Tuesday, June 19, 2012

TWD: Baking with Julia - French Strawberry Cake

Our Tuesday's with Dorie assignment this week was to make a French Strawberry Cake.  "Yippee", I thought.  Perfect timing for the clever girl's 4th birthday!  Then I read the recipe.  You start by making a "Perfect Genoise" and then continue to the strawberry cake recipe just for the strawberry and whipped cream part.  Have you ever made a genoise?  I had not, and I have to admit it had me quaking in my boots.  For good reason, as it turns out.

A genoise is a sponge cake that does not use any chemical leavening.  Instead, the batter is whipped such that the air suspended in the batter gives the cake its volume.  Flo Braker, the baker that provided this recipe for Baking with Julia,  states "The process of making a genoise can seem intimidating."  Yep.  That is certain.  It also says, "It may look as if disaster will strike at every turn."  Yep.  And, "follow the directions and it will do just what it's supposed to do, even when you think it won't."  Ummm, not so much.

You see that beautiful cake?  It sure looks lovely.  And it sure wasn't a "perfect" genoise.  Far from it!  You can't judge a book by it's cover.  Not everything is as it appears, my friends.

I cannot lie.  I had problems with this recipe.  I am no professional baker by ANY means but I do quite a bit of baking and have general success with cakes.  Not this one.  In fact I made it twice.  As it turns out, it seems that many people in our baking group had problems with this recipe.  I think I may try this recipe again.  Part of me wants to make it again and again until I master it.  Part of me wants to just find another genoise recipe and try that one instead.  Part of me wants to do both.  A small part of me wants to forget there even exists a cake called genoise and never make one again.  I think the first couple parts of me will win out but I am obviously conflicted!  Grrr.

Are you scared of the cake now?  Don't be.  Some people had great success with this recipe and raved about it.  Maybe you will be one of them!  Let's get started!

The ingredients for the recipe are basic:  Melted butter, sifted cake flour, sugar, salt, eggs, vanilla extract.  So far, so good!

Put the sifted cake flour back into the sieve/sifter and sift it again with some sugar and salt onto some waxed paper for later.  Check.

Put the eggs and the remaining sugar into a mixing bowl and mix it together by holding your whisk attachment with your hand.  I have never done that before.

Here is where things start to get interesting.  You whip those eggs with the sugar on medium until it is "airy, pale, and tripled in volume, like softly whipped cream, 4 to 5 minutes.  You know when the eggs are properly whipped when you lift the whisk and the mixture falls back into the bowl like a ribbon that rests on the surface for about 10 seconds."  Okay Flo, here we go!  I put my mixer on what I consider to be medium and it took more like 9-10 minutes to get to this ribbon-y stage.  I do think I got this ribbon stage right though, because my picture almost exactly matches the photo in the book!  So maybe I should have had my mixer at a higher speed.  I think "medium" is a bit in the eye of the beholder, so that could be the issue here.  However, I don't think the extra time it took to whip should be a problem.  I still got the requisite volume.  In case you are keeping track of ingredients, the vanilla extract is added in just before you are done whipping.

Remember the sifted flour mixture from earlier?  Now is when this comes into play.  You sprinkle a third of the mixture over the batter and GENTLY fold it in with a rubber spatula.  Do this until all of the flour is in and just barely incorporated into the mix.  Yikes.  I worry that I may overmix things, so I was super careful here.  As it turns out, I think I was too careful with my first cake.  I think the flour did not get mixed in enough, so it fell during baking.  How do you find that perfect amount of folding where the flour is incorporated but not mixed in too much?  Do you continue until you see no more bits of flour?  If I do that I think I would end up overmixing, especially in a dough this fragile where I need to keep it puffy.  Hmmm.

The second time I made the cake, I did not sprinkle the flour mixture from the waxed paper.  I thought maybe this technique didn't 'sprinkle' as gently as it should, so I put the mixture back into the sieve and gently sprinkled from the sieve over the batter.  My second cake had more volume than the first one, so I may have been onto something here.

Once the flour mixture is in, you take out about a cup of the batter, gently fold in the melted butter, and then mix the butter/batter back into the rest of the batter.  There is so much gentle folding here!  I was a nervous wreck.  Oh, and to ease my nervousness, good old Flo Braker says "this is the point at which the batter is at its most fragile, so fold gingerly."  Thanks, Flo.  That really makes me feel better!

The batter is poured into an 8 inch cake pan that was greased with white shortening and floured.  Then it bakes for 25-27 minutes at 350F.  As you can see, I wrapped the pan with a cake strip.  This usually helps a cake to bake evenly.  I have no idea if it helped in this situation though.  The second time I made the cake, I did not use the strips.  Another thought.  See all those air bubbles?  In a regular cake, you don't want those bubbles.  I will "gently" drop the cake pan on the counter a few times to get rid of bubbles.  I wonder if these bubbles are a problem?

This is a photo of the first cake after it cooled.  As you can see, it fell in the middle.  The photo is not very good, because it is hard to tell perspective on the cake, but when I leveled the cake it was maybe 3/4 of an inch tall.  The book contains no photo of a finished genoise so I have no idea as to how tall the cake is supposed to be.  However, the cake instructions state to cut the cake into 3 layers, which is simply ridiculous on a cake this short.  Surely the cake should have been 1 1/2 to 2 inches tall?? 

After making two cakes and having little success at both, I decided to just use both cakes and continue with the strawberry part of the cake.  Plus, time was an issue!

Earlier in the day, I had prepared my strawberries.  The recipe calls for 2 pints of strawberries which is an odd amount, in my opinion.  My strawberries come by the pound and you can't really convert a volume measurement (pints) to a weight measurement (pounds).  And depending on how you slice a strawberry, you could end up with a different amount as well.  Regardless, I decided to go with the 2 cups per pint conversion and used 4 cups of sliced strawberries.  Later I found a conversion on a website devoted to strawberries and it said that a pint of strawberries was between 1.5 and 2.25 cups of sliced strawberries, so I was in the ballpark!  I sliced the strawberries and added 1/4 cup sugar and let them sit for about 2 hours to macerate.  After 2 hours, I mashed them up a bit and then let them sit longer.  The juicer the better!  Genoise cake is known to be dry, and since mine were so weird I figured I needed some juicy strawberries to help!

Onto the construction of the cake!  I like this part a lot.  Since my cake would have 2 layers instead of three, I used all of my strawberries on the bottom layer.  Honestly, I don't feel like it was an overload of strawberries, so if I do someday make this cake with 3 layers I will prepare extra strawberries so each layer could have a nice amount.

After the layer of strawberries, a layer of whipped cream is applied.  The whipped cream is again a different recipe than I have ever tried.  It adds a small bit of sour cream to the mix, which is interesting.  It seems to make the texture a bit creamier and makes the flavor a bit more subtle.  I did add extra sugar and extra vanilla to my whipped cream.  The extra vanilla part isn't so surprising, I often add extra vanilla to things.  Extra sugar is a total surprise though, as this is an extremely rare event for me.  I never add extra sugar to anything!  This whipped cream needed it though.  I also added a pinch of salt, which then made it just right.  When I first made it, it just seemed bland to me.  I'll be darned if I will have a bland whipped cream on this cake! 

Then the second later was applied (which was the first cake I baked) and the entire cake was iced.  Now for the best part, decorating!  Flo says to pipe 10 rosettes on the top of the cake and even tells you how far apart to put them!  For a recipe with no photo, she sure got specific here!  Funny!  I whipped out my decorating tips, grabbed a number 18 and piped my rosettes!  I added an extra one in the middle.  Then I piped some little stars along the bottom.

 Happy birthday, clever girl!

She thought it was wonderful.  And that is what is important, right?

A slice of French Strawberry Cake.  If you look closely, you can see a line in the top layer.  The top of that layer is the bottom of the first cake I made, and this is why I think the flour fell in this layer.  This did not happen in the second layer.  So I think sifting the flour over the batter was a good idea.

I will be completely honest with you.  The top layer was not good.  My wonderful husband and child told me that the cake was delicious and amazing but this is because they love me.  That top layer was super dense, sort of like a hockey puck I imagine.  I have never eaten a hockey puck, nor do I want to, but I would guess this is a good analogy.  Yuck.  So after eating the cake on the clever girl's birthday, I salvaged the cake by removing the top strawberries and removing the entire top layer of cake.  Into the garbage it went!  Then I put the strawberries back on the bottom layer and that combination was perfect.  Remember that bottom layer had the benefit of the juicy macerated strawberries so that worked!

Not my best baking effort, readers.  Here are my ideas as to what might have gone wrong:
  • My eggs were labeled extra large.  The recipe calls for large.  A large egg is generally about 3 1/2 tablespoons of egg, while an extra large egg is about 4 tablespoons.  Since the recipe was for 4 large eggs, that would be 14 tablespoons of egg.  I used extra large eggs, so I ended up with 16 tablespoons of egg.  Maybe the extra egg made a difference?
  • A traditional genoise recipe has you heat the eggs instead of using room temperature eggs.  Maybe I should get the eggs a bit warmer than room temperature?   
  • Folding.  This something I need to work on.  I wonder if I had put the batter into a shallower bowl I might have folded more easily?  One of the other bakers in the group said that it is often difficult to fold evenly in a Kitchenaid mixer bowl because of the bump on the bottom, so maybe a shallower mixing bowl would help. 
  • Are the air bubbles a good or bad thing?  Should I tap the cake pan on the counter a few times to try to eliminate those bubbles?
Honestly, I think folding is the key.  This is something I just need to practice over and over.  I think I will try to make this genoise again.  If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  I will give Flo another shot.  Or two.  We'll see.  I may just have to say NO to Flo and find a new recipe.  We'll see.  I just have to wait a while to try again... there are other things on my baking list that I want to do first!

You win some, you lose some!  If you would like to see the recipe, check out this recipe's hosts:  Sophia of Sophia's Sweets and Allison of Think, Love, Sleep, Dine.  Or you can find it in Baking with Julia on pages 39 (the genoise) and 273 (strawberry cake). 


  1. Our cake had that same 'hockey puck' layer. I like that you made two of them, and the birthday girl looks so excited! I'd call it a success :)

  2. What a cutie your girl!!! The cake sure looks fantastic even if you didn't care that much for it!

    1. Thanks! I suppose it was a success since the birthday girl thought it was great!

  3. while the cake may have a deflated a bit out of the oven.. it looks great after being all dolled up!!!

  4. It still looks good to me! And it looks just lovely as a birthday cake....Happy Birthday to your little girl :-)

  5. Beautiful cake. Sorry the first layer did not turn out, but learning is always good. Your daughter is a cutie pie!

  6. The delighted happy look on your daughter's face says it all!
    The cake looks great (and that's all that matters in the end!)

  7. Your cake is beautiful! I DO understand your frustration though and your need to write about it:) Your beautiful daughter is so obviously satisfied with the cake and that's what matters. Happy birthday to her!

  8. Happy Birthday to your daughter. She loved the cake and that is the important thing. That said, I was one of the bakers who ended up with a hockey puck. Rats.

  9. Sharron, your daughter is so adorable. Like the cool looking candles on the cake. Great post...it was not a success for me...oh well...such is life. :)

    ~ Carmen

  10. I think it's great and I'm sure the birthday girl loved it!

  11. Happy Birthday little Pricess!
    Your cake is fabulous, elegant and with so lovely candles.
    May all your wishes come true.

  12. So pretty. And your little birthday girl is absolutely adorable! :)

  13. Well it may not have been the perfect genoise but the finished cake looks wonderful and I'm sure your little girl loved it!!

  14. Your finished cake looks beautiful - and happy birthday to the Clever Girl :-)

  15. OMG what a beautiful little girl you have. And a Happy Birthday to her. I think your cake looks beautiful, even if it is not so inside.

  16. Your cake looks beautiful, even if it didn't taste as good. I think it looks like a perfect princess cake. The excitement on your daughter's face is priceless!

    1. Thank you. It was a good birthday cake for the big girl. She loved it and that's what counts, right??

  17. Wow! Happy Birthday to your daughter! AND I want to try that cake!

  18. your cake looks so pretty and clean! :) You will know what to change about the process next time to make it work better for you, if there is a next time. Great job either way! :)

  19. Beautiful decoration. Beautiful daughter.


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