Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this.
Some people = me. A lifetime = a year or two. A moment like this = a genoise cake success I could share with you. She’s here!
You see, my grandmother is an excellent baker, and no special occasion in my childhood went without a cake from grandma. Grandma’s go-to was always European-style sponge cake: simple, egg-based, leavened only by whipping air into eggs, and somewhat dry when baked, then moistened with a generous brushing of syrup. She did it perfectly, and consistently knocked it out of the park.
I remember attempting it for the first time when I was maybe eleven years old. I followed my mom’s handwritten notes as best as I could, with only a rubbery, eggy, flat mass at the bottom of a pan to show for it at the end. I suppose I could have asked for help, but I just moved on to other things instead. It was only recently (when I started blogging) that I decided this had to happen for real. I must be a better baker 15+ years later, right?
Well, marginally, it turns out. But eventually, I got there! I made a rather good sponge cake–tender, not too sweet, and made luxurious by a light caramel frosting and crunchy, nutty caramelized almonds. Not as outstanding as grandma’s, but can it ever be?
Here’s everything needed for the cake itself: flour, sugar, vanilla, a bit of melted butter, and eggs. Many eggs.
We start things by whisking eggs and sugar with vanilla, then heating this mixture over a double boiler until it’s warm and primed for major beating.
Then, we mix and mix and mix. Watch as the batter nearly triples in volume and goes ghost-white pale.
It’s a thing of wonder! Then, carefully sift delicate cake flour right onto the mixture, folding ever so gently to incorporate it without deflating. (Obviously, this is where 11-year-old me went wrong… I’m pretty sure I did not know how to fold properly.)
Gently dollop the batter into two prepared pans, bake and remove from the oven when the cakes are golden brown and starting to pull away from the edges of the pans. Basically, when they look like this:
You don’t have to stress so much about overbaking, as with most cake recipes. Sponge cakes are, by definition, a bit dry, because the fun part is brushing them generously with syrup later. Spiking the syrup with a strong liquor cuts the sweetness and adds a certain sophistication to the whole thing. (If you ask me, anyway. RUM, what up?)
While the cakes are doing whatever it is they’re doing (baking, cooling, what have you), it’s a good time to make some caramel sauce. Having all ingredients ready is majorly important, because honestly, caramel-making can go wrong in a flash. I’ve made it go wrong so many times.
But it’s worth it–look at this. I wish I could make this a scratch-and-sniff photo. Why isn’t there an app for that?
If you like making caramel, GOOD NEWS! We get to do it twice for this cake–once for the caramel sauce which you’ll use for the frosting and decorating (above) and once for the caramelized almonds (below).
The fun just never stops.
I’m a big fan of cream cheese and whipped cream frosting–it’s not cloyingly sweet, like many a frosting is guilty of being, and light while still being sturdy enough to pipe into all sorts of pretty things.
Brush, dollop, frost, repeat.
Top with caramelized almonds! This is the fun part. We’re almost there.
The caramel sauce is the perfect consistency for dripping down the edges of a cake–it’ll stop, but not before leaving a thick, attractive, delicious caramel trail. Oh yes.
Next comes what I’m convinced is the crucial step to great sponge cake, and also the easiest: put it in the fridge overnight, or maybe for a whole day. I think many of my past failures can be attributed to simply rushing the process and not giving the cake time to settle–a good rest allows the syrup and frosting to really permeate the layers. Beauty sleep: important for you, important for me, important for sponge cake.
…You can use that extra time to do so much. Like marvel at how your little brother is 22 already. Where does the time go?
Genoise Cake with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream Frosting and Caramelized Almonds
For the cake:
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For the syrup:
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon rum or brandy
For the salted caramel sauce:
1 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons high-quality sea salt (I used smoked Maldon sea salt)
For the frosting:
12 ounces cream cheese (I usually use low-fat)
3/4 cup caramel sauce (recipe above)
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups heavy cream
For the caramelized almonds:
6 oz sliced almonds
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
To make the genoise:
Preheat an oven to 375 degrees and prepare two 8-inch cake pans by lining bottoms with parchment paper.
Whisk together the eggs, sugar and vanilla in a heatproof bowl until combined. Place the bowl over simmering water in a saucepan and continue whisking until the mixture is warm, registering about 140 degrees on a thermometer. Remove from heat and beat mixture with a mixer on high speed until the mixture is pale, fluffy and almost tripled in volume–10 minutes or so.
Sift the cake flour over the batter in two additions, folding gently to incorporate each time. Fold a large dollop of the batter into a small bowl with the melted butter, then fold this back into the batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake until the tops of the cakes are golden brown and starting to pull away from the edges of the pans, 15-20 minutes. Transfer the pans to a wire rack and let cool completely, then invert cakes onto racks and cut each horizontally into two equal layers.
To make the syrup, heat sugar and water on the stove or in the microwave until sugar melts. Cool and stir in brandy or rum.
To make the caramel sauce:
Heat the sugar over medium-high heat in a medium saucepan. When it starts to melt, stir with a whisk continuously. When all clumps are gone and all of the sugar is melted, stop whisking. Swirl the pan to move the mixture around to keep it from burning. Cook until it reaches a dark amber color (see photos above). Be careful not to burn the caramel–you can use a thermometer for guidance. Getting the caramel to around 320 degrees worked well in my experience.
Then, remove the saucepan from heat, add the butter, one piece at a time, and stir well until the butter melts. Pour in the heavy cream, stir well to incorporate, and stir in the salt. Let this mixture cool in the saucepan for 15 minutes or so, then transfer to a jar and cool completely.
To make the caramelized almonds:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and spread almonds on a cookie sheet sprayed with nonstick spray. Toast the nuts, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 15 minutes.
On the stovetop in a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Cook over medium-high heat until the water dissolves and the mixture comes to a boil. When the mixture is thick, bubbly and golden brown, remove the pan from the heat and add toasted almonds. Stir well to coat, then add the butter, stirring well once again until the butter melts. Spread the almonds on a large sheet of parchment paper, flattening with a spatula to spread them out somewhat thinly. Cool completely, then break into chunks or chop coarsely.
To make the frosting:
In a medium mixing bowl, beat cream cheese with 3/4 of a cup of the caramel sauce (reserve the rest for decorating) and 1/2 cup of brown sugar until well incorporated. With the mixer running, slowly pour in the heavy cream and keep beating until mixture can hold stiff peaks.
To assemble the cake, brush sponge cake layers with the syrup. Spread about 1/2 cup of frosting in between each layer, then frost entire outside of the cake, reserving extra frosting for decorative piping if desired. Top the cake with caramelized almonds (you may or may not wish to use them all), drizzle with the remainder of the caramel sauce, and decorate with additional frosting as desired.
Allow cake to rest in the fridge overnight before serving.