Tag Archives: sponge fingers

St Roch’s Fingers – a trifle, of sorts

St Roch's Fingers

Internationally, St Roch, whose feast day is 16 August, is also known has Rocco, Roque, Rock and even Rollox. Rock ’n’ Rollox. He sounds cool. Though actually he’s invoked against things like epidemics and skin diseases. And is the patron of a wide variety of people in different nations: the falsely accused, surgeons, tile-makers, gravediggers, second-hand dealers, wool-carders, pilgrims, apothecaries. As well dogs, sick cattle and bachelors.

He’s pretty multi-purpose.

The story says he was born in Montpelier in France and, after the death of his parents, became a pilgrim, bound for Rome. He didn’t get there (or maybe he did. The whole saga is hardly factual). Instead, he found himself in an area gripped by epidemic. Staying to minister, he apparently performed various miracles before himself contracting the disease, at Piacenza, northern Italy. He retreated to the woods. There, a dog found him, and brought him bread every day, taken from his owner’s kitchen.

Roch survived, and would only die in 1327 when he returned to Montpelier, was taken for a spy and stuck in a dungeon. Maybe. He may have instead died in Angleria, Lombardy, Italy, where he’s patron of two towns, Potenza and Gerocarne. Or he may have been an amalgam of other historical figures, or, like many saints and feast days, the story may have drawn on older, pagan stories. Hagiography does blur with folklore and legends.

As his story features the bread-bearing dog, I would have thought he would have a traditional feast-day loaf. But seemingly not. Instead, Feast Day Cookbook (Burton and Ripperger, 1951) and Cooking with the Saints (Schuegraf, 2001) say one should make something called St Roch’s fingers. The latter book says it’s Spanish in origina. It is basically another variation on the theme of trifle – sponge and custard, a dash of alcohol.

Sponge fingers
St Roch’s fingers requires sponge fingers. Now, you can just go and buy these, but they’re pretty easy to make and cooking from scratch is fun, rewarding, and means you can avoid any nasty additives you will very likely get in industrially made biscuits and cakes bought from supermarkets.

Sponge fingers, ladyfingers or savoiardi, are basically made with the same mix you use for Genoise, or a similar one. I wrote about that, and trifle, more here, but here’s another basic savoiardi recipe.

Makes about a dozen fingers.

2 eggs
62g caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
55g plain flour

1. Preheat oven to 190C.
2. Line 2 baking trays with silicone or baking parchment.
3. Fit a piping bag with a plain 1.25cm nozzle.
4. Separate the eggs. Whisk the egg yolks with half of the sugar and the vanilla. Beat until light in colour.
5. In a clean bowl beat the egg whites. While beating, slowly add the salt and the remaining sugar, continuing to beat until you achieve soft peaks.
6. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.
7. Sieve the flour over the egg mixture and gently fold it in.
10. Pipe fingers, about 9cm long, 4cm apart.
11. Bake for about 12 minutes until firm to the touch and golden.

Sponge fingers unbakedSponge fingers baked
12. Place on racks to cool.

Crème de la crème
You also need custard. Again, you can buy this in tins, or cheat with a cornflour-based powder, but you simply cannot beat homemade stuff.

145g full-fat milk
145g cream
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 egg yolks
15g caster sugar

1. Heat the milk and cream together in a saucepan, and scald – that is, bring it almost but not quite to the boil
2. In a bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar.
3. Pour the hot milk over the egg yolks whisking continuously. When completely mixed in, return to the pan.
4. Stir over a low heat until the mixture thickens.
5. Pour into a bowl and beat in the vanilla essence. Allow to cool completely.

St Roch's Fingers

To assemble the dessert:
Some brandy. Or other alcohol. To taste.
Some whipped cream.
Some small glasses.

1. If you want to flavour the custard, beat in a little alcohol – brandy for example.
2. If you want to make the custard go a bit further, beat in some whipped cream.
3. Line the glasses with the sponge fingers: a piece in the bottom, and up the side.
4. I’d just made some jam – or indeed jelly – from the cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) in my garden so I put a blob of that in the bottom.
5. Cover with custard.
6. Add some extra whipped cream on top if you fancy.

Quite why you’d eat this for St Roch’s day I don’t know. But enjoy, while basking in that protection from epidemics and skin diseases.


Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Discussion, Feasts, Recipes

Genoise, génoise, genoese. And trifle

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”.

Trifling things

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

Folding in the flour

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 or a whisk, whisk 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.

Pouring in the butter


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.

Cross section


Filed under Cakes, Puddings & desserts, Recipes