When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

Sponge cake – Test me, I’m positive August 21, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 1:29 pm
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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.


15 Responses to “Sponge cake – Test me, I’m positive”

  1. Sooch Says:

    I can soooo understand that zealousness (fanaticism to others who walk around happily with chemically-laden bodies) for honesty and integrity. You must share the recipe when you discover it!!!!

  2. crummb Says:

    On, sista!!

  3. […] The closest I got to a perfect sponge was with my auntie’s recipe, but, alas, it is artificially powered by stabilisers. Read sob story here. […]

  4. cookie Says:

    Ms Crummb, I gonna make a coffee sponge for my dad’s birthday in 2 days’ time. I am planning to use the plain plain flour… ummm, let’s hope it won’t fail.

    If the venture astray (which it often does), I have bought a pack of sponge mix… hehe.

  5. crummb Says:

    hello! how did the cake go? hope it went well 🙂

  6. cookie Says:

    Babe, the cake went ok without the ovalette or sponge mix; no crater but it sure shrinks! If only my dress size would come down just as fast!!!

  7. crummb Says:

    shrinkage – scary right?! i hate it when it happens too.. ugh!

  8. florence Says:

    Hi, please can you give me exact reciepe to use for a very spongy cake , or how do i prepare an emulsifier to add to sponge cake to make it more sotf and songy. Thank you.

    • crummb Says:

      hi florence, i think you just add the emulsifier into the batter and mix – no preparations needed. i don’t like using them so i’m not very sure myself – sorry! but for a nice sponge cake recipe that doesnt require emulsifiers, look for my post entitled The Perfect Sponge Cake. the recipe by Alex Goh is very simple and easy to make. all the best!

  9. […] The closest I got to a perfect sponge was with my auntie’s recipe, but, alas, it is artificially powered by stabilisers. Read sob story here. […]

  10. […] The closest I got to a perfect sponge was with my auntie’s recipe, but, alas, it is artificially powered by stabilisers. Read sob story here. […]

  11. Cheryl Says:

    Well, you can still make sponge cake without using stabilizers. It’s just the amount of volume you have to beat up the egg foam and the way you fold in all the dry ingredient. Also requires practice!

  12. Jo Says:

    Totally agree with u that with that ‘eating a lie’ part! 😀

  13. Tyala Says:

    Have you ever tried the japanese sponge cake??? Its texture as well as softness is like the chemically powered sponge cake …its the japanese technique and style of baking that creates the same result without chemicals…i make them all the time…lol they so soft like sponge that if u squash them with ur hand they would again retain the shape when u remove ur hands….do try it….if u want the recipe try youtube and search kitchentigress and try her sponge cake …she makes amazing cakes.

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    and yours is the best I have discovered so far. But, what about the bottom line?
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