Will it Genoise?
"The Art of Fine Baking, " the cookbook that changed my lifeAlice Medrich, as told to Gabriella Gershenson
December 03, 2019
When we talk about the potential of American cooking, we don't just mean what's being served in restaurants around the country. Home cooking plays just as big a role in our ever-evolving food culture, and those who devote themselves to educating and celebrating the domestic kitchen deserve a turn in the spotlight for their efforts. In this series, we're featuring James Beard Award–winning cookbook authors and exploring the books that most influenced the way they cook, eat, and write.
The third installment features pioneering pastry chef and chocolate authority Alice Medrich. She received the James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award twice: in 1991 for Cocolat: Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts (Warner Books, 1990), and in 1995 for Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts (Warner Books, 1994), which also won that year in the Healthy Focus category. She later received the 2015 James Beard Award for Best Baking and Dessert Book for Flavor Flours (Artisan, 2014). Below, Medrich shares the lasting impact that Paula Peck’s The Art of Fine Baking (Simon & Schuster, 1961), a home cook’s guide to French pastry, had on her evolution as a baker.
I was given a copy of The Art of Fine Baking by Paula Peck (Simon & Schuster, 1961) as a gift in the early ’70s, after I had lived in Paris for a year. Before that, although I was interested in cooking, I can’t say that I was much of a baker.
The year in France focused my interest on the French way with all food and, in particular, baking. Instead of cakes made of Crisco and piled high with sugary frosting, as was the American style in those days, I was drawn to elaborate yet somehow restrained French desserts: multi-layer gâteaux based on the simple sponge cakes, genoise or biscuit, splashed with real liqueurs and layered with real buttercream (the kind with eggs, unsalted butter, and a sugar syrup); the nearly flourless chocolate nut tortes made with eating-quality chocolate and fragrant ground almonds; and tender tart crusts made with pâte sucrée or pâte brisée, topped with fresh berries and an exquisite layer of pastry cream in between.
In the year or so between leaving France and the opening of Cocolat, my chocolate dessert shop in Berkeley, California, I was trying to learn that repertoire of French desserts so I could sell them locally. Paula Peck had what I was interested in: all of the aforementioned, plus nutty meringues called dacquoise, caramelized nuts for praline powder, and so much more. So I worked through the book. I won't say that everything worked for me, and over time I dare say I improved on some of her methods. But The Art of Fine Baking became a starting point.
Paula Peck unlocked the world of French baking for the American home baker—I don’t think there was another American book like it. There are no glossy photos. It's plain paper. There aren't a lot of details. It's an old-style, unassuming book. She was a home cook who was passionate about French pastry and set off to learn it. I’ve always considered myself a self-taught pastry chef because I didn’t really go to school for the profession, so I feel a kinship there. Maybe I should say that I was a Paula Peck–trained baker.
The simple French genoise has played such a huge role in my life, and I probably first encountered the recipe in The Art of Fine Baking. It caused me to set out to perfect it. It's a boring cake. It's not at all sexy, but it is a fundamental building block of the French baking repertoire. To learn it was to be able to make a million other things, by layering it with mousses or creams, soaking it with liqueurs, and doing all kinds of fabulous things to it.
That was a long time ago; it was in the ’70s when I was doing all that. But just in the last five years, genoise became incredibly important to me again as a way to figure out how to work with alternative flours without having to use a lot of stabilizers. In a way, there's this thread that starts at the beginning of my career and works its way to now.
The genoise recipes from my book Flavor Flours (Artisan, 2014), which is all about baking with non-wheat flours, represent recent work that relates directly to early lessons from Paula Peck. I love the deceptive simplicity of genoise: just eggs, sugar, butter, flour, salt and vanilla, if you like. No leavening, and you don’t even have to separate the eggs—but technique is crucial. It may be hard to master, but once you have it you can do it with eyes closed. I know genoise has a reputation for being dry, but mine tastes good enough to eat plain.
When I started exploring flavorful gluten-free flours a few years ago, I wondered if I could make a cake with a single flour—no gluten-free blend full of starches—and whether I could avoid using gums and weird ingredients for structure. The first thing I thought was: “Maybe a cake that gets all its structure from eggs would be the answer.” Then I thought, "Well, I could whip up a bunch of genoise really quickly and test that theory." In less than two hours, I had seven genoise samples on the table in front of me, each made with a single non-wheat flour: white rice, brown rice, oat, corn, chestnut, teff, buckwheat. (Some people ask “will it waffle?” When I encounter an interesting new flour, my first thought is “will it genoise?”) Each was delicious, even plain. A whole new book was born there. It started with Paula.
Gabriella Gershenson is a James Beard Award–nominated food journalist based in New York City. Follower her on Instagram and Twitter @gabiwrites.