A light, golden sponge layer cake, covered in passionfruit icing, or filled with cream and berry jam, is a joyous occasion.
Usually made with just a few ingredients – eggs, sugar, flour, and, often, cornflour, milk and butter – a classic sponge is both light yet surprisingly sturdy and flexible. It can be layered, iced, soaked in syrup or rolled and filled.
It’s also a cake that sometimes causes fear in the hearts of some bakers – but it really doesn’t need to.
To help you master the classic Australian sponge, we talked to two baking experts: Anneka Manning, a long-time contributor to SBS with her Bakeproof column, runs Sydney-based cooking school BakeClub, which offers in-person and online classes in everything from the science of baking to souffle, sponges and sourdough. She’s also written several books on baking. Nelleke Gorton is an award-winning cake maker and competition judge who’s been baking her way around the world since she was a teenager – born in the Netherlands, she mostly grew up in India (her father was transferred to many parts of the world for work), and after she married she and her family moved a lot too, including time in the United States, where she worked as a pastry chef in hotels and restaurants. She joined the Country Women’s Association when she returned to Australia 15 years ago and is now the president of the CWA of NSW's Bega branch. She’s won many awards for her baking, including her sponges, at competitions including the Sydney Royal Show and the CWA’s annual baking competition. She shares her cooking on her Facebook page.
The pair have generously shared their advice for mastering a sponge. Reassuringly, both say that there’s no need to fear a sponge. Just use their top tips and light golden layers can be yours, too.
Several sorts of sponges
The sponge family is a big one – around the world, it includes cakes ranging from the French-Italian genoise to the chiffon-style cakes popular in America and parts of Asia. They are all made with some combination of whisked eggs, flour and sugar, with variations on how they are mixed and what else is added. You can explore some of that variety in Manning's Bakeproof column on sponge cake recipes.
The way cakes are named can overlap a little but here’s a simple guide to sponge types:
- The simplest of sponge sandwich is made with eggs, sugar, flour and boiling water.
- The classic Australian sponge is more often made with the addition of milk and sometimes butter, for a richer result. It may be made by whisking whole eggs and then adding sugar, before the addition of milk or milk+ butter, and then flour or flour+cornflour, or sometimes flour then butter. Alternatively, some methods use separated eggs. Self-raising flour is commonly used.
- A slight variation on that classic sponge is the honey sponge – it’s one of Gorton’s favourites; her recipe uses no butter or milk. Instead, a small amount of honey is added, along with boiling water, after the flour.
- A Victoria sponge is, despite the name, made with an entirely different method. “The Victoria sponge, which originated in the UK, is actually a butter cake, so you cream butter and sugar, and then you beat in your eggs,” Manning explains. (Try this recipe from Luke Nguyen’s United Kingdom)
- A genoise usually starts with whisking whole eggs with sugar in a bowl set over a pan of hot water (this helps create a more stable mixture), followed by more mixing off the heat. Plain flour, and usually melted butter, is then added. The structure comes from the extended beating, not from chemical leavening. (See this recipe for coffee and almond genoise). Some genoise recipes do not use heat.
- The sponge family also includes another old-school Australian favourite: “Powder puffs, which I adore, are just essentially little mini sponges,” Manning says. (You can find Manning’s recipe for these little morsels, which look like a large biscuit sandwich but are made with a sponge-like batter, in her book BakeClass and on her website).
What we’re talking about in this article is the classic Australian sponge most often seen layered with cream and jam or a simple passionfruit icing – like Manning’s glorious passionfruit sponge.
Bake without fear
Anneka Manning’s love of a sponge dates back to her childhood.
“My Mum used to make a regular cake which, when I was growing up, I didn't realise a sponge. It was the cake that she made all the time, it didn't matter whether we were going to a Pony Club camp or a picnic or a special occasion or whatever, she'd whip it up. I realised later in life when I started doing my training that it was a sponge, and it was something that she used to whip out without fear. There are certain things in baking where people tend to go “ooh, I can’t try that’ because there’s a sense that it’s difficult. But Mum grew up with her mother making that cake, it was something they made regularly, and there was no fear around it. So that’s how I learned to make sponges, with her hot milk sponge recipe.
“Then I learned more and realised that there was this whole genre of different sponges from all around the world, and different combinations of ingredients, but essentially the basis of it was whisking eggs and sugar and a little bit of flour, sometimes cornflour, sometimes milk, butter."
Essentially, it’s always the same basic ingredient list, she says, with slight variations in the method. “There are three different basic methods for making a sponge. One is to whisk whole eggs with sugar (such as her elderflower gin sponge); one is to whisk yolks with sugar and then the whites with sugar and then combine those two; the other method is to whisk egg whites and sugar and add yolks.
“When I went to college, I started to learn the science behind what the whisked eggs actually contributed to a sponge. It is the air that was being incorporated through that whisking but it was also the protein in the egg that was giving the sponges the structure and flexibility. A lot of people think sponges are quite fragile, but actually, they're light and airy but also quite flexible because of that flexible protein that the eggs give them.”
Eggs are the key to a great sponge
“Eggs are the most important ingredient,” says Nelleke Gorton. “The most important aspect to making a light sponge is that the eggs should be fresh. So always check the dates - unless you have your own chooks, which I do, but even then, I pencil on a date each day! Fresh eggs are much firmer and whip up much better than old ones which are watery with no ability to create any volume. A way to test an egg is to crack one into a saucer. Both the yolk and the white should stand up proudly without hardly any watery pool around the outside.
“The size is also important... so I weigh them. Imagine a four-egg sponge made with small eggs weighing 55 g, let’s say. Another sponge made with 70 g eggs is going to be much higher. If you use small eggs, you will not be getting the result you want. So, look at the date and the size of the eggs before you buy them.”
Manning, too, advises using fresh eggs, at room temperature. Fresh eggs, she explains, take longer to whisk but will yield a more stable foam. Room temperature eggs are quicker and easier to whisk and will hold more air, creating more volume. (You can read more on this on her website)
The other key thing is to whisk the eggs and sugar for long enough. “Whisk the eggs for the length of time given in the recipe,” says Manning. “The protein in the egg can become weak if you over whisk it, but it's quite hard to do and if you've incorporated sugar into them that acts as a stabiliser.
“You need to get to a point where most recipes will say a ribbon trail. What I teach my students is that you should be able to draw a figure eight slowly on top: lift your whisk up and with the trailing mixture draw a figure eight, and if that figure eight is still sitting on top of your mixture by the time you finish the figure eight, that's when you can begin adding flour and milk, if that's what you're using.”
You may see some recipes that use both whole eggs and extra egg yolks – “that gives a richer flavour and it will also give a more tender cake crumb, but I’m not a fan of it, as it takes a little of the lightness away,” says Manning. The result is a ‘cakier’ sponge with a deeper colour. “Because you're not only adding fat with the yolk, but also colour, it will darken the colour of your sponge cake as well. It will make it richer in mouthfeel, and slightly heavier in texture, although more tender as well.”
Milk and butter
Most often, Manning uses a whole egg hot milk sponge method: whole eggs are whipped till frothy, then sugar is added and the mixture is beaten until thick and pale before the addition of a mixture of hot milk and butter.
“I heat the milk until it's almost simmering because the warmer the milk is the easier it is to incorporate through your mixture,” she says. This helps in two ways. “Firstly, you're not going to overmix your mix incorporating it through, so it helps prevent developing the gluten, so that you don't get a tough sponge. The other good thing about having using warm milk is that because it melds with your whisked egg mixture a lot more easily, you don’t lose a lot of the incorporated air."
Flour and cornflour
The classic layer sponge is often made with self-raising flour. Because it contains baking powder, it contributes chemical leavening to the cake, with works along with the air incorporated during whisking to create the typical fine, light sponge cake texture.
A common question is whether using some cornflour along with wheat-based flour is the secret to a great cake. “I like cornflour in my sponges, although it depends on the type of sponge I want to create in the end,” Manning says.
“Because it's gluten-free and because it has a different texture, cornflour adds a real lightness to the mixture. You can get a very similar result by using a lower-protein plain flour, something known as cake flour, which usually has a protein content of about 8.5 grams per hundred grams or 8.5 per cent - the protein that you can see in the nutritional panel packet of flour tells you the potential of that flour to create gluten. So if you're not going to use cornflour in combination with a plain or self-raising flour, using cake flour is a really good idea, it just helps reduce that potential of gluten development and therefore you will get a lighter crumb texture.”
Although self-raising flour is common, some recipes use plain flour - such as Gabriel Gaté's rolled Savoy sponge with blueberries, which gets its leavening from beaten egg whites.
Mix carefully but well
A few mixing tips from our experts:
First, add the sugar gradually, whisking well after each addition to make sure the sugar is dissolved. “Test between your fingers if need be, to make sure the mixture is smooth,” says Gorton. This will help avoid sugar spots, which are a no-no in cooking competitions (“Layers to be evenly risen, identical in thickness and baking. The top should be smooth and without sugar spots. The texture should be fine, delicate and spongy when lightly pressed with fingertips,” says the section for Plain Traditional Sponge in the CWA’s The Land Cookery Competition. These days, the CWA works to aid rural communities in many ways, from supporting drought and emergency relief to lobbying about issues such as quad bike safety, but it also maintains a strong cooking tradition, and since 1949 the Land Cookery Contest has offered adults and children a chance to compete in a range of categories.)
When adding flour to the beaten egg mixture, it’s important not to overmix. Overmixing will develop the gluten in the flour, making for a tougher cake, and lose some of the air you have so carefully incorporated.
Make sure, when you add milk or the milk-butter mixture that it’s evenly mixed in, Manning says.
“Say you're using a hot sponge recipe, you pour your milk down the side of the bowl and then you add the flour on top and mix it with a stand mixer or use a spatula to mix it through. Quite often mixture can get stuck down the bottom, so you need to make sure it's evenly incorporated because if you then divided it between your tins, you’d pour the top into the first tin, and that's light and airy, that's where all the air is, and then you pour the rest of the batch into the second tin, and that's where the heavy mixture is, and you end up with a layer that's quite high and airy one and one that's not so risen and a little bit dense.”
Gorton and Manning both suggest using scales when dividing the sponge batter into tins. Weigh your tins – to check if they are the same – and then use the scales to divide the mixture evenly. This will give you two equal layers.
And while we’re talking tins, another tip from Gorton: “Prepare your cake tins by brushing bottom and sides with softened butter, then adding a tablespoon of flour, coating the buttered surfaces thoroughly, then turning upside down and tapping out excess flour.” Manning does the same, with the addition of a circle of baking paper in the bottom of each tin.
Bake your cakes until they spring back with pressed lightly in the centre and start to pull away from the edge of the tins. Overbaking can be one reason for heavy sponges, or sponges that deflate a lot when cooling (a little deflating is normal). Opening the door too soon during baking can also cause a sponge to fall. (Read more tips from Anneka Manning here).
A tip shared by both of our experts, which is especially useful if you’re planning to serve your sponge without icing: When turning the cakes out of their tins, turn them onto a rack covered with a tea towel. This will make sure you have a smooth top, without marks from the rack on the top of the sponges.
Icings and fillings
Make sure your sponges are completely cool before adding icing or cream. “Always leave a sponge to cool completely before filling it or the cream will liquify and it will be a sloppy mess. Even just a little bit of warmth will melt the cream,” says Manning.
There is one delicious treatment, though, where you do want to work with hot cakes: when adding a syrup.
“Sponges aren’t great the next day, but one way you can extend their life is to make a flavoured syrup, say with lemon juice or orange juice, or spices - so I might do a cardamom and cinnamon syrup - and then put that over the sponges.
“The trick is hot syrup, hot sponge - it will soak up more than if you let either or both go cold. Poking holes [in the cakes] will help but if I’m not covering the surface of the cake, I don’t do it as I don’t want holes in the top.
Manning then fills, stacks and tops the cooled sponge layers. “The filling take cues from those flavouring. So, if I do an orange syrup, I might use an orange marmalade I’ve thinned down a bit.
“I do a combination of cream and sour cream that I whip, it makes this beautiful thick dolloping consistency which is perfect for sponge cakes. Then I’ll thin down marmalade with water or Cointreau – depending on how boozy I want it to be! - and drizzle that over the cream without weighing it down.” Her finished cake, therefore, is repeated layers of syrup-soaked sponge, cream and marmalade-y drizzle.
“It’s really pretty and you’ve got the bitterness of the marmalade and the slight sourness of the sour cream, and a subtle sweetness, and people who don’t have a sweet tooth love that combination.”
Other favourite fillings include lemon curd stirred into lightly whipped cream (her tip is to use a cream that’s at least 45 per cent fat, so that it whips up thicker than normal whipping cream, and therefore isn’t runny when the curd is added), or cream and raspberry jam.
She also uses sponge cake in her tiramisu squares.
Gorton’s favourite sponge has a Chantilly cream and passionfruit curd filling with passionfruit icing on top, although she says the reason she loves sponges is that they are so versatile.
“You can use it as the base for a many-layered dessert cake, cut in one, two or three layers and fill with any kind of filling or ganache. Or you can make a Swiss roll out of the mix. Or keep it as a layered sponge cake filled with mock cream … endless possibilities!”
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