Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Forgotten Moka

Preparing a Gateau Moka, or coffee genoise, was an unexpected pleasure in the end. I emphasize the ‘in the end’ part as the demo and practical did not leave me feeling very positive at the start.

I found the Gateau Moka we’d tasted in Chef Cotte’s demonstration to be quite sweet and a bit monotone in both texture and appearance. It is no discredit to the chef, but rather endemic with the recipe I suppose. It’s not that I don’t like coffee flavor, but that’s really all there was to this cake. Genoise really has no flavor of its own and is quite dry, so you are really obliged to soak it with syrup to give it flavor and keep it moist. The syrup in this case was coffee flavored and it was then frosted with coffee buttercream and garnished with some toasted almonds and chocolate coffee beans. So it was quite sweet and really soft - the texture of the cake on the day been very similar to a tiramisu layer, except it lacked the contrast of complementary flavors like mascarpone cream and chocolate. So I was left feeling slightly disappointed. And I found it a bit soggy too…the layers having become very soaked with the imbibing syrup and not having time to rest before we were asked to taste it.

Still I was intrigued enough by the mixing technique which was like an embellished meringue using the whole eggs vs. just the whites. I could envisage a number of different possibilities unfolding for my home kitchen using the genoise technique but with different flavor combinations. So I decided I would dream of my own inspiring recipes for the future trials in my home kitchen and basically get through this exactly as instructed. Well, almost…

The genoise mixing technique is unique in that the eggs & sugar are beaten over a pan of hot water. This helps the eggs to achieve better beaten volume, and allows the sugar molecules to be better incorporated. So yet again there was a lot of manual whisking, not to the level of a daquoise or meringue, but still a fairly intense workout for the arms. A few of my classmates by this point were showing me the blisters and calluses they have on their palms from all this whisking. So that should give you an idea of how intense the in-class preparations can become!

In the practical I managed to successfully reach a voluminous state with my eggs atop the steaming pan of water. Then I missed a small but important detail from my class notes….which was to continue whisking this mixture off the heat before adding the flour & butter. I was in a bit of a hurry and my flour went in a bit too quickly. I could see the mistake almost immediately and I watched all the glorious volume deplete quickly before my eyes. Chef Walther was attending the class and in his usual calm & patient way advised me that I needed to start again. So there I was, back at the stove whisking feverishly to redo this step quickly. Meanwhile, everyone else was finishing…so I felt some pressure already!

The second time I achieved great results and of course did not repeat my previous mistake. Only to make another…which was omitting the melted butter after stirring in the flour. Doh! By the time I realized what I’d done, the batter was already in my cake mold and I was rushing off to the oven to avoid being the last one not finished. As the amount of butter is really negligible in the recipe (15g), and knowing that we’d be soaking the layers with imbibing syrup and then slathering on mounds of buttercream, I decided I would not worry about this step and see what happened.

My cake baked really beautifully…I had an even shape and quite a flat top. The color was very even and it unmolded effortlessly from the pan. Not everyone was so lucky. I saw a few bloated looking cakes resulting from overfilled molds and some people had issues with unmolding, with the bottoms of the cakes getting stuck in places. So I was lucky so far. But I kept wondering how it would taste without the butter, and worried it might have a texture like sawdust!

The time came for us to slice the cake round into two layers. Tricky indeed, especially since the cakes were delicately fresh from the oven, the serrated knives are razor sharp & unforgiving, and Chef Walther had just advised us about a girl the practical the day before who had totally cut her hand open during this step. Having had serious cuts on my hand before, I paled at the thought of ever having stitches again. Fortunately I managed to slice the round into two very even layers but not any parts of my hands. This gave me a better chance to look at the quality of the cake composition. It all looked good from what I could see - even tone and crumb, no visible dryness - so I kept wondering when the overlooked butter would become my foe.

I continued to the next step which was soaking the layers with the coffee & rum flavored imbibing syrup. This is done with a pastry brush, and even if you don’t omit the butter you really have to soak the layers well. So this step takes quite some time do evenly. It reminded me of staining untreated wood decking, when the planks literally soak up the varnish as quickly as you apply it. Chef Walther passed by my workstation at this stage and gave an approving nod, encouraging me to apply even more syrup, particularly if I was going to save the cake until tomorrow before serving (which I was).

We then proceeded with the montage, which started with the application of buttercream to the inner layer, sides and top of the gateau. I smiled nostalgically to myself as it reminded me of making a Betty Crocker layer cake when I was a kid….with all that thick, canned frosting to weld the cake layers together. We all spent a fair amount of time smoothing the sides and top with a palette knife, which I must say is much easier using real buttercream than the tubs of commercially manufactured frosting used in the US. After this was smooth, we learned a great finishing technique using the edge of the serrated knife and a zigzagging movement. The top became a beautiful herringbone pattern which was particularly striking with the beige tone of the buttercream.

I finished with the decoration, piping an even layer of shells around the perimeter of the top layer, followed by a couple of flourished garlands running across the top. The last step was applying the toasted chopped almonds. I discovered by doing that the best technique here was to bring a handful of the almond pieces right up to the shell perimeter, then let them fall along the sides and back into the receptacle pan. The cake was quickly garnished and it only took a minute to do well.

I was happy with the result of my cake appearance and decoration. I stored it overnight in Isabelle’s fridge and toted it on the metro my Paris colleagues the following morning. I couldn’t stop thinking about the forgotten butter and I wondered if the taste would suffer. About mid morning, I sent out an email inviting people to come for a degustation and soon there were smiling faces appearing around my desk. “Mmm, c’est bon, Lisa” I kept hearing. As the cake was sliced open, I could see that I really had done a good job soaking the layers and applying the buttercream evenly. The cake was disappearing fast…I decided to take a slice to check for myself. It really tasted good and I found the cake did not miss the butter I’d omitted. The cake was moist but not too soggy and it looked quite delicate and pretty on the small paper plates.

I’ve been asked to make a themed cake for a work event this week. One of my company’s brands is celebrating its third anniversary in market. As the brand color is orange and it is all about babies, I think I’ll go ahead and make a genoise again. I had been debating some other recipes, but I’m thinking with an orange buttercream, caramel-rum soaking liquid and toasted pecans I will have a fitting solution….and I’ll get to experiment with something more creative than just coffee.

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