Popo's Sponge Cake

March 27, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist Sophie Strangio. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne.
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. —Coral Lee

Test Kitchen Notes

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

  • Prep time 12 minutes
  • Cook time 55 minutes
  • Serves 8 to 10
  • 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)
In This Recipe
  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.

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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.