© Denzil Green
Genoa Cake is a term that can be used to mean several different desserts.
(1) In its native English formulation, Genoa Cake is a quirky term (like “Belgian buns”) for an English cake made and sold in the UK. With its classic almost equal (pound / 450 g) portions of sugar, butter and flour, it is essentially a flavoured English pound cake with fruit added to it.
The batter can be dark or light. It will have mixed fruit in it of varying amounts, depending upon who made it and how generous they were. It is leavened with beaten egg (nowadays with some baking powder as well), and is heavy and dense in texture owing to its pound cake foundation, and crumbly owing to the presence of the fruit.
The cake is usually topped with nuts such as almonds, Brazil nuts or walnuts, and cherries, then glazed. (Some commercial versions will stint on the topping.)
There is also a Cherry Genoa Cake, made with just candied cherries for fruit.
It’s sold whole in stores and bakeries, and in cafes and stores wrapped in individual slices (these wrapped slices tend not to have the fancy, sticky toppings.)
(2) “Genoa Cake” is sometimes used as a translation for a sweetened bread made in Genoa, Italy, called “Pandolce Genovese (aka Pandolce Zeneise).” There are low-rising (Pandolce Basso Genovese, leavened with baking powder) and higher-rising (Pandolce Alto Genovese, leavened with yeast) versions of this bread. See separate entry on Pandolce Genovese.
(3) “Genoa Cake” is sometimes used as a translation for a French cake named “Pain de Gênes” (“Bread of Geneva”), which was actually invented in Paris, which is half butter and half ground almond, and often served with a fruit confit on top. See separate entry on “Genoa Bread.”
The origins of the term “Genoa Cake” for the English item known as “Genoa Cake” are and probably always will be in dispute. Some feel that it acquired its name in homage to the Italian sweetened bread; some feel that it was inspired by the French cake but the English decided to stir the preserved fruits in instead of serving them on top. But this is just speculation, and worth no more than that. Whatever the distant, lost-in-time inspiration for the name, it is now in its own right an English pound cake with fruit in it — an English fruit cake, in the same way that Belgian Buns and Battenberg Cake are distinctly English.
Literature & Lore
Genoa Cake (English version): “1 lb. of butter, 1 lb. of sugar, 1 1/4 lb. of flour, 1 lb. of eggs, 2 1/2 lbs. of currants, washed and picked, 1 1/2 lb. of orange peel. Bake in a small square-edged tin. Proceed as before directed. When nicely in the tin have prepared some blanched and chopped almonds, strew them rather thickly on the top, and bake in a moderate oven.” — Recipe 154. Robert Wells (The Bread Biscuit Bakers and Sugar-Boiler’s Assistant. London: Crosby, Lockwood and Son. Second edition, 1890)
Genoa Cake (French version, “Pain de Gênes”): “A type of rich sponge cake made with ground almonds, not to be confused with Genoese sponge cake. Of varying degrees of lightness depending on whether or not the beaten egg whites are incorporated separately, Genoa cake is traditionally cooked in a round mould with a fluted edge. It is served plain with various decorations and fillings.” — Larousse Gastronomique (1988 edition). Page 499.