French cake a week – Genoise


In which Claire, who doesn’t speak French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962.

We went back to basics, for this french-cake-a-week-cake, with a Genoise. And now I’m going to tell you all the ways that a genoise is like my favorite movie. To begin with, there’s the frenchness. My favorite movie is L’atalante, by Jean Vigo, which was shot in France in 1934. To go on with, a genoise is a very very simple cake. In its simplicity, the full subtle sweetness of the flavor shines through. I say, “sweetness,” but in truth I don’t mean sugary sweetness. The genoise is not the least bit cloying, it has a scant half cup of sugar (by my calculations). The method of making a genoise is (to me) unusual and completely delightful. It doesn’t involve leavening, rather you whisk whole eggs until they’re frothy and “ribbony,” and this is what gives the cake its lift and texture. I was childlike in my amazement! I’m sure I’ve seen video of people making this cake, but I’d never done it myself. I kept saying “this is fun! this is my idea of fun!” (David, passing through the kitchen at that moment, muttered, “poor kid,” and patted me on the head.) L’atalante, similarly, is sweet without being cloying. Aesthetically, it’s unusual, but the method makes so much sense as you watch it, that it feels nearly perfect. Visually and emotionally it’s the exact right combination of light and darkness. It has a real elegance, not from sophistication or stylishness, but from the deft, loving way that the shots are framed and the plot is revealed. It has a fine crumb. The characters are simple as well – they’re not a bit glamorous – but they’re beautiful in the way that kind people become beautiful when you know them well. Many stories end with a wedding, and tell you the dramatic story of the relationship leading up to it. L’atalante starts with a wedding, and tells you the story of the life of the newly-married couple in the weeks after. It’s as mundane, dreamy, messy, glowing, erotic, and bewildering as real human love. And it has Michel Simon, the slightly tart apricot jam on the top of the cake.

I’m not sure I made the cake exactly as it was meant to be made. As I’ve said, the instructions in my cookbook are slight, vague, and in a foreign language. But I think it came out precisely as it was supposed to. (I wouldn’t change anything about it!) I’ve read that the eggs are supposed to be whisked over a bain marie, but I didn’t see any indication of that in my recipe. I was conflicted about how to proceed. I decided to hold my very thick pottery bowl over the warm burner on which I’d melted the butter. This seemed like a good compromise! My eggs became perfectly frothy and mousse-like (…le mélange soit devenu mousseux.) Perhaps it’s because the day was so warm. If I tried this again in colder weather, I might arrange a bain marie. We shall see! I added a pinch of salt. Also, the instructions said to mix icing sugar with an eggwhite for the final glaze. I’m a coward about using raw eggs, so I combined icing sugar with a bit of milk, and drizzled this on the edges and down the sides. It adds a nice sort of crunchy crust to the otherwise soft, light yet dense cake. I believe the genoise is the base for many other fancier cakes, and I’ll certainly be making it again and trying out different fancifications.


Here’s Le chalande qui passe sung by Lys Gauty. This song was an influence on the film, and at one point the title of the film was changed to Le chalande qui passe.

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