The Wide World of Sponge Cakes

February  1, 2016

Do you know what the following cakes have in common? Génoise, chiffon, the French biscuit, your bubi’s Passover Sponge, the so-called "hot milk sponge," many nut tortes, and ladyfingers, too?

All of these cakes belong in the sponge or “foam” cake family because they get their structure and spongy, light, and open texture from whipped whole eggs or whipped egg whites a.k.a. egg foams. Sponge cakes contain plenty of eggs, but little or no butter (although chiffon cakes do contain a generous amount of oil). All of these cakes require hand folding: Dry ingredients (and sometimes butter) are folded into whipped whole eggs, or else whipped egg whites are folded into the rest of the batter.

Sponge cake is not defined by the type of flour or particulate: My book Flavor Flours is filled with all kinds of sponge cakes made from other flours. The fact that structure comes from eggs rather than gluten is actually a great help in gluten-free baking because it allows us to make endless nice cakes without adding gums or additional ingredients for structure.

American sponge cakes—chiffon cakes, feather or daffodil sponges—and nut sponge cakes, are rich and moist and flavorful enough to be the main event. They are glorious plain or with a little fruit and whipped cream.

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European sponges like génoise and the French biscuit (nothing to do with American biscuits or English cookies) and ladyfingers are purposely plain and relatively dry. These are used as components in elaborate multi-layered desserts where they sponge (!) up delicious juices, liqueurs, or syrups and are used in-between layers (or as containers for) for rich buttercream, ganache, or mousse fillings.

A few things to know about sponge cakes before you try making one:

Sponge cakes are relatively simple and quick to make, but for success, you must be a skillful folder.

Génoise is the trickiest: Well-sifted flour and hot melted butter must be folded into a delicate whole egg foam by hand, without deflating the foam more than necessary. Other sponge cakes require folding properly-whipped egg whites into the thicker and heavier portion of the batter. To make it all even more fun, the European sponges rarely call for baking powder or baking soda—so the only leavening comes from the air bubbles in the foam and the baker’s ability to fold without breaking to many of those bubbles.

Sponges that require folding whipped egg whites into the remaining batter are usually a bit easier, especially if the recipe also calls for baking powder. If you have never made a sponge cake before, take advantage of the extra egg whites and generous baking powder in a chiffon cake.

Photo by James Ransom

Here’s a breakdown, from richest and moistest to lightest and—usually but not always—driest.
Some categories may be a bit blurry, and there may be plenty of hybrids out there—since bakers and pastry chefs are born to tinker.

Photo by Sarah Jampel


  • Moist, airy, and melt-in-your-mouth
  • Relatively sweet
  • Delicious plain or with accompaniments
  • Eggs are separated and the batter contains extra egg whites
  • Whipped egg whites are folded into egg yolks, sugar, oil, flour, and water or juice
  • Baking powder provides extra rise and a fine texture
  • Contains a generous amount of oil but no butter

Nut Sponge:

  • Moist and flavorful, with a nubby texture; varies in lightness; good plain; whipped cream is a good partner, as are berries
  • Medium sweet
  • May contain flour in addition to ground nuts
  • Eggs are separated
  • Egg whites are folded into whipped yolks and sugar with ground nuts and/or flour
  • No baking powder or soda is used
  • No butter or oil

Daffodil or Feather Sponge:

  • Light and moist with golden color
  • Medium sweet
  • Delicious plain
  • Eggs are separated
  • Egg whites are whipped and folded into whipped yolks and sugar
  • Relatively high in sugar and eggs compared with other sponges
  • No baking powder or soda
  • No butter or oil

Hot Milk Sponge:

  • Slightly richer, moister, and finer in texture than génoise and used in the same way
  • Not too sweet
  • Whole eggs plus additional yolks are whipped and folded with hot milk, melted butter, and flour
  • Baking powder helps the cake rise and refines the texture
  • Butter and milk add richness and a soft crumb


  • Light and relatively dry
  • Rarely eaten plain
  • Used as a component in other desserts (an extra-rich version becomes madeleines, but that is another story)
  • Not too sweet
  • Whole eggs (sometimes with an extra yolk) are whipped to a foam, then flour and melted butter are folded in
  • Génoise may take the most skill of all of the sponges
  • No baking powder or soda
  • A small amount of butter makes it slightly richer and moister than biscuit and ladyfingers


  • Light and relatively dry
  • Rarely eaten plain (or without dunking)
  • Used as a component in other desserts (like tiramisu!)
  • Eggs are separated
  • Egg whites are whipped and folded, along with flour, into whipped yolks and sugar
  • No baking powder or soda
  • No butter or oil

Angel Food Cake

  • Light fluffy texture with pure white crumb
  • Quite moist (from a considerable amount of sugar) regardless of the absence of fat
  • Often served plain or with fruit and cream, or frosted
  • Egg whites only (no yolks)
  • Egg whites are whipped and stiffened with some of the sugar, then flour and additional sugar are folded into the resulting meringue
  • No baking powder or soda
  • No butter or oil or egg yolks

Have you mastered sponge cakes? Share your tips in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Dhara
  • Aislinn
  • Ali
  • Aisha
  • Jenny
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


Dhara May 19, 2020
What’s the best base cake for a tres Leches? Would it be a sponge cake or a Genoese?
Aislinn October 15, 2019
Which is best for a tiered wedding cake?
Ali February 21, 2018
I recently made a recipe from the King Arthur Flour cookbook that was called a Genoise. It called for whole eggs beaten with gradually added sugar, with flour sifted in in 3 parts, and finally melted butter was stirred into the mix. I used it for a Swiss roll, and it was delicious. I read here though, that Genoise sponges are made using a bain marie. In that case, what type of sponge is the one I made, mixed without the use of a bain marie?
Jenny August 9, 2018
Hi Ali,
From the various sources I've read about Genoise, you still made a Genoise without the heating!! Heating the eggs and sugar is only to get the eggs to beat up higher to incorporate more air since there is no leavening.
Aisha April 17, 2017
Just what I needed! I've been exploring the realm of foam cakes more and more recently (partly because of nifty new equipment, and partly because I'm making more elaborate multi-component cakes, or entremet in a way, that require light but sturdy bases).
The genoise with its straightforward, practically one-bowl, technique and pure clean taste is always a go-to, and I've been known to make it by hand when the darned hand-mixer died on me (it's hard but possible, the preheating of the eggs and sugar is even more crucial in this case, it then takes half an hour of non-stop whisking, my arms were red from the strain and the result was perfectly decent, even good, though not as light and tall as the mechanically mixed versions).
I am curious to know where you would rank the dacquoise and the joconde on this spectrum? Dacquoise as a nut sponge? Joconde as somewhere in between?