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Trifling Matters: Dry Sponge Cake

Ann Louise asks: With Christmas coming I am really desperate for  helpful advice on what I’m doing wrong when baking the  sponge cake for my trifle. I have always used the trifle recipe from The Joy of Cooking book, which I’ve had since 1979, although  I’ve only begun using that particular  recipe in the past few years. I always thought that the cake was o.k. until I tasted my friend’s trifle when we were at her place for Christmas last year. The cake in her trifle was moist with a fine grained  texture whereas mine always comes out dry and full of large air holes. When I asked her for the recipe, she said it was the same one that I use from the Joy Of Cooking Book, but our cakes differ like night and day, and I was too embarrassed to let her know this. I’ve gone over the recipe and my method repeatedly but I can’t seem to figure out what I’m doing wrong. The recipe calls for whisking the eggs and sugar over simmering water until warm, and then beating them for 15 minutes until triple in volume. At this point, when I am whipping them for 15 minutes, the mixture is full of large pockets of air, whereas I’ve seen during a YouTube video of sponge cake making that the batter is relatively smooth  with very little bubbles of air. What am  I’m doing differently to create such an opposite result  in my sponge cake? I would love to be able to master this cake so the  trifle I serve my family this Christmas will be as delicious as my friend’s,  but I need help deciphering what I’m  doing wrong.

Baking S.O.S. says: Sponge cake is supposed to be dry by nature.  If your sponge cake turns out dry, then it is probably turning out right.

Sponge cake is more commonly made in Europe, where desserts tend to be less sweet and less laden with buttery fat, as our desserts in America are. If you are expecting your sponge cake to turn out like a typical American butter cake, you will be disappointed because it will never be so, based on the ingredients in the recipe.

As for the large air holes from the whipped egg whites, that is the only thing that make a sponge cake rise.  If you do not whip enough air into the egg white-sugar mixture, then the cake will not rise at all, so air holes are OK.  To be sure that you are heating the egg whites & sugar enough before whipping them, try using a kitchen thermometer to take the temperature. They should reach about 117 degrees Fahrenheit before you remove them from the heat.  Egg whites start to coagulate at around 120 degrees, so be careful not to let them get too hot!

So what is the secret to a moist sponge cake, you must be wondering? Simple syrup! The traditional preparation of a sponge cake is to soak it with some type of simple syrup–to give it extra flavor and moisture.

Simple syrup is equal parts of granulated sugar and water (ex. 1 cup sugar + 1 cup water) boiled together until the sugar dissolves. From there, you can add ANY kind of flavor imaginable. From something as simple as vanilla extra to various flavored liqueurs (which is the traditional preparation of a trifle)–almost anything goes.

So once you bake the sponge cake and allow it to cool, you then slice the cake into layers and brush each layer generously with a flavored simple syrup to give it moisture and additional flavor. Then follow your trifle recipe from there. I like to use homemade pastry cream and fresh fruit in my trifles–yummy!

But here’s my secret: I don’t even bother making sponge cake simply because it is dry, flavorless, and difficult to bake successfully without much practice or experience.  I skip the sponge cake and simply make my favorite yellow cake recipe.  We Americans like our cake to be tender and moist, so I go straight for the cake recipe I love best–no need to follow the trifle recipe exactly.  The beauty of a trifle is that you can use ANY combination of cakes, flavorings, fillings, and toppings that you choose.

So if you don’t feel like fighting with the sponge cake recipe again and again, simply skip that step all together and try it with your own favorite cake recipe, instead.  You can still soak the cake layers with some type of liqueur and/or simple syrup, if you like.  (Here’s an interesting side note: Trifle is also called “tipsy pudding” because of the high alcohol content of the dessert!)