Cake and the Continental Divide

Reader Dottie wants to know why I’m bothering to make Black Forest cake with génoise when American layer cake makes a perfectly good — and easier — substitute. Dottie, good question, for indeed there are a lot of New World bakers out there who don’t much care for sponge cake. Many of us find it difficult to prepare and maybe just a little anachronistic.

I get that. We New World bakers like our cakes thick and moist. Cake layers on the Continent are a bit tough by our standards and are seldom more than an inch or so high. An inch of course is nothing for an American cake layer. Heck, two inches is common. Three inches? Why not? I’ve got nothing to do today.

So what accounts for the difference? If I had to boil it down to any one thing I’d have to say: leavening. While classic European cakes are leavened with egg foams, New World cakes are leavened with baking powder, which creates a much stronger, higher rise than even the frothiest foam.

So why don’t Continental bakers just use chemical leaveners? Some of them do of course, but the tradtional bakers don’t, and the reason is because of the taste. Chemical leaveners impart a distinct taste to anything they raise be it a cake layer, a biscuit or a pancake.

These days we in the New World tend not to notice it, we even enjoy it. But it wasn’t always so. If you could go back in time 150 years or so, when chemical leavening was first introduced to America, you’d have found that people hated the stuff. Chemically leavened bread — which admittedly had a much stronger taste than ours today — was considered fit only for soldiers, frontiersmen and other desperate types who didn’t have access to proper food.

If that was the reaction in the rough-and-ready New World you can imagine the reception baking powder received in the grand hotels of Vienna. Pollute our cakes with chemicals? Mein Herr, you must be joking.

And that’s pretty much how things stand to this day. Oh sure, you’ll find baking powder here and there on the Continent, but it’s still not embraced with any particular verve among pastry makers. All of which is a rambling way of saying that a Black Forest cake made with American-style layer cake isn’t really in the spirit of the thing in my view, but there’s nothing stopping you from making one that way if you like, Dottie. Plenty of people do!

6 thoughts on “Cake and the Continental Divide”

  1. Wish there were a “like” button for this post! While I have not practiced making genoise enough to get consistent results in terms of texture, I find that even a overly dense specimen has a pure, fresh eggy/buttery flavor that cannot be matched in chemical leavened cakes. The baking powder/soda based cakes that I do enjoy have some dominating other flavor going on (carrot cakes, ginger, lemon, etc). But nothing is like genoise. Look forward to your finished Black Forest cake!

    1. Me too Lisa!

      The weather has been so bad here I haven’t been able to take pictures. Hope to make some progress today!


      – Joe

  2. Hi, Joe-

    As a history geek (I do historical re-enactment), I’m interested to note that there was a difference in chemical leveners then and now. Is there any indication about the differences in flavour? Could this be additives that are now banned by the USDA and all of the food legislation that came out of the early 1900’s or so?


    1. Hey Sq!

      Very interesting question. Early baking powders used potassium bicarbonate as the alkaline ingredient (a leavening reaction needs both an alkaline and an acid…edible alkalines are rarer as a general rule). The substance was known as “potash”. Potash is, as the name implies, made from ashes, wood ashes to be more precise. Because of that, breads made with potash — even when it was later refined into the less ashy-tasting “pearlash” — could taste like, well…cinders. It wasn’t until the very end of the 19th century, when baking powder makers began to identify mellower tasting chemicals, both on the alkaline and on the acid side of the reaction, that something like what we have today emerged.

      Does that help? Cheers,

      – Joe

  3. I am one of those people who much prefers sponge cake over chemically leavened cakes. I even love them doused in syrup flavoured with a variety of liquors and liqueurs, but it’s hard to find others to share them with. I keep trying to like cakes made with cake flour, but the texture puts me off every time.

    1. Hey Mary!

      You’re not alone in your love of spongecakes. And may I point out that my social calendar is open, I shall await your invitation.

      – Joe

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