Masterchef Lied! (Or, How To Bake A Sponge Cake)

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I’ve got to admit that I don’t watch a lot of tellies these days. Starting a business has been a wonderful and exciting experience, but it kind of took over my life – something had to give, and for me, it was the telly – interestingly I’ve not really missed it! So imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago I was hopelessly addicted to Masterchef South Africa. It was totally by accident, my mum was watching it one evening and I just happened to eat my dinner in the same room, but it was brilliant! I loved the people, I thought the challenges were fantastic – and no matter how frustrating it was that I was taking an hour out of every evening to watch it, I was totally hooked. The series finished, and in true TV fashion, a different series started the next week, but I resolved not to get drawn in again and dutifully avoided the living room every evening.

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Then one day I happened to catch a quote “…no baking is more unpredictable than sponge cake…”

I was appalled.

I gathered that it was one of the so-called “experts” who had said this, and I had to wonder where he had been all his life!

I’ll admit that sponge is a fascinating beast, and certainly needs to be treated with love and care, it might even be a little tricky, but “unpredictable”? I think not! The simplicity of a true sponge makes it, if anything, the most predictable of any cake! So, I decided to make it a priority to educate people on the beauty of sponge cake.

Sponge Cake
Sponge Cake

Let’s start with the basics – have a tidbit of wisdom from my 1946 Cannon Cookery Book: “The chief difference between this variety of cake and those made by the creaming method is that sponge cakes do not contain fat, and depend for their lightness on the air bubbles incorporated by the beating and whisking of the eggs.”

Ok, so from that we now know a few things: a real sponge cake has no fat in it, just eggs, sugar, and flour in the right proportions; a real sponge gets its texture from whisking… that really is all you need to know. Armed with that knowledge and some basic techniques there is absolutely no reason your sponge can’t come out perfect every time.

Now, I’m not ashamed to admit that my first real sponge came out flat, dull and rubbery, and tasted more like scrambled eggs than cake! But just from that quote, we can see that what caused that unpleasant texture would be not incorporating the air bubbles into the cake properly. You need to dig a little deeper to find out why it tasted awful (I don’t remember what recipe I used for that one now…) but really, with a bit of work, every error can be pinned down to give us the most predictable cake ever!

The Recipe

Before we go any further you need to know that more often than not I work in ounces. Yes, I’m 26, so I grew up being taught metric at school, but let’s face it – when it comes down to a lump of butter which is more useful, an ounce or a gram? 1g of anything is no more use than an ornament! But with 1oz you’ve got something sensible to work with. (Ok, sometimes I chop and change a bit, like when chocolate comes in 200g bars, no point weighing out 7oz, just use the whole bar!) However, I will include conversions, just in case you have weird scales that only measure in grams.

Back to my Cannon book for the proportions:

4 Eggs, (The fresher the better. Obviously wait for them to come out of the Chicken… but as soon after that as reasonably possible!) 5oz (142g) Caster Sugar, 5oz (142g) Plain Flour.

Simple right? So, break out your electric mixer and get ready to sponge!

You’ll want to use a bowl with a rounded base (I mean on the inside – I don’t care what the outside is like). I use the large Pyrex ones for anything that involves folding. For me, this means I can’t use the bowl that came with our mixer, so instead of being able to just stick the mixer on its stand I have to use it as a hand mixer – but trust me, it’s worth it!

Pour your sugar into your bowl, and then break in your eggs. Now whisk as you’ve never whisked before! This is where the magic really happens; you’re working the air into the egg and sugar mix – the electric mixer, of course, makes this really easy. Gone are the days where your arms would be aching from all the beating, just a few minutes of high-speed mixing creates the beautiful pale gold foam that is the base of a perfect sponge. Don’t forget to move your mixer around in the bowl – It’s easy to forget about that if you’re used to a stand doing all the work for you.

The mixture is ready when it’s pale and foamy. It at least doubles in size, if not triples (…am I exaggerating?) and when you lift the whisk you should be able to make a trail that lasts for a couple of seconds before disappearing. I tend to go until I think it’s done, then go a bit more (just in case).

Now, measure out your flour into a jug (or a bowl, just somewhere separate), and grab a sieve and a good implement for folding. I have a wonderful blue spatula; it’s plastic (but not silicone), has a lovely solid handle, and a thin and flexible spatula-bit. I bought it years ago at Roy’s (of Wroxham) and it’s been fabulous! Honestly can’t sing its praises enough! The ones made of silicone don’t give you enough control, but so many plastic spatulas don’t have enough flexibility.

Best Sponge Cake
Best Sponge Cake

Now, this is where we see why I wanted you to use a rounded bottomed bowl: Find a surface that’s a comfortable height for you to work on – you need a good level for steady control, personally I work on our kitchen table, so the top of the bowl is about waist height (being 5’2″ makes the surfaces a little too high for me). Sieve a little bit of flour on to the top of your egg and sugar mix, and then run your flexible spatula down the side of the bowl, like it’s glued to the side. Now use that positioning to lift up and fold the foam over the flour. With the edge of the spatula (not the flat side) follow the motion down through the center of the mix, until you’re “glued” to the bottom again, and then come back up the other side to where you went in. Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat the folding motion. When you’ve mixed in that bit of flour, sieve on a bit more, and continue until all the flour is mixed in.

The key to all of this is to be gentle. If you’re too rough you’ll knock the air out of the eggs and the whole mixture will be a waste.

However, you must make sure you mix all of the flour in properly otherwise you end up with pockets of plain flour throughout the cake (incidentally something I’ve done quite often).

I use a very deep 7″ cake tin, non-stick and given a light grease. I like to use a 7″ tin for this quantity of mix because you get a lovely thick sponge.

The nice thing about my deep tin is that one deep cake, split in the middle means there’s no crust to remove and so much less fuss! Obviously, if you’ve only got shallow tins then work with those, but when you sandwich those together, please, take the top crust off the bottom cake (gently) before you add filling.

Pour your mixture into your chosen tin and place it in an oven, pre-heated to about 180&#176C for about 30 minutes (remember that’s for my deep cake – if you use a different tin you’ll need to adjust the times. Plus, every oven is different – I made one in our Aga once and it took about 3 times as long! Just keep an eye on it). You want a soft, golden-brown crust on the top; it should be firm to touch and spring back when you press your finger to it. If you’re really unsure put a knife or a skewer into the cake (right to the bottom) and if it comes out clean then it’s properly cooked.

Whatever you do, DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR BEFORE THE TOP OF THE CAKE HAS FORMED A CRUST. Did you get that?

Should I repeat it? It really is important!

The change in air temperatures will make a mess of those beautiful air bubbles we worked so hard on earlier. Please, please, please don’t open your oven door early, just for me?

When my sponge comes out of the oven I give it a sharp tap on the surface (mad as it might sound) – something I read somewhere and I’m yet to fully test its validity (watch this space – I will be testing!). The *theory* is that the shockwaves create channels between the bubbles, preventing them from deflating as the air inside them cools, and so stops the cake from sinking… But hey, what do I know – I’m not an air bubble!

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