What is your association with sponge cake? I really do not mean to ask such a personal question right off the bat, but I had not given much reflection to the whole sponge-cake question. Then I tried to re-create my grandmother Jessie’s cryptic recipe for sponge cake, from her recently discovered files.
Sponge cake falls into two broad categories: the European génoise and Victoria sponge categories or the North American equivalent, which is a bit archaic now. The génoise is a classic base for Italian and French cakes, not to mention other fine pastries of European pedigree, while the Victoria sponge is a traditional British base for birthday cakes and other celebratory desserts. However, crossing the Atlantic, I am convinced that something was lost when this elegant cake made its way to the New World. In the mid-20th century, industrial production did no favours for the cake’s taste and texture.
While I do remember Jessie’s sponge cake from a few family meals, its memory has been eclipsed by all the store-bought versions my parents would serve, invariably with chocolate ice cream. These were 10” or 12’ square flavourless blocks, which looked as if they were uniform pieces of upholstery foam, just spray-painted golden-brown. Does that sound appealing? They were, indeed, fluffy and light but devoid of any other distinguishing character.
Now Jessie’s version is filled with character – just like she was. The photos below appear to be from the same spring-time holiday to the “northwoods” (Wisconsin? Minnesota? Northern Michigan?), in the 1950s, as my mother had written on the back of one of the photos.
As a cake made by someone of complex character, there is more to this sponge cake than meets the eye. It can be a very light accompaniment to tea in the afternoon when served plain, complementing a green tea, orange pekoe, or mint tisane, for instance, for a more proper mood:
For the review of the cake and the recipe…
Given Jessie’s short-handed scribble on the recipe, I had to do some research and extrapolation again. (Whose phone number was that on the original recipe? I could not resolve that fascinating mystery from reverse directory, but this was from several decades ago, at least). It was fun to investigate, as I had never baked a sponge cake before. Why would I have? Given my association with the dry bland commercial squares I grew up eating?
I turned to Cindy Mushet’s The Art and Soul of Baking for guidance. This is superb reference book for bakers, as she carefully delineates the history, science, and technique behind classic pastries – not to mention a number of well-tested contemporary recipes in this tome-like work. I learned, for example, that Jessie’s sponge is an “egg-separated sponge”, as opposed to those with eggs prepared intact.
In other recipes, I noticed the ratio of six eggs to one cup each, of flour and sugar – the same ratio featured here. However, I did not come across any others with a half-cup of orange juice. The OJ is probably why I cannot recall the recipe better, as my mother had a life-long aversion to all things citrus, while Jessie loved all such fruits. “You can’t taste that!” was Jessie’s invariable response to my mother’s detection of anything vaguely citrus-y in a dish, primarily in restaurants – this line was also a running joke in my immediate family. So Jessie might not have made this for our family because of the citrus.
With a stand mixer, this cake is probably faster to assemble than many butter-based cakes with more ingredients, but it does require paying attention to the stages of the egg whites and yolks. The folding takes a bit of time, though it is not difficult, once one has the gentle, patient technique under control. I also changed the baking temperature to a consistent 325 degrees (F) for 50 minutes, rather than my grandmother’s hard-to-understand lower temperatures/varying baking times in her notes.
The resulting cake is airy and tall, with a delicate crumb, a subtle flavour of orange, and an interior that is not at all dry (I am trying to avoid “moist”, after Theresa’s list of culinary pet peeves on Island Vittles – long ago, I had learned about the issue with this word years ago from the wannabe lawyer who bathed in apricot Jell-o, who explained the gender-aversion to this word…). A slightly chewy or spongy texture is key to this cake, and this version did not disappoint.
Depending on your mood or character, this sponge cake will serve you well with its flexibility and fine lineage of cakes from the past.
Serves 10 – 12
- 9 eggs, separated
- 1 ½ cups pastry flour
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- ½ cup orange juice
- 1 tsp cream of tartar
Advance prep: Place rack in the oven in lower-middle position and pre-heat to 325 degrees F. Butter the top of a 9- to 10-inch (12-cup) removable bottom pan – not non-stick, and dust the inside with flour and tap out the excess. (DO NOT BUTTER OR FLOUR THE SIDES – the cake needs to cling on for dear life to rise sufficiently).
- Place egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment (or medium-large bowl for a handmixer) and mix on high speed, adding 1 cup of the sugar very slowly, for approximately five to seven minutes, until much more pale in colour and the volume has increased noticeably.
- Transfer mixture to another bowl (unless, of course, you are lucky enough/smart enough to have two bowls for your stand mixer) and clean mixing bowl and whisk very thoroughly, drying off before starting the egg whites.
- Place egg whites in bowl of stand mixer (or medium-large bowl for a handmixer), add cream of tartar, and mix on medium speed for approximately three minutes, until soft peaks form.
- Add one-half cup of sugar to egg whites very slowly, beating on medium for another two minutes or so until firm peaks form.
- Fold orange juice into egg yolk mixture gently.
- Fold yolk-OJ mixture into egg whites in about five or six additions, alternating with the flour but being careful to fold gently and slowly.
- Gently spoon the light batter into the prepared pan.
- Bake for 50 minutes, turning mid-way through.
- The cake is done when it is a rich golden brown – not pale golden and not dark brown – and the top springs back lightly to the touch.
- Invert cake pan over cooling rack, either on the neck of a bottle (if a ring-shaped mould) or using blocks of wood (or the equivalent) to ensure that the top of the cake does not rest on the cooling rack directly.
- Cool the cake completely on the rack for several hours.
- Turn cake pan upside down and place large plate over the cake’s top. Invert the cake onto the plate, and remove false-bottom.
- Sprinkle with confectioners sugar and serve with whatever you would like the sponge to absorb.