Winning the Great Sponge Cake Battle


It’s that time again. With Pesach here, it’s time for my annual wrestling match with my nemesis, the dreaded sponge cake.

Aunt Estelle was famous for her mile-high sponge cakes. Years ago she sent me her recipe, outlining every step in exquisite detail. Yet every time I try it, mine comes up short.

It seems so simple. Whipped egg whites, trapping tiny air bubbles, expand to six or seven times their volume, creating an ethereal confection. But when I try it, the only thing that gets whipped is me — to a frazzle. This year I’m determined to reach new heights, but I need a little help from my friends. (And as they say, it’s not what you know, but who you know.)

“What am I doing wrong?” I asked Marcy Goldman, author of “The Best of” (Ten Speed Press, 2002).

“Are you using a strong, stationary mixer?” she asked.


“Are you using the size eggs called for in the recipe?” Goldman said.

Check again.

“Separate your eggs when they are cold, but whip the whites at room temperature,” she said. “And make sure your eggs are fresh. Stale whites will not whip up well.”
Hmm, maybe saving money on those five-dozen egg packs that languish forever in the fridge isn’t such a hot idea.

I asked Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Cake Bible” (William Morrow, 1988), why sponge cake recipes always warn you to beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.

“When egg whites are overbeaten,” she explained, “they start to lose their moisture, airiness and smoothness and break down when folded into other ingredients. And egg whites will never beat to stiff peaks if they come into contact with any grease, either from the bowl, beater or even a bit of broken egg yolk.”

Except on Passover, Beranbaum recommends adding 1/8 teaspoon of cream of tartar for every egg white when they start to get frothy. But, alas, kosher-for-Passover cream of tartar is hard to find and not all that effective.

“Use salt instead,” advised Joan Kekst, author of “Passover Cookery” (Five Star Publications, 2001). “Add 1/8 teaspoon of salt to every four egg whites after 60 seconds of beating, when the whites are foamy and starting to softly peak. Adding salt first delays foaming, and if you add it after beating, it won’t incorporate. And use an absolutely clean, round-bottomed metal bowl, preferably copper.”

Note to self: buy copper bowl!

“Once you start beating the whites, do not stop,” she added. “They won’t mound properly if interrupted.”

Kekst also cautioned against using egg substitutes.

“These are whites with preservatives and color,” she said. “Pure egg whites are usually available for Passover and will work fine for cakes. I’ve even used them for meringue cookies.” When folding in the beaten whites, combine one-quarter into the base mixture first to lighten it and then fold in the remaining whites in three additions.

“Folding should take two to three minutes or the egg whites will deflate,” Kekst said.

“Don’t grease the pan,” said Elinor Klivans, author of “Fearless Baking: Over 100 Recipes That Anyone Can Make” (Simon & Schuster, 2001). “These cakes must climb slowly up the pan as they bake and stay put.”

But perhaps the best advice she gave me was to take your time when baking. Multi-tasking is a great idea in the office, but a bad idea in the kitchen.

“Whenever I try to hurry,” she said, “I find that I have made some sort of major mistake. That is when I see the cup of sugar on the counter that I forgot to put in my cake. Check to see that you have all of your ingredients on hand before you begin. And, most important, have a good time!”

Will my sponge cake reach new heights this Pesach? Oh, well, it’s only a cake. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If your sponge cake sinks, do as I do. Cut it in half and frost it!

Aunt Estelle’s Mile-High Sponge Cake

9 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar, sifted
Freshly grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Freshly grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon extract
1 tablespoon orange extract
1 heaping cup (packed) Passover potato starch

Preheat the oven to 325 F.
With an electric mixer at medium-high speed, beat the yolks, very gradually adding 1 cup of the sugar until the mixture is very thick and very light yellow, making sure the sugar is completely dissolved. This may take 15 minutes or more. Beat in the lemon and orange juices, lemon and orange zests and extracts. Reduce the speed to low and very gradually add the potato starch until blended. Set aside.
With clean, dry bowl and beaters, beat egg whites at medium-high speed until frothy, about 30 seconds. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until stiff, about 90 seconds more. Mix 1/4 of the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it. Carefully fold in the remaining beaten egg whites in 3 additions.
Transfer the batter to an ungreased 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom. Sprinkle the top with a little sugar if you want a crust on top. (Eliminate this step if you prefer a soft top.) Bake until the cake springs back when lightly touched, about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Strawberry Filling
1 pint fresh strawberries, rinsed and dried
1 pint Passover nondairy whipping cream

When cake has completely cooled, split in half horizontally. Whip nondairy topping according to the package directions and spread on the bottom layer. Distribute strawberries on top of the whipped topping, leaving some for garnish around the plate. Cover with top half of cake.

Chocolate Frosting
1 cup Passover semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup Passover non-dairy whipping cream
1 tablespoon margarine
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
Combine the chips, whipping cream and margarine in a 2-cup measuring cup or bowl. Heat in microwave on high power one to two minutes, stirring once until smooth and chocolate is melted. Frost top with chocolate and drizzle some down sides of cake. Sprinkle with toasted almonds. Let stand until chocolate is set.