The art of baking a perfect sponge
I LEARNED a very important fact when I moved here to the Northern Rivers seven years ago.
It’s a really good idea to be able to bake a decent cake.
I used to be a ‘reach for the packet’ kind of person when I was first let loose in a kitchen.
Over the years I managed to perfect a couple of recipes, by the simple – if drawn-out – process of try until you get it right.
Flourless chocolate cake? Tick. Basic butter cake? Tick. Hummingbird cake? Tick. Lemon Polenta cake? Tick.
All of these goodies, plus a never-fail choux pastry recipe from an old French cookbook that turned out perfect profiterole or éclairs every time, and I thought I was pretty well set.
That was until I moved back to a rural environment and came face-to-face with my nemesis: The Perfect Sponge Cake.
I am surrounded by neighbours here who are terrific cooks. Cynthia-next-door is famous for her perfect date scones. Jacinta-down-the-hill makes perfect savoury scones. Pauline-down-the-road puts everyone to shame with her perfect passionfruit sponge. Jan-up-the-hill also makes a perfect sponge. And that is where I always came unstuck. Scones and sponges were the two items I failed to master, time after time.
Both scone masters have shared their secrets with me; despite following their instructions to the letter, I still manage to turn out leaden little hockey pucks that would choke a horse. I will persevere.
I have tried the CWA recipe, the add-a-can-of-lemonade recipe, even Flo Bjelke-Peterson’s pumpkin scone recipe. A big thumbs down every time. Edible (what isn’t when it’s smeared with jam and fresh cream?), but not … fluffy. Definitely not fluffy.
Sponges were the same deal until I boldly asked neighbour Jan for her recipe. She managed to write it out from memory, which also impressed me. Jan got the original recipe from the Victorian Egg Board (long gone) quite a few years ago.
Lo and behold, I can now turn out a perfect sponge cake with the best of them. My colleagues here at The Northern Star can back me up!
I’ve also learned that very fresh eggs are best; preferably free-range eggs that have never been refrigerated.
There are a few options to what you do with a sponge after you’ve cooked it. You can split it, smear one half with jam and fill it with whipped cream; hull and halve luscious ripe strawberries and pop them on the whipped cream before putting the ‘lid’ on; sift icing sugar over the top; or if, like me, you find a sponge to be sweet enough, make a simple lemon icing and ice the cake when cooled. If there’s a bit left over (unlikely!), add custard and jelly and make a trifle.
I have shared this recipe with quite a few friends, and it seems to work every time. One fellow cook failed at the first attempt, but he discovered the egg whites weren’t quite stiff enough, and his oven wasn’t hot enough.
You will need:
• melted butter to grease cake tins
• cornflour to dust cake tins
• 5 large eggs, separated
•¾ cup castor sugar
• 1tspn vanilla essence
•¾ cup maize cornflour
• 1 heaped tblspn custard powder
• 1 level tspn cream of tartar
•½ level tspn bicarb soda
1 carton pure cream, whipped
passionfruit, raspberries (frozen are fine) or strawberries, to serve
½ cup raspberry jam
1 quantity lemon icing
¼ cup sifted icing sugar
Preheat fan-forced oven to 150°C. Adjust oven shelves so top of cake tins will be level with the centre of the oven.
Prepare 2 x 20cm cake tins by brushing base and sides with melted butter, then dust with cornflour. Remove excess flour by tapping tins upside-down. For best results, use shiny silver cake tins.
Beat egg whites until at soft peak stage. Slowly add sugar while beating until mixture is stiff and glossy.
In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks and vanilla essence until thick.
Sift dry ingredients three times.
Beat yolks into egg whites, then fold dry mixture in lightly.
Divide batter into two, and place into cake tins.
Bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown.
Cool cakes for 2-3 minutes on a rack, then turn out onto rack. Cool in a warm place, with no drafts.
When completely cool, sandwich cakes together with whipped cream and jam, or fruit of your choice.
Ice with lemon icing if desired, or dust top with sifted icing sugar.