Every baker needs basic building blocks—the go-to batters and mixtures needed to assemble a myriad of desserts. In the French repertoire, which is what I learned first, the basic of all basic cakes was the plain whole egg sponge cake called genoise, from which a thousand elegant gateaux are created by simply (or not so simply!) slicing it into almost impossibly thin layers, splashing them with flavored syrups, and layering them with rich buttercreams laced with crushed caramelized nuts, melted chocolate, or any other stuff of your dreams.
I remain a great fan of the genoise—but most Americans find it a bit dry and slightly coarse (because it was never meant to be eaten plain, you guys!). That’s where the hot milk sponge comes in. It’s a tad moister and richer, with a finer, softer texture. Since I love plain cake, I could nibble an entire hot milk sponge with my coffee, but it really comes into its glory as an alternative to genoise. Just imagine the cocky hot milk sponge taunting the venerable French genoise, “I can do anything you can do better!”
Just to rub it in, the hot milk sponge is easier than a genoise for a new(ish) baker to produce, because it has baking powder to help it rise—not just whipped eggs folded in. Since it’s moister to start with, you don’t have to have the skill to slice horizontal layers as thin as you might slice a genoise, and you can fill the layers with or without first moistening them with syrup or a soaking liquid. Wait, there’s more—if you spread the batter evenly in a 12x16-inch, parchment-lined, rimmed pan, and bake at 400° F for 10-12 minutes, you get a beautiful sponge sheet cake that can be used for a Buche de Noel, jelly roll, or any roulade—and you don't have to roll it in a damp towel (a procedure I detest). It will still remain flexible enough to fill and roll, without cracking, after it’s cooled.
Here, I’ve given three super simple ways to fill and finish the basic cake—one with lemon curd and sliced almonds, one with cranberries (or any fruit preserves) with whipped cream and pistachios, and one with pastry cream and chocolate glaze. The latter will remind you of Boston cream pie, or maybe the cake version of a chocolate éclair.
The recipes that follow are adapted from the hot milk sponge cake recipe above and in the new edition of my first book (and the 1990 James Beard Cookbook of the Year) Cocolat: Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts. In the book, you will find individual lemon roulades, chocolate velvet mousse cake, Christmas bombe (with cranberries and white chocolate kirsch mousse), and a six-layer Pave D’Amour (with coffee buttercream, whipped ganache, orange liqueur, and chocolate meringue layers). All of these made with a hot milk sponge base, which should give you an idea of its versatility.
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on Craftsy.com, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).