Much as we don’t like traditional British Christmas cake in our household and always try alternatives, we don’t like traditional Christmas pudding either. I’m fascinated by its history, its origins in Medieval cuisine, the relationship of such puddings to, say, sausages (discussed here). I just don’t like eating it.
Instead, our traditional Christmas pudding is trifle. My wife introduced me to this tradition years ago; apparently it comes from her mum’s mum, “a great trifle maker”.
British trifle is not unlike a variety of other international deserts. Indeed, in the mists of time, it has common roots with both zuppa inglese (“English soup”, or more broadly “English dunked stuff” – a type of [northern] Italian desert that is, basically, trifle) and its cousin tiramisu (tirami sù – literally “pick me up”, though if you really need waking up surely a ristretto would do the job better?). The bottom line is that all these deserts use custards and/or whipped dairy products and sponges. But not just any sponges: specifically genoise sponge, or the closely related pan di spagna. (Which was, probably apocryphally, developed by the Genoese ambassador to Spain in the middle of the 17th century. More on the distinction between these two later).
Genoise – okay, look I’m going to call it genoese, as that’s the spelling I grew up with – originates from Genoa, the capital of Liguria in northern Italy. Today, it forms the basis of many sweets, in not just Italy and France, but Britain and elsewhere. But, you may say, tiramisu uses sponge fingers! (Aka ladyfingers, or boudoirs in French, or Savoiardi in Italy) But what are sponge fingers? Well, they’re just small cakes made of crisply baked piped fingers of genoese mixture.
So for our Christmas trifle, I generally make a genoese, while the missus makes custard.
Genoese sponge recipe
60g unsalted butter
125g plain flour
Pinch of fine salt
4 medium eggs
125g caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 180C.
1 Melt the butter, then leave it to cool slightly.
2 Use a little of the butter to grease your cake tin(s), sprinkle it with flour, shake the flour around to coat, then remove the excess. Line with baking parchment. This recipe will make two fairly thin cakes in 18cm round tins. If you want it square and deeper, use say just one 20cm square tin.
3 Sift the flour and salt together.
4 Put a pan of water on and bring to a simmer.
5 Combine the eggs and sugar in a heatproof bowl, and set this over the simmering water.
6 Using (ideally) an electric hand blender (called a “zizzer” in my family), beat the egg and sugar mix for about 5 to 10 minutes. It should triple in volume and achieve slight peaking.
7 Take the bowl off the heat.
8 Sift half the flour into the egg/sugar mixture and gently fold it in with a large metal spoon. You want to do this as gently as possible so you don’t knock the air out of the mixture
9 Sift in the other half of the flour and fold carefully again.
10 Gently pour in the melted butter, and carefully fold this in too to just combine.
11 Pour the mixture into the prepare tin(s). Gently does it!
12 Bake until firm to the touch, around 25 minutes depending on the depth of your mixture.
13 Cool in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out and cool completely on a wire rack.
Now, if you want to make a trifle, cut half of this cake into chunks, spread them with jam, and put them in a medium bowl. Pour on some sherry if you like such things. Add some fruit of choice. We used (not very seasonal or local) raspberries and banana. Cover the lot with homemade custard (go on – it’s not hard, and it tastes sooo good). Then cover all that with whipped cream.
I like to sprinkle some lightly toasted flaked almonds on top. Most of all though, I just like the extraordinary indulgence of genoise, custard and cream. It’s always a sad moment on 26 or 27 December when we finish the trifle.
The difference between genoese sponge and pan di spagna
Genoese is made with the above technique involving cooking the eggs and sugar together, and whisking them, over a bain marie, with some melted butter subsequently added to the mix. Pan di spagna is made cold, with the eggs separated and lightness achieved by whipping the whites to stiff peaks. We’d call pan di spagna a “whisked fatless sponge cake” in English.
If you can read Italian, or trust translator software, there’s a good description of the difference here.
The results are quite similar. One of these days I’ll have to arrange a blind tasting, as TBH I’m not sure I could tell the difference. Some people don’t even seem to recognise the difference: after all, Italian Wikipedia has a photo of pan di spagna that is reused to illustrate genoese on English Wikipedia. Outrageous.
Anyway. Here’s a final pic of mine. Slight sag in the middle, but otherwise lovely.