When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

Strawberry Shortcake June 19, 2008

I never thought I’d say this, but could making a genoise be this easy?

I’m currently reviewing four baking cookbooks for the newspaper, and – since I have time – I’m trying out one recipe from each title to value-add.

Just Desserts by Bakerzin’s founder Daniel Tay has a recipe for strawberry shortcake that I just had to try. It appeared to be the least complicated recipe in the cake section and, besides, strawberry shortcake is my favourite cake. But there is a snag: I’d have to revisit the genoise, a word that sets me trembling to my very foundations.

Genoise, which is the French style of sponge cake, is notoriously hard to make. Like all sponges, it gets its aeration and volume not from baking powder, but from whipping the hell out of eggs. Then, you’d have to fold in flour and melted butter with the dexterity and speed of a kungfu pugilist. A heavy hand or a few seconds too long and you’d end up with a rubber mat of a cake.

I tried to master the genoise last year after I bought Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. And, I tell you, that lady made me go through hell and high water to attain her vision of the perfect genoise.

To make her genoise, I had to prepare my own beurre noisette (snooty term for clarified butter) by heating butter to boiling point then straining the burnt milk solids. I had to balance a bowl of eggs over a pot of boiling water, then, risking life and limb, beat the eggs for 10 full minutes with a hand-held electric mixer. Then, to effectively fold in the flour without upsetting too much of the testy air bubbles, I bought the biggest whisk there is, at 16 inches long – all at Beranbaum’s behest.

And what did I get after at least five attempts? Greasy countertops, egg foam everywhere, a bloody baseball-bat of a whisk that cannot fit in any of my drawers, and sunken-in cakes.

So when I tried Tay’s recipe, I half-expected it not the work. He didn’t call for the heating up of eggs to achieve maximum volume, which was unusual. Instead, a helluva lot of egg yolks were needed – at least six, plus another three whole eggs – which were beaten for a good 20 minutes. Presumably, this is to stabilise the air bubbles so the batter becomes more tolerant of rough handling.

At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I took the cake out of the oven. It didn’t sink. I gave it another 15 minutes on the counter, and still it stayed put. Then, I bent down and peered at it at eye-level – the top was perfectly level. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I have a miracle.

Making the chantilly cream was even easier. I only had to whisk together whipped cream, mascarpone cheese and sugar, and I was soon licking this utterly delicious concoction off my fingers.

Okay, so the finishing was a little rough. I unmolded the cake a little too soon (the book didn’t specify how long it should be refrigerated – their fault!) so it didn’t look as polished as the photo in the book. But it tasted so good. It wasn’t quite like my Holy Grail, the unrivalled Scoop Cake from Tampopo Deli in Liang Court. But it was pretty dem good for a first try. And so easy too.

Yay, Mr Tay.