With your permission, a personal story. Years (OK, decades) ago when I was in 4-H, baking for the county fair was almost a sacred act. Well, sacred and (silently) profane, depending on how much havoc August’s heat and humidity wreaked on achieving a brownie’s shiny crust or getting a uniform trio of cloverleaf dinner rolls.
Sometimes, I’d make several batches to get results worthy of pitting against the county’s other young bakers. So, one year, when I walked into the Sioux Empire Fairgrounds’ vast hall with all the entries and saw no sign of the spongecake over which I’d labored, I was crushed.
They had lost my cake. Or maybe tossed it as inedible. Or maybe they’d eaten the whole thing, but never told anyone. When you’re 12 years old, the mind races.
When I finally asked one of the superintendents what could have happened to my entry (you know, the one I’d labored over), she in turn asked if I’d checked the wooden display case off to one side — for entries that had earned purple ribbons.
I believe I came home from the fair that day with perfectly clean shoes, because my feet couldn’t have touched the ground.
The judges’ decision may have been preordained, for the recipe was called Grand Champion Sponge Cake and drawn from the hallowed Farm Journal magazine that arrived each month in our mailbox.
Still, you can prepare a recipe well, or you can prepare it poorly. I will always regard my victory as validation for giving close attention to the necessary steps.
None of the steps are difficult. No, not a bit. They just need to be done thoughtfully, even reverently. Because the end result is an angelic cake.
A spongecake essentially is an angel food cake except that it includes the egg yolks, so it has more flavor. Its lightness comes from an airy batter that creates steam as it bakes, propelling the cake to lofty heights.
This airiness comes from carefully measured and sifted cake flour, combined with well-beaten egg whites and well-beaten egg yolks, then gently folded together and poured into an ungreased tube pan.
Which brings us to equipment. Yes, you’ll want a tube pan with a removable bottom so the cake bakes from the inside out as well as from the outside in. Yes, you’ll want a stand mixer because both whites and especially the yolks need several minutes of beating. And then you’ll need a beer bottle so you can invert the baked cake upside-side until it cools. Suspending the cake allows its structure to stabilize so it doesn’t slump once removed from the pan.
(OK, almost any bottle works, but check that the pan’s tube fits over the bottle’s neck before you start baking.)
Once out of the pan, please, please slice the cake with a serrated knife to keep from smushing it, then top each wedge with a generous dollop of whipped cream and some fresh fruit.
If no purple ribbons appear, you’ll have to accept blissful smiles instead.