For good old-fashioned satisfaction, is there anything better than a sponge cake? It demonstrates the almost alchemical nature of baking, transforming the simplest of ingredients – eggs, sugar, butter and flour – into virtual gold, and filling the house with a mouth-watering smell at the same time. When a sponge turns out just the way it should – golden, delicate and feather-light – it brings with it a great sense of satisfaction. In fact, the ability to whip up the perfect sponge cake was once considered essential in a potential bride and the inability to do so spelled social disaster.
The boy scout motto, “Be prepared”, could well apply to making sponge cakes. Brush your cake tins with melted butter, line their bases with baking paper and flour them before you start. Be sure to have your eggs – free range or organic are best – at room temperature, and your butter melted and cooled (if it’s still hot when you add it, your cake will be less sponge and more pancake).
Note the absence of any raising agent, such as baking powder, in the ingredients list. This is no mistake. Instead there’s one invisible ingredient absolutely essential to a sponge, and that’s air. Lengthy whisking of the eggs and sugar will incorporate masses of air bubbles. We highly recommend an electric mixer with a whisk attachment. In days of yore, there wasn’t the luxury of such a thing (those housewives must have had impressive biceps), but given that even with an electric mixer you’re looking at close to 10 minutes of whisking, this isn’t something to be attempted manually. Whisk until the mixture triples in volume and is thick enough to hold a trail.
Additional aeration is achieved by triple-sifting the flour and then by taking a very light-handed approach when folding it in. It’s best sifted over in several batches, folding in with a large, long-handled metal spoon between additions. Use an up-and-over motion to make sure no flour settles at the bottom of the bowl, and turn the bowl a quarter-turn clockwise each time you fold, to ensure even distribution.
Next is the incorporation of the butter – melted, but absolutely never hot. To prevent the butter from dropping quickly to the bottom of the bowl, you can fold a little of the cake mixture into it first.
Rather than mangling the delicate cake with a skewer to test for doneness, press it gently in the centre with your fingertip. When it’s cooked, it will spring back. The cake will also shrink from the sides of the pan when it’s done. Turn it onto a wire rack swiftly, then turn it back over so it’s not scored with the criss-cross of the rack.
Sandwiched with vanilla-scented cream and good-quality (preferably homemade) jam, it doesn’t get much better. Or take a different tack as we have and make a hazelnut version. Sandwich with raspberry-spiked chocolate cream and it’s heaven on a plate.