YESTERDAY, I made a sponge cake that was cottony soft, gorgeously tender and didn’t sink. But I wasn’t elated. It was – indulge me, since we’re in the thick of Olympic season – a cake that tested positive.
Let me explain. For as long as I remember, the epitome of a great cake is the sponge cake. Don’t talk to me about butter cakes, and how rich they taste or how firm and biteworthy their texture. Butter cakes aren’t special. You can find them in any neighbourhood bakery or mama shop. My mum, and just about any housewife/auntie with an oven has tried, and succeeded, in making it.
But sponge cakes are different. When I was a kid, sponge cakes were held with the same esteem as, say, molten lava chocolate cakes today. Just say the name and a chorus of oohs and aahs are sure to follow. Who could resist a cake so soft, it literally melts in your mouth?
Added to its mystique was how difficult it is to make. I vividly remember my mum, seated on our kitchen floor, sweating buckets as she hand-whipped egg whites because she was told that doing it by hand was the secret to making a sponge that wouldn’t sink. It was a lie. My mum, who for a few weeks was obsessed with cracking the secret sponge code, ended up throwing away three or four botched, sunken-in cakes a day. I used to think, Man, that’s a lot of unborn Kentucky Fried Chickens in those eggs.
These days, there’s only one source I turn to for my sponge cake fix – Polar. Their sugar rolls, so bouncy and cushiony soft – are the way to my heart. The other day, a banker friend of ours came to our house to sell an insurance plan for En En, and wisely brought along a box of eight Polar sugar rolls. Since neither my husband Z nor my mum are huge fans, I ate one that night and saved the rest for the office the next day. At the office, I shared them with no one. That’s how much I love ’em. And we bought the plan too.
So on my holiday back to Kota Kinabalu last month, the biggest item on my to-do list was to learn how to make this sponge cake from my aunt, a professional baker. She bakes hers in huge square tins, and she’d halve them into sheets and lather yam paste between them. Absolutely yummy.
But, in her bakery’s kitchen for a hands-on lesson, I was shocked when I finally laid eyes on her recipe. Along with regular superfine flour, she uses a sponge mix flour. A sponge mix! That contains emulsifiers that stabilises the batter so it wouldn’t sink! The same cheater, short-cut stuff used by only lazy hobbyists who do not care about making cakes with honesty and integrity. A sponge mix!
“Isn’t there another recipe that doesn’t use sponge mix?” I asked, no, pleaded, my aunt.
“Yes, but they wouldn’t produce the same result. The texture would never be as fine,” she replied.
Like a bolt of lightning, it hit me that all commercial bakeries use emulsifiers. I recalled that when I took a baking course in a well-established bakery school last year, their recipe for a Polar-like sponge cake also included “sponge gel”, a cake stabiliser.
I was crestfallen for the rest of the trip. I couldn’t believe that my favourite sponge cakes, like Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, had been chemically powered. I thought to myself in a tortured whisper, All this time, I was eating a lie.
I was still mulling over the deception yesterday when I tried to replicate my aunt’s recipe. There must be another recipe using natural, God-given ingredients that produces the same results, I muttered, as I piped on Swiss meringue buttercream and stuck on some strawberries. One day – one day! – I will create a recipe that is chemical-free, au naturel and safe for all to consume!
Then, I broke off one slice and shoved it into my mouth. It was so moist and miraculously soft, it was dreamy like a baby’s bottom. And I thought, Just eat lah.