Neapolitan Castella Cake
- Prep time 1 hour
- Cook time 1 hour 15 minutes
- makes 1 (9- or 10-inch) cake
If you’re on the hunt for the softest, fluffiest dessert, castella takes the cake. I find this cake style spongier than Victoria sponges, more refined than genoises, and more pillowy and cloudlike than chiffons.
Castella cakes hail from Japan, but are said to have landed there by way of an eggy, fluffy Portuguese cake called pão de Castela or pão de ló, introduced to the Japanese population by merchants during the 16th-century Age of Exploration. By the 20th century, the cake took off in Taiwan, where traditional bakeries and cake shops put their own spin on it, baking the castella cakes in large-format, arm-span-wide cake trays. This Taiwanese version then catalyzed a bigger popularity boom, spreading the cult of castella cake across Asia. At one point in the late 2010s, there were at least a dozen castella cake specialty shops in the neighborhoods around me in Malaysia, each touting to have the jiggliest, fluffiest one.
Despite the air miles on castella cake, the technique largely remained the same. At its most basic, the batter is made with flour, sugar, milk, and beaten separated eggs (the whites of which provide fluffy levity of the cake). The batter is baked low and slow until it springs up into a jiggly, airy dome, with the insides light as a down pillow.
The flavor of castella, on the other hand, has seen countless riffs. I’ve encountered (and eaten) traditional vanilla-scented ones, chocolate- and matcha-flavored, hyper-localized versions infused with pandan and durian, even savory versions with pops of melted cheese. As a personal addition to the catalog of castella flavors, I developed a recipe for Neapolitan castella cake. Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry cake batters are layered into the same baking tin to get a tri-colored, tri-flavored cake.
It might take a little longer to make than most castellas—you have to split the batter in thirds and flavor each separately—but just as Neapolitan ice cream is the dream flavor for those who love variety (or are just indecisive), this Neapolitan castella cake will elicit the same delight.
Note: Sometimes the three batters might not stay in neat layers, which depends mostly on how much the batter is folded, You want to fold the batter until the meringue is fully incorporated without any whitish pockets of whipped egg whites, but not fold it so much that it deflates and turns soupy, which will encourage the layers to bleed into each other. If your cake should marble and melt into a Dalí-like work of art, don’t fret: It will be just as tasty. —Jun
(10 grams) freeze-dried strawberries
(180 milliliters) whole milk
(160 grams) unsalted butter
plus 3½ tablespoons (145 grams) all-purpose flour, divided
(30 grams) cornstarch
large eggs, separated (about 168 grams yolk and 420 grams white)
(3 grams) vanilla extract
(22 grams) cocoa powder
3 to 5 drops
pink or red food coloring (optional)
Cooking spray, for greasing the tin
(2 grams) kosher salt
(2 milliliters) lemon juice
(180 grams) granulated sugar
- Place the freeze-dried strawberries in a ziplock bag and crush them with a rolling pin or the bottom of a sturdy mug until they turn into a fine powder. (Alternatively, grind in a blender or food processor.)
- Combine the milk and butter in a medium or large saucepan, place it over medium heat, and stir until the butter melts and the milk starts to steam. Remove from the heat and stir in 1 cup (120 grams) of the flour and the cornstarch until smooth. Mix in the egg yolks until the batter turns smooth and thick, with a consistency like choux pastry batter.
- Divide the batter equally between three large bowls (between 200 and 220 grams per bowl). To the first bowl, fold in an additional 2 tablespoons (15 grams) flour and the vanilla extract. To the second bowl, fold in the cocoa powder. To the third bowl, fold in an additional 1½ tbsp (10 grams) flour, the powdered freeze-dried strawberries, and the food coloring, if using.
- Heat the oven to 325°F (163°C). Grease a 3-inch-deep 9- or 10-inch square cake tin (or a rectangular one of similar volume) with cooking spray or oil, and line all four sides with parchment paper, with at least 1 inch of overhang on each side.
- Combine the egg whites, salt, and lemon juice in a large bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using a hand mixer (or the stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment), beat the egg whites on high speed for about 2 minutes (about 1 minute in the stand mixer) until they start to foam. Gradually stream in the sugar as you continue beating on medium speed, until soft peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes. Gently add about 50 grams of the meringue into each of the three bowls of cake batter and fold until the batter is smooth and lightened in color and consistency. Then, split the remaining meringue (about 300 grams) evenly among the three batters and gently fold until no streaks of egg white remain, making sure not to overmix the batter and deflate the meringue.
- Pour the strawberry batter into the lined cake tin, smoothing it out with an offset spatula. Lightly tap the tin on the countertop a few times (this gets rid of any large air bubbles). Gently pour the vanilla batter over the strawberry batter, smoothing it out and tapping the tin a few times again. Gently pour the chocolate batter over the vanilla, smoothing and tapping it one final time.
- Place the cake tin into a baking dish larger than the cake tin, with around 1 inch of gap between the two. Place the cake tin and baking dish into the oven, then fill the baking dish with boiling water 1 inch up the sides of the cake tin. Bake for 70 to 75 minutes, or until a cake tester poked through the center of the cake comes out clean.
- Immediately remove the cake from the tin, pulling it out by the parchment overhang. Peel off the parchment paper and place the cake on a wire rack to cool down to room temperature. The cake is best eaten immediately, but it can be kept for up to 3 days at room temperature stored in an airtight container.
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