Teach me to defeat my baking nemesis
August 7, 2017 12:15 PM   Subscribe

Please share your best sponge cake recipes, tips and tricks.

I'm a competent baker. I can handle all sorts of cakes in all sorts of styles (creamed method, board method, bundt-style, cheesecakes, etc.). I make my own pie pastry dough (even if it isn't always visually perfect, it tastes fine). I'm good with choux. Come Easter, I produce bread by scratch (and by hand). Muffins come out of the oven light and fluffy. Okay, I haven't tackled croissants yet, but I plan to when I've got a whole weekend free to to do nothing but baking.

So that's where my level of skill is at--I can follow a recipe, I have basic techniques down. Still, my enemy manages to defeat me every time. I just cannot produce (let alone master) sponges. Whenever I try they end up flat, or dry, or tasting like pressed cardboard, or heavy, or some combination of the above.

Ideally, I'd love to produce two styles.

First, I'd love to be able to produce a basic, light, fluffy layer cake--you know, the kind that works best for something like a birthday cake. I need this to have some height (and not be flat, dense, hockey pucks), with some moisture (so it doesn't taste like sawdust). Flavourwise, I'd like this to be a plain cake, just so I have the basics in my toolbox, but I also wouldn't mind a few mild variations (vanilla, hazelnut, almond, lemon).

Second, I'd like to produce one that has a bit more structure and density, so it can be used as the basis for a German fruit flan (something like this if you need a visual example, and no I haven't tried that recipe yet). I've probably been trying to learn how to do this longer than I've been working on the layered version.

So if you've got a no-fail recipe for either one of these styles, and you'd be willing to share it with me, I'd be more than grateful. Also, if there are some fundamental techniques I need to learn, please tell me what I'm missing. (I always assumed I was doing the folding step incorrectly, but I think it's got to be more than that. Other things I fold turn out just fine.)
posted by sardonyx to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
One tip: weigh the eggs, and use equal weights of butter, sugar and flour (rather than rounding up or down to 4oz or whatever the recipe says).

The dryness could be due to your oven, or the size of cake tin you're using, or could be due to mixing technique. Could you go on a baking afternoon or something so that somebody can show you what you are aiming for? Quite a few of our local cake shops run these, maybe you have something locally? Failing that, Delia has a very easy-to-follow and very precise video at the bottom of this page.
posted by tinkletown at 12:28 PM on August 7, 2017

Take two eggs. Weigh them.

If the weight of two eggs is X:
Cream together X of butter and X of caster sugar
Add eggs and a splodge of vanilla essence
Add X of self-raising flour

Bake for 20 minutes (officially at 190C, but I had an oven with a duff thermostat for so long that I got used to cooking everything at 150C and it's always worked well enough for me)

If you want a larger cake, just increase the number of eggs.

Note that butter creates a tastier but denser and less fluffy sponge, margarine the opposite. I prefer mine all-butter, but many people feel that half butter half margarine gives the best of both worlds. Caster sugar creates a more delicate and fluffy cake, but is not essential; I wouldn't try brown sugar (unless it's golden caster sugar).
posted by Vortisaur at 12:28 PM on August 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you don't mind a hole or two, consider judging doneness not by time or toothpick but by internal temperature - take the cake out when a thermometer stuck in it shows something in the 205-210 F (96-99 C) range. Once it hits the boiling point, you lose moisture rapidly.
posted by adiabatic at 12:36 PM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Try separating your eggs and beating the whites and yolks separately (half the sugar goes in with the whites and half with the yolks) . The whites should form stiff peaks, and the yolks should turn pale, pale yellow and run off the spatula in ridges. Then you can fold both egg parts back together, and fold in your flour.

I threw a bunch of sponge attempts away until I hit upon this strategy.
posted by coppermoss at 12:37 PM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you have an oven thermometer? If not, I'd suggest getting one just to make sure your temperature is accurate. It's possible that the other things you bake are less persnickety. (My oven was 50 degrees off.)
posted by FencingGal at 12:41 PM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Vital ideas from someone who used to be terrible:

Weigh in grams or ounces, don't use volume.

Use the right ingredients (you say you're experienced but just in case). This means don't use butter substitute, or a different kind of sugar, or different sized eggs or wholemeal flour instead of white flour, UNTIL you can get it right with the recipe suggestions.

Get your ingredients to ROOM TEMPERATURE. This means the EGGS and BUTTER. Do NOT try to bake with chilled butter or eggs. IT WILL SEPARATE (look like weird slime).

If it DOES separate, add a tablespoon of flour and keep mixing.
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 12:43 PM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just to answer some questions:

Yes, I've got an oven thermometer. And a scale which I use readily and often (in both metric and imperial).

I keep my kitchen pretty "natural" so butter not margarine, no non-stick baking sprays, etc. I tend to stock pastry flour, regular (non-bleached) flour but no self-rising flour (I've always found that to be more of a US staple than a Canadian item). Castor sugar is one of my staples.

I've always been careful with sponge attempts to ensure ingredients were at room temperature (with other recipes, especially some no-fail-no-matter-what-you-do ones, I'm less picky).

I assume weigh the eggs means eggs once they've been removed from their shells, correct?
posted by sardonyx at 12:54 PM on August 7, 2017

Try beating your eggs for four minutes (whites and yolks together) on high, adding the sugar and another 4 minutes on high for a moist, light cake.

Whipping the whites to stiff peaks is a great way to get height, but can also make the texture a bit drier.

Self-raising flour is just 1 cup of regular flour with a tsp of baking powder.

Heat the butter and milk together until the butter melts. (search for 'hot milk sponge' and you'll see plenty of examples)
posted by ananci at 1:09 PM on August 7, 2017

You sound so thorough I really don't know what could be wrong. I think the suggestion of a class is a good one!

I will toss ideas out. I hope none is patronising but I've often found that the most basic thing can be missed, my own baking included.

Have you tried different techniques (the all-in-one vs the creaming method)?

Could you try different kinds of sponge (eg, angel food cake, Genoise, etc) and see how well those work?

You mentioned you don't use self-raising flour. What's the leavening agent in the cakes? I'd add baking powder if I were using plain flour instead of self raising. Without a leavening agent my cake'd pancake.

Here's a video with Mary Berry in case this helps! Good luck!
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 1:11 PM on August 7, 2017

I don't make bread or fancy cakes but I've been making much lauded victoria sponges for decades and I've found that margarine makes a much better cake than butter. I don't weigh the eggs but always use 3 large ones. Here's my mother's recipe that has now been in use for 60+ years.

6oz margarine
6oz caster sugar
6oz self raising flour
1 gently rounded teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
3 large eggs

- Preheat oven to 180 (160 fan / gas mark 4)
- Grease and flour 2 x 7" cake tins
- Put the margarine and caster sugar into a large bowl and cream them together for a good 3 minutes until paler than margarine.
- Break the first egg into a cup, beat with a fork then add to the mixture, whisk for another 30 seconds or so until combined.
- Repeat for the second and third eggs respectively.
- Sift the flour/baking powder/salt and fold in with a metal spoon. You don't have to be too precious about this but don't stir it wildly either.
- You want to achieve a dropping consistency - take a spoon of the mixture about 6" above the bowl and let it drop - if it's sluggish add a drop of milk (skim, semi, full, whatever's open in the fridge).
- Put half of the mixture into each tin and bake in the middle of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, depending on your oven.

For a chocolate sponge, add a rounded tablespoon of cocoa powder to the flour. Don't use less flour. It shouldn't work but it does, producing a lovely moist chocolate sponge.

For lemon, grate the rind of one lemon into the mixture after the eggs and use the lemon juice as the additional liquid if needed.
posted by humph at 1:18 PM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just a bit more info, in case it helps provide better answers.

Honestly, I think I've tried every method out there over the course of the last two or three decades. I'm sure I've done all-in-one, creamed, eggs whipped together, eggs whipped separately. As for the flan version, I've done with milk, without milk, with oil, and more I can't remember.

Seriously, this has been decades-long, if sporadic quest. Some of the results have been okay, or fine, but never great or spectacular. Maybe I'm just too picky, although I don't think that's the problem.
posted by sardonyx at 1:31 PM on August 7, 2017

Oh, and the leavening agent is usually whatever the recipe calls for (baking powder most commonly, but also baking soda, or just eggs). I'm a pretty by-the-book baker. I don't really deviate from a recipe unless it's something I've done dozens and dozens of times and I think I've finally got a feel for what I can monkey with and what I can't.
posted by sardonyx at 1:33 PM on August 7, 2017

My no-fail baking recipes are all from Rose Levy Beranbaum, if you're willing to follow directions exactly. The books are better since she goes into details about why things are done are certain way.

I've done several of the chiffon cakes and they turn out well. (Orange Glow Chiffon Cake.) But they might be too light for what you want.

Here's a recipe for French Genoise (pdf) which is supposed to be a slightly denser cake. But I have not made it personally, even though I would vouch for RLB's recipes in general.
posted by ethidda at 1:48 PM on August 7, 2017

St Delia again:

She's got a real thing about cake tin sizes. I've never noticed it make much difference, but I mostly make loaf cakes which are a bit more forgiving than round tins. Maybe try some of the tips in the article? Or just stick to loaf cakes. What are your lemon drizzle cakes like? The syrup makes them pretty hard to mess up.

And I totally think mixing technique matters. I make much lighter cakes than my mum, and we are using the same recipes, ingredients and oven. I fold the flour in using a sort of up-and-over technique with the spatula, trying to get as much air in as possible. There are small air bubbles breaking on the surface of my mixture when I'm done. But you only mix enough to get everything smooth - don't overmix.

I'm not explaining myself very well, which is why I'd recommend a course to see it in action. Did wonders for my pastry-making, plus I got a load of elaborate Christmas baking to take home.
posted by tinkletown at 2:07 PM on August 7, 2017

If your baking powder/soda are old, you won't get much lift from either of them.

Some other ideas:
1. Somehow inadequate greasing of the pan (the tin) - try greasing, lining with parchment, and then greasing again. Because maybe your cake is getting stuck on the walls and inhibiting the rise?

2. Overmixing. Make a cake batter but ladle out aliquots of it (perhaps into cupcake skins in a muffin pan) as you mix from definitely-undermined through to how you'd usually do and beyond. Take notes/photos pre/post.

3. Rose Levy Berenbaum has a diagnostic cake in the Cake Bible to check for temp/timing issues in the oven.

4. Timing? Is the oven ready when the cake is, or is the batter sitting around waiting for preheat? That could also cost you lift.

5. Folding (for any case where you've whipped egg whites separately). Violent folding costs lift, but you definitely have to spend some of the whites to lighten/slacken the batter before you try folding.

6. Pouring batter from too high up, so you are knocking the air out when it hits the bottom of the tin.

The Grand Central Baking book (from a PNW bakery chain, should be available in Canada) has pretty reliable cake formulations - including "yellow birthday cake" - if you want something homelier and simpler than RLB's engineered masterpieces.
posted by janell at 2:08 PM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't have advice for sponge cake, but I can completely sympathize. I'm also a very competent baker, and yet I can't seem to master bread dough. It's like I just don't understand it or how it's supposed to behave compared to making a soufflé or muffin batter. One thing that's really helped me improve is looking at the science behind the bread (in your case sponge). Places like America's Test Kitchen, old episodes of Good Eats, and dense books like "On food and cooking" by H. McGee. Good luck!
posted by A hidden well at 4:27 PM on August 7, 2017

Can you find a step by step video and literally do it alongside them? If you follow it exactly and it still doesn't work out, it might mean your oven is a bit off if everything else is as it should be. Just a thought. And I know what it's like to be a reasonably competent cook and yet not be able to master that one thing, poached eggs I'm looking at you...
posted by Jubey at 4:54 PM on August 7, 2017

What happens if you get a boxed sponge cake mix? Those things are pretty foolproof and everything is pre-measured and fresh. It that turns into a brick as well, it's probably inconsistent temps in your oven. I too have struggled with a recalcitrant oven, so you have my sympathies if this is the case.

If it does come out nice, either your ingredients are too old (both flour and leavening are best when fresh) or something is happening with how you are preparing the batter. In this case, I really would recommend a baking class or possibly livestreaming your process and having your friendly MeFites help figure out what's happening in real time.
posted by ananci at 5:13 PM on August 7, 2017

I would strongly consider using a King Arthur flour recipe and then calling their baking hotline to troubleshoot if/when it doesn't turn out. (Sorry, on mobile, no links.) They have actual staff to help you figure out why it didn't work well!
posted by WidgetAlley at 5:33 PM on August 7, 2017

Weighing eggs - I weigh them in their shells as it makes very little difference overall.
posted by Vortisaur at 10:59 PM on August 7, 2017

Do it all by weight. Ratio has become my favorite baking book. Sponge cake: 1 part egg : 1 part sugar : 1 part flour: 1 part butter . Whip your (ideally lightly warmed or at least room temperature) eggs & sugar until tripled in volume. Fold in flavoring (e.g. vanilla, salt), followed by sifted flour, then melted butter. You can cheat and "sift" flour by fluffing it in a bowl with a wire whisk or whizzing it through a food processor. 350°F oven. 8 oz of each will fill a 9" cake pan.
posted by carrioncomfort at 9:02 AM on August 8, 2017

Just on the off chance, do you live at a high altitude? It can require recipe adjustments.
posted by lucidium at 9:53 AM on August 8, 2017

Thanks for all the responses. At this point, before I can get into a kitchen, I'm really liking the idea of ratio ones (although humph's looks worthy of attention too). Those make a lot of sense to me. Although I wonder what ratio I'm supposed to use to add in the baking powder? Sometimes it doesn't seem necessary (according to the recipe) and other times it does. Do I pretty much stick with one teaspoon?

As for some other questions and points:
--My ingredients are fresh. I do enough baking that nothing lasts too long in my kitchen. Even the none-baking cooking uses them up, for example, doing waffles the other day, I realized I needed to buy baking powder (as mine was almost gone) and restock the flour.

--I'm not at altitude. And my first step is typically to turn on the oven, so it's at temperature before I'm finished putting the ingredients together.

--Other cakes (including American-styled cream butter and sugar together layer cakes) typically come out fine with good height, texture, taste and moisture.

--I can't say I've ever heard of boxed sponge cake mix. But then I haven't purchased mix in 20 or 25 years. (There used to be a honey bran muffin mix I'd keep on hand for when I really didn't want to expend any effort but wanted baked goods, but that was discontinued ages ago.) I don't have anything against mixes, it's just that I can typically whip up a cake in the same amount of time as it would take me to use a mix. Plus, I know my ingredients are fresh.

--As far as I know, King Arthur is strictly a US brand. I've never seen it on the shelves in this part of Canada.

It has been really supportive to hear that I'm not the only one who has a baking nemesis that just won't be conquered. Thanks for your comments Jubey and A hidden well. And tinkletown, your explanation is fine. Believe me, I'm completely familiar with using the same recipes as my mother and getting different results. Her technique (or her fine motor control, which is what I really suspect) is just so much better than mine. She can perform magic (but alas, she never learned anything about sponges).
posted by sardonyx at 12:19 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I came in to tell you to try a chiffon cake, but I see ethidda has beaten (ha!) me to it.
posted by domo at 2:07 PM on August 8, 2017

For reasons, i decided to try and master a classic genoise this year. Master it, I did not.
But, it was a fun challenge and is a nice basic sponge that can be used in all sorts of ways. I did find that if I made more batter (I upped the recipe by 1/3), the rise in my 9" round cake pans was much more than 1/3 higher. Something about the cake needing more volume in order to hold the rise. I hope to get back to the task when summer is over.
posted by jindc at 6:51 PM on August 8, 2017

Wait, are you using *cake* flour? King Arthur is a popular brand in the US for baking cakes, because it's "soft", meaning it's finer and lower gluten compared to other all-purpose flours.

Low gluten flour, or cake flour, is really a big deal when it comes to sponges.
posted by ananci at 7:43 PM on August 21, 2017

I use whatever the instructions say: sometimes it's cake flour, sometimes it's all-purpose. As for King Arthur, see my previous comment about the regional availability of that brand.
posted by sardonyx at 1:01 PM on August 22, 2017

I saw your update and something just occurred to me - is it possible that it's the mixer you're using? I found when I switched to a stand mixer a few years ago, that it was a much faster and also harsher process than when I used to use a handheld mixer. So maybe the delicate sponge is being overbeaten? (assuming that you're using a stand mixer). Those older recipes weren't meant to be made using these modern techniques.
posted by A hidden well at 2:55 PM on August 24, 2017

I've got an ancient hand mixer, not a stand mixer, so sadly. it's not a stand-mixer/overpowered mixer problem--that would be a nice, quick fix if it were.
posted by sardonyx at 2:45 PM on August 27, 2017

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