If we were cooking in the year 1896 we would be concerned with having a constant supply of tea-time desserts on hand — very likely a fresh and moist sponge cake — “just in case someone dropped in.”
Sponge cake was a matter of pride in many 19th century households, figuring prominently in the handwritten recipe books that were handed down from mother to daughter. It was the recipe most copied and traded. Dozens of little adjustments in flavoring and quantities are evident and, of course, everyone had a favorite.
The earliest sponge cake recipes were written in weights rather than measures:
“Eight eggs balance 6 with sugar 4 with flour: half a glass of brandy — one nutmeg.” (This is all of one 1840-1860 notebook recipe!) Toward the end of the 19th century, measures took over. I found a “Measured Sponge Cake” recipe in several old cookbooks — the new, up-and-coming method rather than the old fashioned way of cooking.
We have come full circle now, with measuring devices in both ounces and grams and have found that weighing ingredients will indeed help to ensure that the cake will rise. (To be honest, I might pull out the scales for a special birthday cake, but would very likely measure for a standard sponge layer. Measuring seems quicker than weighing ingredients, but it’s just a matter of habit.
I think the perfect sponge cake recipe is one included in “The Cake Bible”. The author, Rose Levy Beranbaum, attributes it to her friend Nancy “who has been baking for family and friends for over forty years.” It is so pure and simple that it is served with only a light sprinkling of powdered sugar, or lightly toasted for breakfast. Weights are given in both ounces and grams in the book, but I have found the measurements turn out an excellent cake, good to have on hand — in case someone drops in for tea.
Nancy’s Classic American Sponge Cake
- 2 Tbsps. water
- ½ tsp. vanilla
- 1½ tsps. grated lemon zest
- 1 1/3 cups sifted cake flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 6 large eggs, separated
- ¾ tsp. cream of tartar
You will need one ungreased two-piece 10-inch tube pan.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a small bowl, combine the water, vanilla and lemon zest.
Remove 1 tablespoon of the sugar; keep in reserve to beat with the whites.
In another small bowl, whisk together the flour and 3 tablespoons of the sugar.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the yolks and remaining 3/4 cup of sugar on high speed for 5 minutes, or until the mixture is very thick and forms ribbons when dropped from the beater. Lower the speed and gradually add the water mixture. Increase to high speed and beat for 30 seconds. Sift the flour mixture over the yolk mixture without mixing it in. Set this aside.
Beat the egg whites until foamy, add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Beat in the reserved 1 Tablespoon of sugar and beat until very stiff peaks form when the beater is raised slowly. Add 1/3 of the whites to the yolk mixture and fold this in with a rubber spatula until incorporated. Gently fold in the remaining whites in two batches.
Pour into the pan. Bake 30-35 minutes or until golden brown and tests clean. Invert the pan and cool completely. This takes about one hour. Loosen the sides with a long metal spatula and the center core with a thin, sharp knife. Cool completely on a greased wire rack. Serves 10.
Here is a sponge cake recipe written by Richard Sax, a basic sponge cake that is useful on the second day as a fruit pudding, spread with cream and/or fruit. It would also make a fine base for a Boston Cream Pie.
Marie’s Vanilla Sponge Cake
- 4 large eggs, separated
- Pinch of salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup sifted cornstarch
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 9-inch square baking pan or a 8- or 9-inch springform; line the bottom of the pan with wax paper cut to fit, then lightly butter and flour the paper.
Beat the egg whites with the salt until they form soft peaks. Gradually beat in the sugar until the whites are just stiff.
In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks and vanilla until blended, then fold in about 1/4 of the whites. Sprinkle the sifted flour and cornstarch through a strainer over the egg whites. Fold this together carefully, being careful not to overmix. Spread the batter to the edges of the prepared pan and bake in the preheated 375-degree oven until the edges are set and the cake is golden. (25-30 minutes) Cool in the pan for a few minutes, then invert the cake onto a wire rack.