I have been binge watching The Great British Baking Show this winter — all seasons and the Christmas shows and it made me think I wanted to be a better baker. It has inspired me to start a cake project and to begin with recipes in my grandmother’s handwritten cookbook. One of the cakes they talk about all the time on The Great British Bake Off is a sponge. While digging through those old family recipes one of the themes I noticed, was sponge cakes. Now, just to figure out how to make one — a good one at that!
What is a sponge cake?
First of all — what is a sponge cake? I thought I knew, but apparently, my cake education was only about 6th grade. I am past box mixes, but watching all of the baking shows I came to realize there are many different kinds of cakes besides, chocolate, white and a yellow butter cake.
What I discovered is that the term “sponge” means different things to different cultures, there is a British version, French version, American version, Italian and so on….plus there are multiple types of sponges in each category. My head is spinning just thinking about it.
So back to what is a sponge cake. In the US sponges are light, sweet cakes using a high proportion of eggs and no fat. Some depend only on the air created by beating the eggs or egg whites for the cake to rise, while others use some baking powder to do the leavening. Texture tends to be soft and spongy like an Angel Food cake. Because they don’t have fat in them, they are lower in calories and dry out pretty quickly. What has considered a sponge in the US is a “foam” cake in the UK. Sponges in the UK are more on the line of what we would consider a “butter cake” and are often soaked with syrups to provide more moisture. And that is why Paul Hollywood ALWAYS dings the contestants for cakes that are too dry!
Decoding the family recipe
Because my family recipes came with little to no instructions, the solution I used to this dilemma was to dig through my vintage cookbook collection. I was hoping that I would be able to find the missing instructions to my grandmother’s recipes and more about how to bake a sponge. Low and behold I came by a wonderful little cookbook called “All About Home Baking” by General Foods dated 1933 which had step by step instructions with pictures. It even had temperatures for slow, moderate, hot and very hot oven terms and explained all about different kinds of flours. These were really handy in figuring out my grandmother’s recipe since it just said bake in a “slow oven” — there is a 100-degree difference in the slow oven heat range. I finally settled on 350 degrees and 55 minutes in a light Angle Food pan after some experimentation and research. Making cupcakes is also a great solution if you don’t have an Angel Food pan.
- Slow oven 250 Degrees to 350 Degrees F
- Moderate oven 350 Degrees to 400 Degrees F
- Hot oven 400 Degrees to 450 Degrees F
- Very hot oven 450 Degrees to 500 Degrees F
Using a flour with less protein, which also will have less gluten, helps to make your cake light and airy.
- Bread Flour: 14 – 16%
- All-Purpose (AP) Flour: 10 – 12%
- Pastry Flour: 9%
- Cake Flour: 7-8%
Initially, I decided that I would make a recipe from the old cookbook that was very similar to grandma’s Orange Sponge. It was complete with instructions and pictures to teach me how to bake a sponge cake. Grandma’s recipe did not call for cake flour as did the cookbook version, so I tried it with each, all-purpose and then cake flour. It was a bit lighter with the cake flour — in the end, the cake-flour one won out at my house, but both were really good!
Who knew sifting flour was controversial — LOL. The vintage cookbook that I first used for directions called for you to sift the flour and then measure it. Add the other dry ingredients and then sift it three more times! Wow, that was fun and messy! Sifting has a couple purposes, the first for a vintage cookbook is to get any bugs that might be growing in your flour out — eewww. It is also said to make your cake lighter. There was no mention of sifting in grandma’s recipe, but I did settle on once before I measured and once after. I found some difference in the lightness in the cake, but not enough to get me to sift 2 more times.
I had to laugh at the directions given for this next step in Grandma’s cookbook. It just said beat egg yolks well — what does that mean? Digging in the old vintage cookbooks helped me figure out about how long it would take to get the yolks “thick and lemony” in color — even they didn’t give me a time frame…so I experimented and found pretty consistently it took about 3 to 5 minutes. This cake uses 5 eggs — that is a lot of eggs for a cake and is a great activity with kids, as it is a bit of a science project. It is fun to see what happens to the egg yolks and whites when you beat them.
Before I actually start the process of creating this cake I find it much easier to have all of my ingredients prepared. I do use a lot of dishes this way, but I don’t forget any ingredients and I have them ready in the order I need to use them.
Although the name of this cake is an “Orange” sponge cake, you can use 1/2 cup of lemon, lime, grapefruit juice. I used Blood Oranges this time. You can even just use a 1/2 cup of water and serve with berries.
This cake uses the air in beating the egg yolks and egg whites to produce the rise in the cake. It does use a small amount of cream of tartar in the egg whites. The acidity of cream of tartar helps the egg whites achieve their full volume, and stabilizes them by helping hold in water and air.
There are differing opinions on how to do this, but adding a small amount of egg whites to the batter and mixing that in first and then adding the remainder and folding carefully at this point is most common. I have tried both and find that I have better luck with this cake by just folding them all in and not adding the small amount first.
Oddly enough picking the correct pan was the biggest obstacle in baking this cake. Both my grandmother’s recipe and the vintage cookbook only said “bake in a tube pan”. My first attempts the cake I tried a non-stick bundt pan, a springform pan that had a bundt insert — both of which were dark pans…OMG I could not get them out, they were both over baked and dry. It tasted amazing and I really wanted to get it right, so I scoured the local thrift stores and came up with an Angel Food Cake pan and it finally worked!!! I will say I am now in the search for a springform Angel Food pan to make it easier to get out of the pan. Temperatures and time widely varied based on the type of pan. In this pan it was 350 degrees for 55 minutes that worked perfectly.
Lime Sponge Cupcakes
If you don’t have an Angel Food cake pan or 2 hours to bake and cool — cupcakes are an easy solution. This recipe gets 30 cupcakes –a big bang for the buck!
Recipe Vintage Orange Sponge Cake
- 5 eggs separated
- Zest of one orange
- Juice of orange & water to equal ½ cup of fluid
- You can use lemon, lime or grapefruit instead of orange for a citrus cake
- Use ½ cup of water and 1 tsp of vanilla for a sponge that is perfect to top with fresh fruit
- 1 ½ cup of sugar
- 1 ½ cup of all purpose flour (Cake flour will give you a lighter texture and less gluten)
- 1 ¼ tsp salt
- ¾ tsp cream of tartar
- Beat egg yolks well about 3 to 5 minutes with an electric beater until they are thick and lemon colored
- Add zest and liquids and beat for another 2 to 3 minutes
- Add sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time while continuing to beat yolks
- Add flour a couple of tablespoons at a time, gently mixing into the batter.
- Set aside
- In another bowl beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks — about 4 to 5 minutes — peak should not tip over Adding cream of tartar to egg whites after about 1 minute
- Gently fold egg whites into batter mixture
- Pour into an ungreased Angel Food cake pan — batter needs to be able to grab the sides of the pan to rise correctly. Bake at 350 degrees for 55 minutes. Cupcakes should be baked at the same temp for 15 to 20 minutes.
- When you take the cake out, invert the pan on a pop bottle to cool for an hour. Carefully take a knife to help you release the pan and pop out the cake.
Without frosting or glaze this fairly low calorie and fat in terms of cake.
This cake doesn’t need frosting, however, making a glaze of powdered sugar and orange juice is very nice on it if you like it a little sweeter.
- 1 cups powdered sugar
- fresh citrus juice (the same as you used in your cake
- Whisk until smooth and pour over cooled cake or cupcakes