Light and delightfully versatile, sponge is the cake to build on
It’s the star of the English high tea, and an equally popular pick here at home. What’s your favourite take on this cake, asks Kunal VijayakarUpdated: May 31, 2019 20:51 IST
The gardens will be full with a flurry of daffodils, clusters of tulips, drifts of lavender, shrubs of azaleas and a trembling of bluebells. Under wisteria-covered pergolas Londoners will be picnicking, with flutes of wine, gentle sandwiches and cakes with jam. It’s spring on this side of the world and while you are reading this column in Mumbai, I will be in London sipping tea, scoring scones and nibbling sponge cake.
When we think of ordering a cake, a sponge cake is rarely the one that first pops up in our minds. I admit an ordinary sponge does strike one as rather impassionate, terribly unadorned, a wee bit austere, possibly dull and even platonic. How could you compare the mundane sponge to a flamboyantly lush, dense Chocolate Truffle or a rousing classic Opera Cake (rows of almond sponge soaked in coffee syrup, layered with ganache and coffee buttercream, then slathered in a chocolate glaze) or an even richer and more voluptuous Cuatro Leches, the older sibling to Mexico’s famous Tres Leches, the Cuatro has four layers, each bursting with milk powder, whole milk, condensed milk, and evaporated milk, and is finished with a squall of whipped cream.
Compared with these divas, the simple sponge seems like a stepsister. But trust me, nothing in the world beats the cozy, warm affection of a sponge cake. It’s soft, fluffy, light, airy and leaves you feeling utterly loved. It’s a cake that takes you back home.
A sponge is the kind of cake you can rustle up quickly and serve hot, straight out of the oven, just in time for tea. The sponge cake is often confused with the pound cake and they are quite similar. Traditionally a sponge cake is baked without yeast and with just flour, sugar, butter and eggs, with the egg whites beaten stiffly and folded into the batter to aerate it. The Pound Cake usually has either yeast or baking powder, and the measurements of all the ingredients in a classic pound, are said to be a pound each — so, a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter and a leavening agent.
Both come out of the oven soft and moist in the centre, a little crusty on the outside, and can be eaten as they are. You can also use the sponge or pound cake as the base for a variety of cakes, from the Black Forest to the Madeira to the Carrot Cake and more.
At tea time in England, the sponge cake, when taken to the next level of decadence, is called the Victoria Sponge, or Victoria Sponge Sandwich. This is a warm sponge cake cut horizontally in the centre and layered with a thick filling of strawberry or raspberry jam, vanilla cream and whipped double cream. It’s a mouthful of grandeur, and I’d happily skip the Earl Grey and instead eat the Victoria Sponge with a cup of hot Irani Chai.
Another of my favourite cakes starts off with a pound cake — the Classic Swiss Roll. It’s freshly baked cake sliced into thin layers, the layers then lavished with raspberry jam and whipped cream and then rolled into a long cylinder and sliced. When I’m greedy, I like my Swiss Roll served with hot custard. It’s divine.
Or you could take layers of freshly baked sponge, fill them with lemon curd and drizzle the whole cake with warm sugar and lemon syrup, dust it with caster sugar and grate some zest on it for the moistest and tangiest Lemon Drizzle Cake. And there’s the one most commonly sighted in cake shops, the Pineapple Cake. Soft layers of sponge cake drowned in whipped cream, soaked in pineapple syrup and topped with slices of sugar-soaked pineapple. Light, fluffy, but a bit too creamy for me. So whether it is a chocolate, a lemon drizzle, a Swiss roll or the classic Victoria, it’s usually a variation on the wonderfully versatile sponge.
We in India love sponge cakes. It’s no longer just an elite habit. Bangalore Iyengar Bakeries and other such ones have made cakes affordable and accessible. There are over 400 original and fake Iyengar Bakeries just in Mumbai. These bakeries make homely cakes, all based on forms of the sponge or pound — Plum Cakes, Vanilla Muffins, Chocolate Cakes and cakes with colourful icing. And you now see replicas everywhere – at paanwallas, roadside stalls, even local chaiwallas display jars full of small sponge cakes.
They say the sponge cake came to India in 1883 and it was a Mr Brown, a cinnamon plantation owner, who handed the recipe to Baputti Mambally, owner of the Mambally Royal Biscuit Factory in Thalassery, Kerala, and asked him to bake a cake. The cake turned out unimpeachable and that, some believe, was the beginning of modern confectionary in India.
But the people who, according to me, mastered the art of adapting the sponge cake and truly making it an Indian delicacy are the Irani bakers at B Merwan and Co. Their Mawa Cake is a masterpiece — a dense sponge cupcake made with flour, eggs, butter, sugar and crumbled mawa or khoya. I would say a few more nice things about it; unfortunately they obstinately refuse to make enough, so they are never available. Get to the Irani café after 9.30 am and they’re all gone. They take the idiom “selling like hot cakes” too literally. I haven’t been able to get my hands on one in three years. It simply isn’t a piece of cake!