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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Old-fashioned Aussie cream sponge

Well, this is about the most romantic I got today. Isn't it such fun to realise how alone you are on Valentines Day and that you'll die alone in a damp room; a crazy old woman surrounded by cats and old newspapers? I was at home sick today as well so that was doubly jolly. Ok, /end maudlin navel-gazing!!
Basically, we have some very ancient heart-shaped cake tins that used to be owned by my grandmother, and they never get used. I'm not so into pink and hearts and fluffy sparkly things, so making a heart-shaped cake? Hah! Naah. But, it's Valentines day, and I had a long rehearsal tonight, so decided that if I was going to get wet, I may as well go swimming. A cake in the shape of loveheart to make you smile. For most of us it was the most romantic thing that happened all day!

I decided a few months ago that I wanted to make and post about a proper Australian sponge cake. I've been feeling a bit perplexed at strange cake-like items appearing in cookbooks and websites calling themselves sponge cakes when they are patently not. Take the Victoria Sponge. Now, I'm not familiar with the nomenclature of sponge cakes, but in my book a sponge cake does not include butter. In fact, it should not contain any fat. Therefore a Victoria Sponge, such as the one that appears in Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess, is not a sponge cake. Additionally, in my experience, a true sponge cake does not even include any wheat flour; instead it uses very fine cornflour and some custard powder to give it its light, airy texture. I don't know if this odd use of cornflour and custard powder is a very Aussie thing, but it's what gives you the type of sponge cake you get when you do a concert in the country and the little old ladies of the Country Womens' Association have made a big spread for your supper afterwards. I tell you, the little old lady who made the sponge cake I tasted after a gig in a little no-traffic-light town in Western Victoria 4 years ago is a baking angel!

Sponge cakes are still big in the baking competition section (check out some of those cake categories!) of the Royal Melbourne Show. Apparently it's the most competitive section and the same competitors have been entering for decades, so it's not worth even contemplating submitting your own. (I've heard that the 'orange cake: top iced' category is in threat, so if you're considering an entry, show your support and try to keep that one alive!) A simple sponge cake filled with jam and whipped cream and passionfruit is about as Australian as it gets. Bar the lamingtons , pavs and Iced VoVos. I have some foreign guests arriving this week, so have another heart shaped sponge tucked away in the freezer. I figure that with a BBQ of lamb chops followed by sponge cake they're getting a pretty good intro into traditional Australian food!

I couldn't immediately locate my great-grandmother's sponge cake recipe in her handwritten book, so I turned to this excellent article that appeared in The Age Epicure in 2004. The article, questioning why we don't make sponges any more, prompted the staff of the workplace I was in to establish their own in-house sponge cake competition. Please keep your applause to a minimum as I inform you that I won that competition, even though I was only the work-experience girl! ;-) I didn't use the recipe in the article, but this time I did and I think it's even better than my original. Read it for some very good baking tips. I also feel a bit smug by saying that the pastry chef who wrote the article also made my 21st birthday cake, but I don't think she was nearly as well-known then...

Sponges are delicate, and many people think they're too hard to attempt because they'll collapse. I haven't found that, and let me point out that despite my successful sponges last night, I also managed to bake a completely flat walnut cake and some floppy, uncooked Anzac biscuits. Sponges are therefore foolproof! In fact, I had imagined sandwiching my two tins together, but both rose so high that I was able to cut each in half and have enough for two.

Now: fillings. You don't want to get too experimental with fillings. Jam, some whipped cream and dusted with icing sugar is about as good as it gets. Tangy passionfuit icing on top is also pretty damn good. I spread my base with some cranberry sauce I had left from Christmas, and crushed some strawberries with sugar and a spoonful of rosewater which I folded into some whipped cream. Even though I only used a little rosewater, the flavour clearly came through. Be careful with it if you don't want to be reminded of a grandmother's dressing table. Dusted with icing sugar, this was as light, airy and girlishly romantic as you can get. It went down very well indeed.
Read on for the recipe:

Old-fashioned Aussie Sponge Cake
Based on Cecilia Sartori's Passionfruit Sponge

5 eggs (large)
¾ cup castor sugar
½ cup custard powder
½ cup cornflour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder

• Preheat oven to 175C, lower if convection oven.
• Separate the whites and yolks, set yolks aside.
• Whisk the whites until soft peaks form, gradually adding the sugar. Add the yolks to the whisked whites, mixing until combined.
• Remove from the mixer and fold through the sieved dry ingredients.
• Transfer to the buttered and floured tin/s.
• Bake for 20-25 minutes for the small cakes or 35 minutes for the large.
•Yield: 2 x 20cm round tins or 1 x 28cm round tin

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  • Niki, it's gorgeous, really.

    For a number of years, I dressed completely in black for V-day. Not just clothes, but I'd wear black nail polish and lipstick. It was my loud (and young) protest against this 'you gotta have somebody'regime.

    I don't don the black these days (gray sweats for me today!), but I still raise a theoretical black nail-tinted fist in defiance!

    But who am I kidding...I got two dozen roses from Matt...

    By Blogger Stephanie, at 2/15/2006 03:43:00 am  

  • Worry not, I'd rather be at home surrounded by cats and making a faboo sponge cake than be tricked into dinner with a slimey, sleazy wanker. Two years in a row I get conned into dinners with slime buckets under the pretext of business. Hand me some sponge cake, will ya?

    Hope you feel better now.

    By Blogger MM, at 2/15/2006 05:23:00 am  

  • My mum wasn't much chop with a chop, but she sure could bake. Her scones always rose a mile high and her sponges were always light and fluffy. I don't recall that she used anything other than flour, certainly there was no custard powder, but I suppose it's not what's in it, it's how it turns out that's important.

    By Blogger neil, at 2/15/2006 09:19:00 am  

  • Oh dear, Niki. You mustn't worry about being alone when you can bake a cake like that one. I'm not. ;)
    Happy Valentine's Day!

    By Blogger Nic, at 2/15/2006 12:34:00 pm  

  • Hi Niki, when I opened your blog the first photo of that cake took my breath away, how gorgeous. Now I will have to read about it as it got me eager to tell you what an impact it had.

    By Blogger Lushlife, at 2/15/2006 06:26:00 pm  

  • Mmm there is a dark side to Valentine's day which is why I don't agree with it because of the effect it may have on my children's self esteem as they are growing up. But your write of a more important subject, my mother was the Sponge Queen in our small town when growing up. She was known to produce the lightest and airiest of sponges with a manual handbeater in a wooden stove, imagine that! I too remember them being made with cornflour and no butter - I thought there was a recipe on the side of the cornflour packet?

    Despite my being a non v-day believer I have to say I too succumbed to baking some heart shaped objects last weekend and brought to work yesterday. I will post about them tonight.

    By Blogger Lushlife, at 2/15/2006 06:33:00 pm  

  • damn, you should enter that cake for the show! seriously! you could win the blue ribbon and 50c cash!

    i never realised they had custard powder in them! you learn something every day. looks soooo yummy too!

    By Anonymous shauna, at 2/16/2006 01:35:00 am  

  • Stephanie - Well, I've never gone the all-black route, but my friends and are are very cynical on the day! Even my brother, who is very popular with the ladies didn't get anything was was feeling down about the whole day. Roses from your man is lovely!

    mm - Well, when you put it that way.... Yes, yes I do!

    tankeduptaco - what a name! You're right - I've seen lots of traditional-sounding sponge recipes that do use plain flour instead of cornflour, or a bit of both, and I'd be interested to try it that way to see what it's like. I'm pretty sure I've had sponges made with normal flour before that were top notch.

    Nic - thank you! :-)

    Lushlife - I love the idea of the old-fashioned sponge-making queen of the town. I can certainly imagine your mother handbeating and cooking on a wooden stove, but I can't imagine how difficult that must have been. I've never whipped egg whites by hand; I think it'd kill me! I think you might be right about the cornflour packet; but I've poured mine into a container so I can't check to see if it's still being printed there.

    Shauny - 50c cash is about right! A few years back I went and checked out the baking stuff in person and the sponges were very scary - they were about 2 feet high! AND they're not allowed to use baking powder! Scary, scary stuff. I'm actually thinking of entering another category this year to keep it all alive. The lamington perhaps? Hahahahaha!

    By Blogger Niki, at 2/16/2006 09:33:00 am  

  • Nothing beats a good sponge cake... yours looks sensational. Yum!

    ps. The sponge cake comp sounds brilliant, and not just for the judging potential!

    By Anonymous augustusgloop, at 2/16/2006 10:11:00 am  

  • What a gorgeous cake, Niki! I have a heart-shaped cake tin back home which I use for the sponge (the buttery kind:) cake, filled with cream and strawberries. Simplicity itself, but oh so tasty..

    By Blogger Pille, at 2/16/2006 10:14:00 am  

  • Esurientes, that's pretty good too. There is an explanation for my name in one of my posts, guess I should shift it to my profile. If you want to look, the post is titled "Tacos Anyone?"

    By Blogger neil, at 2/16/2006 02:25:00 pm  

  • your sponge cake is great BUT I remember my grandmother used to make a sponge cake she used to call '2, 4, 6, 8'. its got to do with the ingredient weighs in oz and lbs but try as I may, I cannot find the recipe. can you help? my email address is imalady_007@yahoo.com.au. Thank you Kathryn

    By Anonymous Kathryn, at 10/03/2008 03:40:00 pm  

  • By Blogger Alumine, at 6/26/2010 03:49:00 am  

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