Popo's Sponge Cake

March 27, 2020
8 Ratings
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist Sophie Strangio. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne.
  • Prep time 12 minutes
  • Cook time 55 minutes
  • Serves 8 to 10
Author Notes

It took my grandma (Popo) hitting her 90s to finally run out of things to do. Before, she’d host big Saturday lunches where there were always six more dishes than there were guests: prawns nestled into glass noodles, their necks primed for snapping and sucking; thick slabs of meltingly tender pork belly, half-submerged in a swamp of braised mustard greens; nests of hairlike fat choy. All this, for no reason, no holiday. Just another Saturday.

She only recently started asking for help with harvesting oranges from her tree, and that we park closer to the dim sum restaurant so she doesn’t have to walk so much.

But before this slowing down, a few years ago, she found a new hobby: baking paper-wrapped sponge cakes (纸包鸡蛋糕), except not paper-wrapped, but in really large nine by thirteen–inch disposable aluminum lasagna pans. And not just one, but four, six at a time—a cake for each and every one of her kids, plus a couple extra for neighbors stopping by, never any for herself. She all of a sudden had an opinion on cake flour (tin ngo, or “Swan,” was best) and extra-virgin olive oil (Kirkland is hou dai, or “a steal”).

My grandparents fled the Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s, immigrating to Brooklyn with four kids in tow. I now live near their first apartment in south Brooklyn, and work near my grandma’s favorite city haunt: the 34th street Macy’s window displays (made better only with hot dog in hand). Seeing this cake come out of our test kitchen, over 3,000 miles away from its usual baker, was strange—not because it looked off, but that it looked, smelled, and tasted just as it does in her kitchen. There's something simultaneously heartbreaking and relieving about the cake's existence independent of her.

I know the added egg white is annoying (popo would certainly not approve), but instead of tossing the egg yolk, bury it in some salt, and make some more cake later.

For more stories, memories, and extended histories behind your most-loved, treasured family recipes from the column, check out our new podcast My Family Recipe.Coral Lee

Test Kitchen Notes

Featured in: What Grandma's Sponge Cake Taught Me About Being Asian in America. —The Editors

What You'll Need
  • 1 1/4 cups (150 grams) cake flour, such as Swan
  • 1 cup (200 grams) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (106 grams) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (120 grams) water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 7 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Walnut halves, for finishing (optional)
  1. Heat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Sift the cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together, twice, in a medium mixing bowl.
  3. In another medium mixing bowl, whisk together the oil, water, both extracts, 2 eggs, and 6 egg yolks until smooth. Whisk in the dry ingredients until just combined.
  4. In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites with the cream of tartar to very stiff peaks, 7-10 minutes. In installments, gently fold the egg whites into the oil-mixture with a spatula.
  5. Transfer the batter to an un-greased angel food or bundt pan, being mindful not to get batter on the inner cylinder. Place a few walnut halves, if using, onto the batter's surface.
  6. Bake until a golden brown crust has developed, 25-30 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and bake another 20-25 minutes, or until the cake springs back fully when pressed. Invert the pan onto a wire rack so the cake can cool upside-down. Cut into thick wedges and serve with milky coffee.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

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  • Emilie

11 Reviews

Adila H. September 13, 2020
My husband keeps asking for this cake. He is not a big cake eater but he just loves this one. I am going to make one right now just in time for Sunday tea here in Mauritius
LULULAND April 26, 2020
Is there a sub for the cake flour? I really want to make this but no cake flour. Thanks
Coral L. April 26, 2020
Hi there! You can sub 1 cup + and 4 1/2 teaspoons AP flour + 2 tablespoons + 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch.
LULULAND April 26, 2020
Thank you so much, this cake has to be good!
Emilie April 21, 2020
Hi ! This cake is delicious ! Such 1 beauty too.
But I DO recommend to grease your pan generously. Because it stick to the bottom of the pan and it destroys the perfection of the cake !
This cake is perfect for the one who like the taste of egg, just like a chou pastry or a Swiss roll cake. Thank you for sharing this recipe :).
Coral L. April 26, 2020
Hi Emilie! Glad you liked it. For some, the sticking is necessary to help *grow* the sponge cake upwards. But glad to hear you found a workaround!
Emilie April 21, 2020
Hi ! This cake is delicious ! Sich a beauty too.
But I DO recommend to grease your pan generously. Because it stick to the bottom of the pan and it destroys the perfection of the cake !
This cake is perfect for the one who like the taste of egg, just like a chou pastry or a Swiss roll cake. Thank you for sharing this recipe :)
HelenC April 10, 2020
I made this today. Made a few modifications to the recipe, and I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. I didn't have 8 1/2 eggs to spare (because pandemic) , so I used 6 instead—separated into 6 whites, and 6 yolks. I find that evoo imparts a pretty distinctive flavour, which I wasn't sure I wanted in this cake, so I used vegetable oil instead. I did lightly butter my tube pan, only because I didn't read the full recipe when I started to understand why the author is suggesting that it'd be left unbuttered, but I didn't have a problem with it falling out of the pan while cooling upside down. Overall, a great recipe. Thank you for sharing!
Jody April 4, 2020
My daughter baked this today so we can bring something to her Apo. She used an angel food cake pan and the bottom stuck to the pan. Any tips for getting it out in one piece? Maybe we will line the bottom with buttered parchment. It is delicious. It is similar to the sponge cake we find at Chiu-quon bakery in Chicago's Chinatown. Thank you for sharing.
Gloria April 2, 2020
Outstanding. Just made it this morning with pine nuts (what I had). It was totally worth the 8 1/2 eggs (precious commodities these days). Thank you for your gorgeous and delicious recipe.
Coral L. April 2, 2020
Gloria! I'm touched you went for it despite the eggs being, as you so rightly said, a precious commodity. Happy it turned out.