Saturday, 14 April 2012

Sensational Simple Sponge

A sensational simple sponge.
Sometimes there is nothing better than a simple sponge cake for hitting the (delicious cake) spot. A simple sponge can be truly sensational if done well. A sponge cake is not difficult to make given a few tips, but it is worth giving it a little love and time...I'm sorry Mary Berry (and Delia on occasion), but the all in one method may well seem quicker and perhaps a little easier, but for five extra minutes you can have a much better cake.

A simple sponge is just that. Made from butter, caster sugar, eggs and self-raising flour it can be a thing of beauty. You can of course tart it up by adding vanilla, lemon, chocolate...whatever you can think of. Learning to make a sensational simple sponge is a must for all those that love cake!

There are two ways to measure your ingredients for a sensational simple sponge cake. I have used both methods, and find if you are using commercially produced eggs (by that I mean they are graded by size and will be similar weights) then they both work very well.

The first method is to take a number of large eggs (say 4 for a generous sized cake) and then double the number of eggs in ounces for the caster sugar, butter and self-raising flour. So, if you have 4 large eggs you'll use 8 ounces each of sugar, butter and self-raising flour. If you wanted a smaller cake you could use 3 large eggs and 6 ounces each of sugar, butter and self-raising flour.

If you are using eggs from your own hens, or have been given some by a friend (lucky you!) or sourced eggs from somewhere where they are varying sizes, it is probably more reliable to use a different measuring method. In this case crack open your eggs and using grams measure their combined weight. You will then need to use an equal weight each of sugar, butter and self-raising flour. For example if you use four eggs and their contents weigh 220 grams, you would then use 220 grams of sugar, 220 grams of butter and 220 grams of self-raising flour.

This may seem needlessly complicated, but if you have uneven sized eggs then this is the best way to get a sensational simple sponge. If you are using standard sized eggs it's fine to use the number and ounces method, as more often than not you would find that 4 eggs would weigh approximately 8 ounces in any case.

So....on to the method (I hope you're still with me) for the sensational simple sponge. This is where the little extra love and time comes in.

Before you do anything else, grease and line your tins. I love the straight sided, loose bottomed sandwich tins from Alan Silverwood. They cook really evenly and the loose bottom really helps get the cake out the tin. The straight sides give you a good looking and even cake (this will even help with the rise believe it or not!). Grease the tins (I also like to line the bottom with greased baking paper) and then tip some flour (or cocoa if you are making a chocolate sponge) around the tin to make a fine layer on top of the butter/margarine used for greasing. This will stop your cakes from sticking to the tin and is well worth the extra effort.

Greased and floured tin (with optional fingerprints!)

Have all your ingredients at room temperature...if you keep your eggs in the fridge take them out in advance of using them....same goes for the butter. The only exception to this is if it is a very warm don't want the butter to be melting/greasy looking at all, just soft.

The first step is to cream together the butter and the caster sugar. I use a stand mixer, but you can use a hand mixer, or if you want a work out you can do it by hand with a wooden spoon. You want to cream together the butter and the sugar until they combine, and the butter is a couple of shades lighter than it was. If doing this by hand this will take a little time, but it is perhaps one of the most important steps to making a sensational simple sponge cake. By creaming together the sugar and the butter you are creating little bubbles of air in the butter and sugar mixture, which will make the cake rise when baked. If the butter is too warm before you start, and is melting away it won't be stiff enough to hold the bubbles, so if it starts to do that whilst you are mid cream, pop the mixture in the fridge for a few minutes and cream again.

Butter and sugar creamed together on the paddle attachment of my can just about see the tiny bubbles within the mixture.
Creamed butter and sugar in the bowl.

The next stage is to whisk in the eggs. Do this one at a time until they are combined in to the mixture. The mixture may begin to look curdled. Do not worry as this can be for a number of reasons (including cold eggs, or using margarine) and is nothing to worry about. Some recipes will advise you to add a little flour with each egg to prevent this. I would advise that you don't do this, you'll be adding the flour soon enough and overworking the flour will give you a tough cake. Delia Smith advises that allowing the mix to 'curdle' makes the cake heavy, but I have not found this to be the case, overworking the flour is more likely to do this in my opinion.
Butter, sugar and egg mix that looks curdled.

I'm not normally one for sifting flour (I'm too lazy), but this is the one time you should do it. Less lumps in the flour means less stirring once the flour is in the mix, and the key here is to stir as little as possible. The more you stir the flour into the mix, the more you will develop the gluten in the flour, something you do not want when making a sponge cake. Over developing the gluten will give you a tough and dry cake. You literally want to stir in the flour just enough so the mixture is combined.

Once you've got the flour into your mix, and it is smooth and combined you want to get it into the tin(s) as soon as possible. You don't want to leave the mix sitting around, as you will lose the oomph of the raising agent in the self-raising flour (this begins to work as soon as it hits the moisture of the rest of the mix). I like to divide a four egg mixture evenly between two 20cm tins (approximately 8 inches). For a nice level top once the cake has baked I slightly indent the centre of the mix in each tin.

Sponge layer before baking.

Mix with indentation in the middle.
For a 4 egg cake in two layers, bake in a centre of a preheated oven at 170 degrees Celsius for approximately 25-30 minutes. If it's a 4 egg cake in one layer it is more likely to be 45 minutes. Cooking times will depend on your oven. The sensational sponge is cooked when the centre feels springy when lightly touched and your finger doesn't leave a mark (be careful the cake will be hot!). You can also insert a fine skewer or cocktail stick into the centre of the cake, and if this comes out clean the cake is cooked

Allow the cake to cool on a rack for 5 minutes or so and then tip out of the tin(s). If you don't want any grid marks from the cooling rack to be left on the top of your sponge you can tip it out on to a tea towel (on the rack) and then turn it over to cool.

For a classic victoria sponge, sandwich two layers of the simple sensational sponge with jam and sift icing sugar on the top. If you've made a lemony cake you can sandwich (or just top) with lemon curd, or if chocolate use a chocolate ganache (or cherry jam). You can of course just eat it plain, or with whipped cream, you can ice it with butter cream, or fill it with fruit....the options are endless, but you will always have a sensational simple sponge!

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