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The Wide World of Sponge Cakes

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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?

Walnut Sponge Cake
Walnut Sponge Cake

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.

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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.

The Most Famous Cake on the Amalfi Coast
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The Most Famous Cake on the Amalfi Coast

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.

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.

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The Traditional Italian Dessert You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
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The Traditional Italian Dessert You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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

Chiffon:

  • 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
Pumpkin Chiffon Cake
Pumpkin Chiffon Cake

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
Passover Chocolate Nut Sponge Cake
Passover Chocolate Nut Sponge Cake

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
How to Make Tiramisu Without a Recipe
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How to Make Tiramisu Without a Recipe

Génoise:

  • 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

Biscuit/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
How to Make the Perfect Angel Food Cake
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How to Make the Perfect Angel Food Cake

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 more from the illustrated biographies of 16.5 global desserts

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