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What's the Difference: Sponge Cake, Pound Cake, Gateau, Genoise

Even though they have similar ingredients, small changes make a big difference between foam and butter cakes. See more pictures of cakes and cupcakes.
Even though they have similar ingredients, small changes make a big difference between foam and butter cakes. See more pictures of cakes and cupcakes.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

There might be more kinds of cakes in the world than you could sample in a lifetime, but according to Joy of Baking, most of them fall into two categories: foam and butter. Foam cakes are comprised of flour, sugar, eggs, butter (in some cases) and flavoring. They get their light, fluffy texture from air beaten into egg whites, and, as a bonus, they're not as unhealthy as other types of cake. Some are completely fat free, but those containing whole egg (like sponge cake) or butter (like génoise and gâteau) have a slight amount of fat. (If a cake is air-leavened, it isn't considered butter cake even if it contains butter.)

Butter cakes, such as pound cake, depend on a chemical leavening product such as baking soda or baking powder. Of course, butter cakes tend to contain significant quantities of butter (or margarine or shortening), which adds firmness and heft. Otherwise, the ingredient list is similar to foam cakes: flour, sugar, butter and flavoring.

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Though it seems like our four subjects are quite similar, we'll discuss their respective (and delicious) roles in pastry baking.

 

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Considering Europeans' enthusiasm for dessert and decadence, we shouldn't be surprised that they pioneered many pastry innovations.

Early publications suggest the sponge cake originated in England, but by the 19th century, it was already being customized for international tastes. Pound cake, also British in origin, was popular because its simplicity made the recipe easy to remember. It stayed consistent from the 1700s until the 1900s, when cooks began to add newly-available chemical leaveners.

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Génoise, another sponge, has Italian origins (perhaps from the city of Genoa), but it's been adopted for treats that are more commonly associated with French cuisine. And the accent over the "a" might have clued you in: gâteau is a proud French creation.

Despite similar composition and upper-crust ancestry, each cake has unique characteristics. On the next page, we'll discuss how to decide which might be best suited to your occasion.

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Sponge cake is known for a subtle flavor that pairs well with hot beverages. It has a very light texture, so it's a popular teatime snack and has a reputation for being healthy (in context, of course).

Pound cake is graced with a rich, buttery flavor, good on its own but decadent with fruit and nuts. Its dense texture is thanks to heavy-handed proportions of whole eggs and butter, which pack each slice with moist mouthfuls of fat and calories.

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Though gâteau is a spongelike cake, the ingredients combine to form a doughlike composition that can end up resembling (and even substituting for) a heavy pastry. It has a rich flavor and is laden with fat and calories due to butter and eggs.

Génoise has a dry texture and delicate flavor that are well suited to other snacks. On its own, it's a fairly light cake, but be wary of the fillings and buttercreams that are usually part of a package deal.

Is your mouth watering yet? It will be soon, since the next page discusses how each cake is used (and eaten).

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Try topping your cake with an interesting fruit like apricot.
Try topping your cake with an interesting fruit like apricot.
John Foxx/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

This is where it gets fun -- envisioning one of these delicious desserts on your table!

Sponge cake slices messily, so it's not ideal for precise dishes like petits fours. However, it's a great coffee companion, because it doesn't overpower other flavors. A thin, fresh cake can be gently rolled with fruit or cream for Swiss rolls or Yule logs.

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Pound cake is excellent with fruit. Cut thick slices for an impromptu berry shortcake, or adapt the recipe for a European-style candied fruitcake.

Gâteaux can make a traditional layer cake, but as we mentioned earlier, the pastry-like dough is also well suited for tarts.Since most of the flavor comes from the filling, a gâteau can be savory, such as a mushroom or vegetable tart.

Génoise often ends up as layer cake, but why not try a classier approach? The batter is the basis for madeleines and ladyfingers, delicate cookies baked in molds. Madeleines are served with tea or coffee; ladyfingers get doused with cream or liqueur for tiramisu.

Ready to give your mixer a workout? Read on!

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Maybe it's overwhelming to offer four recipes at once, but remember that they're all similar in composition.

  • Sponge Cake. Sift the flour with any other dry ingredients (such as cocoa or spice). The eggs, which may or may not be separated, are beaten with sugar to the highest peaks you dare attempt, and then gently folded with the flour. The French often bake sponge cake in a high mold, rather than a tube or flat pan. Don't undercook a sponge cake or it'll collapse.
  • Pound Cake. Combine a pound each of butter, sugar, flour and eggs, along with flavoring and a teaspoon or so of baking powder. Bake in a loaf pan at 325 degrees Fahrenheit until done for about an hour. The recipe can be reduced as long as you stick to the proportions.
  • Gâteau. Recipes vary wildly depending on the desired outcome, but the basic formula is as follows: Blend together flour (often augmented with finely ground almonds or hazelnuts), butter, sugar and egg yolks. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks, and gently fold into the first mixture. At this point, the concoction can be used for pastry recipes or baked as a cake in a slow oven.
  • Génoise. Probably the most complicated of the bunch, the generally accepted ratio for génoise is two parts flour, two parts sugar, one part hot melted butter and several eggs. Dry flavoring, such as cocoa, is sifted into the flour, and the amount of flour is reduced accordingly. The eggs and sugar are whisked together over a simmering water bath and then in a mixer until the volume expands dramatically. The flour, which has been kept warm all this time, is gently folded in. Bake in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven until the edges begin to shrink from the pan and the top is springy.

Keep in mind that though all cooks like to improvise, it's important to follow a delicate cake recipe closely. Texture and leavening depend on a precise ratio of ingredients blended together carefully. If you need some tips for developing your cake-making skills, continue on to the next page.

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Sources

  • Boulud, Daniel. "Gâteau Basque Recipe." Food & Wine. (May 26, 2010)http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/gateau-basque-daniel-boulud
  • Chow. "Gâteau de Crepes Aux Champignons." (May 26, 2010)http://www.chow.com/recipes/13287-gateau-de-crepes-aux-champignons
  • Diat, Louis. "Classes in Classic Cuisine: Pâte à Biscuit and Pâte à Génoise." Gourmet Magazine. Original publication May 1956. (May 26, 2010)http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/1950s/1956/05/classes_in_classic_cuisine
  • Ferreira, Charity. "The Quirky Dozen." Gourmet Magazine. Original publication November 2001. (May 26, 2010)http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2001/11/the_quirky_dozen
  • Gourmet Magazine. "Brown Butter Pound Cake." October 2009. (May 26, 2010)http://www.gourmet.com/recipes/2000s/2009/10/brown-butter-pound-cake
  • Jaworski, Stephanie. "Cake Making." Joy of Baking. (May 28, 2010)http://www.joyofbaking.com/CakeMaking.html
  • Jaworski, Stephanie. "Chocolate Sponge Cake Recipe." Joy of Baking. (June 2, 2010)http://www.joyofbaking.com/ChocolateSpongeCake.html
  • Jaworski, Stephanie. "Foam Cakes Recipe." Joy of Baking. (May 28, 2010)http://www.joyofbaking.com/FoamCakes.html
  • Stradley, Linda. "History of Pound Cake." What's Cooking America. 2004. (May 26, 2010)http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Cakes/PoundCake.htm

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