double cream has around 48% fat. Heavy cream or whipping cream has between 36% to 38% fat.

© 2011 Foodstuff

Comments

Janisa from Earth on June 13, 2020:

Great recipe! I want to try the powdered puffs!

Foodstuff (author) from Australia on June 11, 2020:

Naz, Correct. The chiffon cake needs additional leavening power.

Naz on June 11, 2020:

So for chiffon cake we use baking powder N for sponge we didn't?

anguslaw on April 06, 2020:

hi, would you provide a sponge cake recipe? I cannot search a sponge cake without adding additional fat. thanks

Bee Gianni on February 17, 2018:

Holy okey, these cakes are gorgeous and can’t wait to try them.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on October 09, 2015:

Great recipe. This looks delicious.

Foodstuff (author) from Australia on March 01, 2011:

Thanks, AnnCee. Enjoy!

Literary Geisha from Philippines on February 28, 2011:

i'm saving up for it foodstuff! i used to own one but i had to sell it because i didn't have time to bake. ;)

AnnCee from United States on February 28, 2011:

Oh man! Love this stuff. Now I must go make jam cake. Delicious photographs.

Foodstuff (author) from Australia on February 28, 2011:

Thank you, Literary Geisha. What's up with your oven?

Literary Geisha from Philippines on February 27, 2011:

i must say this is one delicious hub! i'm saving this for when i get that much-awaited oven. thanks for sharing!