When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

The perfect sponge cake October 1, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 4:59 pm
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Over the past year, my quest to master the sponge cake has led me to do innumerable weird things.

Like buying just about any cookbook that has the words “perfect sponge cake” in it. Like slapping down $700 to buy a KitchenAid mixer because, I was told, you need proper equipment to make a proper sponge. And, at my most desperate, joining baking forums to ask complete strangers what went wrong with my genoise (and checking in every 5 minutes for an entire day to see if anyone responded).

I’ve tried over 10 different recipes and all of them sucked. Either they sank, no matter how much I varied oven temperature or folding-in techniques, or the texture just wasn’t as cottony soft as I want it to be.

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.

Annoyed, I was beginning to think that it’s not me – but them. The one thing all these recipes have in common is that they are written by Westerners using Western manufactured ingredients. Could it be possible that the local ingredients I use, like flour and baking powder, are different in composition – for example, in protein strength? If not, then could it be that Westerners simply like their sponges to be coarser in texture?

Guess what? I could well be right on both counts. Last week, I bought my first Asian cake book which yielded the most perfect sponge I’ve ever made. And you won’t believe where I found it – in the unglamorous, ramshackle shopping aisles of Giant supermarket.

The book, written by a certain Chef Alex Goh, is called Fruity Cakes. It’s possibly the most inappropriately named book in the history of publishing because apart from cakes made with fruit, the book also has all manner of cakes made with herbs, spices and nuts. Strange.

In fact, the book is so badly edited that it doesn’t say what nationality this Chef Goh is (although it does mention that he had worked in Kuala Lumpur, and from his surname, I figure he is either Malaysian or Singaporean).

But no matter. Because his recipe for “French-style sponge cake” (what snootier books would term “genoise”) is brain-dead easy and utterly delicious. The texture was gorgeously soft and moist, and it didn’t sink. And, get this, it contains no artificial additives. Yup, it’s all natural. And it’s even better than the Daniel Tay recipe I wrote about here.

I took one bite and declared at once that my search is over. Time to open shop.

To illustrate the magnitude of this seismic discovery, I’ll recount the hellish things I used to do  to achieve the perfect sponge:

– use cake flour, and make sure it is unbleached (whatever that means)

– triple sieve the flour

– fold in the flour gently with your bare hands

– fold in the flour with a slotted skimmer (I had to look up what this is), or large 16-inch whisk 

– put your life in danger by whisking eggs over boiling water for at least 5 minutes

– use an deplorably huge number of egg yolks

– do not talk or even breathe heavily throughout the mixing process (I am not making this up).

Well, this recipe by Alex Goh has this to say to all these pesky procedures: NO NEED LAH. Its ingredients and method are so simple it’s almost immoral not to share. So here it is, world.

The only ingredients needed:

4 eggs, separated (each egg to weigh 60g without shells)

120g castor sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

110g plain flour

70g melted butter (must be hot when added to batter)

And all you have to do is:

1. Using a hand-held mixer, whisk egg yolks till smooth. Add 20g of the sugar and vanilla and continue whisking until yolks puff up and the colour turns very pale – like the lightest shade of peach – and doesn’t turn any paler (about 2 mins).

2. In another bowl, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 100g of sugar and whisk until stiff peaks form.

3. Fold egg whites into egg yolks until just combined. Just use a rubber spatula.

4. Sieve in flour and fold in gently. Add in hot melted butter (to be safe, pour down the side of the bowl so it won’t agitate too many air bubbles) and fold in gently and quickly.

5. Pour into 8-inch round pan and bake at 190 deg C for 30 minutes. When done, cake will shrink by a few mm but still stand at a beautiful 2 inches.

6. Then look up Chef Alex Goh, wherever he is, whomever he is, and thank him.