Spongecakes you’ll make again and again
By Claire Saffitz
Spongecake doesn’t typically fall high on people’s list of favorite desserts. Its name doesn’t stir the heart, and so often it’s dry and tasteless. But, when properly made, spongecake is tender and bouncy with a cloudlike crumb that deftly soaks up the flavors of whatever it’s paired with, like whipped cream, coffee or fruit.
With so few functional ingredients (eggs, fat, sugar, flour), spongecake literally rises and falls on its proportions. Change one thing, and the balance may be disturbed. It took dozens of eggs and double-digits attempts, but this recipe strikes the ideal balance between structure and tenderness. It’s a hybrid of both chiffon and génoise cakes, but has the most in common with the oil-based spongecakes frequently found in Asian bakeries.
Just as the proportion of ingredients is crucial, so is the way they’re combined. This recipe streamlines the process as much as possible, requiring just a couple of bowls and a hand mixer. (Not required: Sifting, a double boiler or cooking a sugar syrup.)
Below are some of the core concepts and techniques for a successful spongecake. And though the process is sensitive, the recipe is sound — even easy. The sponge doesn’t need a syrup or flavoring to be palatable, though it would feel right at home in trifles, layer cakes, roulades and tres leches. Think of it simply as the ideal base for all of your summer stone fruit and berry desserts.
Say no to nonstick
Nonstick bakeware seems to offer added convenience compared with regular bakeware. But this isn’t really the case. The dark synthetic coating that makes bakeware nonstick absorbs more heat and often overcooks the sides and bottom before the center is fully baked. (That’s why most bakers prefer lighter-colored bakeware made from anodized aluminum.) Nonstick bakeware is especially ineffective for egg foam-based cakes, like sponge and angel food, because they can’t cling to the sides of the pan as they bake, preventing them from rising properly and causing them to collapse immediately upon cooling. This is also why you don’t want to grease the pan, since the cake needs to be able to grip the sides as it rises.
Oil makes a supple sponge
Like chiffon cake, this spongecake calls for oil as the fat. Butter is solid at room temperature, so a butter-based cake firms up when it’s chilled. A sponge made with oil, however, stays flexible at any temperature and resists drying, so you can store it in the refrigerator for several days and it will maintain a supple texture. Olive oil or any neutral oil will work here.
There’s no substitute for cake flour
Spongecake batter is filled with tiny air bubbles from whipped egg whites and yolks. As the cake bakes, these air bubbles heat up and expand, lifting the cake to a light, spongy texture.
At the same time, a critical mass of flour must be present to produce gluten (which happens when two proteins in flour interact with water), because gluten creates the internal scaffolding of a cake. Cake flour is the right flour for the job. It’s lower in protein than all-purpose flour, meaning it produces a relatively weak gluten matrix (and therefore a tender cake), but it’s still enough to support the airy crumb.
Use a hand mixer
A stand mixer boasts superior power over a hand mixer, but a hand mixer has one major advantage here: It allows you to use multiple bowls simultaneously. A stand mixer is fixed, so when you need to whip or mix multiple components — as you do the whites and yolks in spongecake — you have to mix one, transfer it to a separate bowl, then wash the mixer bowl before proceeding. With a hand mixer, you can also use wider bowls of any size, making folding much easier, and can move the beaters around for even mixing.
Mind your meringue
When egg whites are beaten with sugar, the proteins in the egg unfold and link up, forming a semistable foam called meringue. When making meringue, the sugar is typically added to the egg whites after they’ve been beaten to soft peaks, but adding it at the very beginning prevents the proteins from fully unfolding, resulting in a finer foam with smaller air bubbles. In spongecake, this type of meringue prevents lots of larger air bubbles from forming, which would expand too quickly in the oven and pop before the cake is set, causing it to fall. A finer foam with more uniform bubbles leads to a more evenly textured cake.
Cool the Cakes Upside Down
When a spongecake comes out of the oven, it’s extremely delicate and must release steam as it cools in order to fully set. The weight of the sponge would cause it to collapse onto itself if left upright, forming a crater. To prevent this, the sponge should be immediately inverted while still in the pan and left to cool completely upside down. The pan’s ungreased surfaces act as grips for the cake and ensure it doesn’t fall out onto your counter when flipped.
Yield: One 9-inch or 10-by-15-inch cake
Total time: 50 minutes
1/4 cup/50 grams olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing if baking in a jelly roll pan
4 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/2 cup/100 grams granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
2/3 cup/85 grams cake flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Arrange an oven rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325 degrees. If making a roulade, brush the bottom of a 10-by-15-inch jelly roll pan with a light coating of oil. Do not brush the sides, as the cake needs to be able to cling to the pan as it rises. Line only the bottom of the pan with a piece of parchment paper, smoothing to eliminate air bubbles. If baking in a 9-inch springform pan, leave the pan ungreased and unlined.
2. In a wide, medium bowl, combine egg whites, 1/4 cup sugar, kosher salt and cream of tartar. Beat the mixture with a hand mixer fitted with the beaters on medium-low speed until the mixture looks frothy, then start to slowly increase the speed to medium-high. Continue to beat the egg whites until you have a dense, voluminous, glossy foam that forms stiff peaks, about 4 minutes. When you lift the beaters out of the bowl, the egg whites should come to a straight point that doesn’t droop. Don’t beat beyond this point, or the whites will become dry and lumpy. Set the bowl aside.
3. In a separate wide bowl, combine egg yolks and the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Beat with hand mixer (no need to wash it after you beat the egg whites) on medium-high until the mixture is very pale and fluffy and forms a slowly dissolving ribbon as it falls off the beaters back into the bowl, about 4 minutes. Slowly stream in the 1/4 cup oil, beating constantly to ensure it emulsifies into the yolk mixture, until you have a smooth, light mixture that looks like mayonnaise.
4. Reduce the mixer to the lowest speed, add half of the flour and mix just until incorporated. Add vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon water, mix until incorporated, then add the remaining flour and mix just until it disappears. The mixture will have thickened and look a bit like cake batter.
5. Fold the yolk mixture once or twice with a large flexible spatula to make sure it’s evenly mixed, then scrape about a third of the egg white mixture into the yolk mixture and thoroughly fold in the whites until the mixture is loosened. Working more gently, fold in half of the remaining egg whites until only a few streaks remain. Fold in the remaining whites, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl, until you have a light, smooth, evenly mixed batter.
6. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth into an even layer. Firmly rap the pan on the surface once or twice to pop any large air bubbles. Bake the cake until it’s golden brown, firm and springy to the touch across the entire surface, 25 to 30 minutes for a jelly roll and 30 to 35 minutes for a 9-inch cake. Remove the cake from the oven and immediately invert the pan onto a wire rack. Let the cake cool completely upside-down to prevent it from collapsing.
7. Re-invert the cooled pan and cut along the sides with a small offset spatula or paring knife to loosen the cake. It will sink a bit, which is normal. If making a jelly roll, turn the sponge out onto the wire rack and peel off the parchment. If making a 9-inch cake, remove the ring of the springform pan, invert the cake onto the rack, and carefully peel off the bottom of the pan (it should come away cleanly, leaving behind just a thin film).
8. Use the sponge as desired. The unfilled spongecake will keep at room temperature, tightly wrapped, for several days, but will become sticky after the first day.
Raspberry and cream roulade
Yield: 8 servings
Total time: 1 1/4 hours
Powdered sugar, for dusting
1 Spongecake recipe, baked in a jelly roll pan and cooled
1/2 cup/70 grams fresh raspberries
1/3 cup/105 grams raspberry jam
1/2 cup/120 grams heavy cream, chilled
1/3 cup/80 grams mascarpone, crème fraîche or sour cream, chilled
Pinch of kosher salt
1. Place a clean dish towel on a large cutting board and lightly dust all over with powdered sugar. Place the spongecake on top of the towel, parchment side up; peel off and discard the parchment. Dust the cake lightly with more powdered sugar. Starting at one of the longer sides, loosely roll up the sponge inside the towel. Set aside the sponge while you prepare the filling. (This will “train” the sponge and make it easier to roll up after it’s filled.)
2. In a small bowl, mash together the fresh raspberries and raspberry jam until the berries break down; set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, combine heavy cream, mascarpone and kosher salt. Whisk vigorously by hand, or beat with a hand mixer on medium-high, until the mixture is thick and light, and holds a medium peak. Chill the bowl of whipped cream while you start to assemble the cake.
4. Carefully unroll the cake so the short sides are to your right and left, and the longer sides near and away from you. Spread the raspberry mixture in a thin, even layer across the entire surface, leaving a border of about 1 inch along the longer side that’s farther from you. Pull the cream from the refrigerator and dollop all across the surface of the cake. Spread it in an even layer over top of the raspberry layer, this time leaving a 1-inch border on each of the longer sides.
5. Roll the cake back up, starting with the longer side closest to you and using the towel to help you (without rolling the towel into the cake). Wrap the towel around the cake, allowing it to rest on the seam. Transfer the cutting board to the refrigerator and chill until the cake has had a chance to absorb some of the raspberry juices and set, at least 1 hour.
6. Remove cutting board from the refrigerator and gently unwrap the cake. Use a serrated knife to trim off the ends of the cake, exposing a clean spiral. Use the towel and/or cutting board to transfer the cake to a serving platter. Dust with more powdered sugar, cut crosswise into slices with a serrated knife, and serve. The cake is best served the day it’s made, but will keep, covered and chilled, for up to 3 days.
Strawberry and cream layer cake
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Total time: 2 hours
1 1/2 pounds fresh strawberries, hulled
1/2 cup/100 grams granulated sugar
1 cup/240 grams heavy cream, chilled
1 cup/240 grams crème fraîche, mascarpone or sour cream, chilled
Pinch of kosher salt
1 Spongecake recipe, baked in a 9-inch springform pan and cooled
1. Fill a small saucepan with about 1 inch of water and set over medium heat until the water steams.
2. Meanwhile, coarsely chop about a quarter of the strawberries and combine in a medium heatproof bowl with the sugar. Cover the bowl tightly and set it over the saucepan. Reduce the heat if necessary to keep the water just below a simmer and allow the berries to sit, swirling the bowl once or twice to dissolve any stubborn sugar clumps, until they’ve released all their juices, are mushy, and swim in a translucent red liquid, 35 to 45 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat, uncover and strain through a fine-mesh strainer. (You should have 1/2 to 3/4 cup of strawberry syrup.) The mushy berries will have given off their color and flavor, and even though you won’t use them in the cake, they’re still tasty. Reserve the berries for spooning over pancakes or yogurt.
3. In a separate medium bowl, combine the heavy cream, crème fraîche and salt. Whisk the mixture vigorously by hand, or beat with a hand mixer on medium-high, until thick, light and holding a medium peak. Chill the bowl of whipped cream. Thinly slice the remaining raw strawberries lengthwise.
4. Invert the spongecake on a flat serving plate or cake stand. Holding a long serrated knife horizontally and parallel to the work surface, use it to lightly score all around the side of the cake at the midway point. Then, using long, even strokes and still holding the knife parallel to the surface, slice clean through the cake, using the score marks as a guide, to cut it into two even layers. Set the top layer aside.
5. Use a pastry brush to dab several tablespoons of the strawberry syrup across the bottom layer, lightly soaking the entire surface. Pull the bowl of cream from the refrigerator and dollop about half of it across the soaked layer, then spread in an even layer all the way to the edges. Arrange half of the sliced strawberries on top of the cream, then place the second cake layer on top of the first, cut-side up. Lightly soak the top layer of cake with the strawberry syrup, reserving any remaining syrup for serving. Spread the remaining cream on top of the cake, then pile the remaining sliced strawberries over top. (If not serving immediately, cover loosely and refrigerate until ready to serve.)
6. Slice the cake with a serrated knife and serve. Drizzle the slices with any remaining strawberry syrup. The cake is best served the day it’s made, but will keep, covered and chilled, for up to 3 days.