They say you have really got under the skin of a new language when you start to dream with its words, its colours.
I dreamed about making tart pastry and frantically trying to remove hundreds of hairs embedded in the sticky dough. I dreamed that I turned up to a trial day at a restaurant about to serve 290 covers with no chef clogs, no apron, no idea. The other intern tells me her dreams are full of chocolate mousse.
I guess we speak “patissier” now. Or maybe the exams are coming up and we are all terrified of dropping a tray of croissants or scorching our apple tarts. It’s not easy to cheat a practical exam (though one apocryphal idiot did run out to Carrefour for a batch of eclairs at lunchtime, forgetting to destroy the telltale packaging).
Not dissimilar to our Modern Languages finals, I find myself with lists of vocabulary, not birds and fishes, but words for creams and spatulas and a very specific kind of “burnt.” What is the Maillard reaction? What does the triangle symbol on washing instructions mean? Questions that seem pointless, infinite.
In the end, it is just a high school certificate. I don’t have to make a six foot pineapple out of pulled sugar. Just a tart, a cake, a batch of choux pastry and some croissants. In six and a half hours. With an imposed decoration theme which may fall on (please no) the Olympic Games. Better start practising my marzipan podiums!
I’m having that dream where you resit your school exams, completely underprepared. I won’t be naked, but I will be wearing a stupid hairnet. No bluffing or outlandish literary ideas can save me now. I am terrified of failing.
Exam revision for me: the classic French sponge cake, or genoise. The basic recipe is only three ingredients – eggs, sugar and flour – and a little trickery for a light and fluffy cake. No baking powder. Just the magic of eggs. And an electric beater, or your arm will fall off after 10 minutes whipping. This version has a touch of butter and a little ground almonds for extra flavour.
Fill with homemade jam for teatime, like my mama used to, and sprinkle with icing sugar. Of course, if you were French, you’d soak it in kirsch, sandwich it with thick buttercream and strawberries and call it a fraisier, but that’s another story. I like it the Japanese way: fresh fruit and whipped cream, nothing else.
Mango and cream genoise
enough for 4 greedy girls, or 6 restrained dinner party guests
200g eggs (about 4 large)
(optional: substitute 25g flour for ground almonds)
optional: 25g melted butter
for the decoration:
1 or 2 ripe mangoes
400g whipped cream
40g icing sugar
optional: 1/s tsp vanilla essence
Preheat oven to 180C. Grease a 20-22cm round tin with butter and then coat with a thin layer of flour. Tap the tin to remove excess.
Half fill a medium sized saucepan with water, set it to simmer. If you want to use butter, melt it in a small bowl over the saucepan. Set aside to cool.
Sieve the flour (and ground almonds if using).
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar. Place it over the hot water, which should be just barely simmering, and whisk steadily. The heat will help the eggs triple in volume, much like beating egg whites. Do not let the bowl get too hot or you will have scrambled eggs! Maximum 55C. Remove from the heat every now and then. Either use an electric hand-held beater or stick in a kitchen mixer. (By hand is possible, but painful.)
Beat until the eggs and sugar are very pale and fluffy. Lift up the whisk and watch how the mixture falls: if it’s a thick ribbon that folds onto the surface for a second, stop. If it’s a thin drizzle that disappears straightaway, keep beating.
With a spatula, fold in the flour/almonds half at a time, very gentlyso as not to lose the volume. Mix a little of this into the butter, then tip it all back in together. Again, fold gently. Tip into tin, smooth out with spatula.
Bake for 20 minutes until golden. The sides should have come away from the tin. The top should be spongy but firm: press it with a finger and watch it spring back.
Leave to cool. Remove from tin and carefully cut into two layers with a large breadknife. Peel and slice mangoes.
Whip cream until stiff and peaky but still smooth. If it starts to clump together, you’ve gone too far. Fold in the sugar and vanilla. Spread a thin layer of cream on the bottom layer of cake, arrange most of the sliced mangoes. (Save some for the decoration.) Smooth over more cream, place the next layer of cake on top.
Smooth cream over the top and sides in a thin layer. Place in fridge to firm up for half an hour. Now do another neater layer of whipped cream to finish it off. Pipe swirls and blobs or curves and squiggles if you like. Finish off with a few mango slices. Serve immediately.