Suzette’s Orange Sponge Cake
Suzette is my mother, and this is her sponge cake recipe. If you’ve ever met her even casually, chances are you’ve eaten this cake. Sponge cake is tricky, so if you hope to master it the first time, heed her advice, use a light hand and the right equipment. It requires a very specific angel food cake pan: plain aluminum, with little feet.* Its a big cake, and the feet help air to circulate around it while the cake is cooling down. The pan must not have a non-stick surface, or the cake won’t rise enough. Avoid black pans, too. They’re fine for heartier baking but this batter is delicate.
- 6-8 eggs, separated (6 jumbo eggs, 8 large)
- 1 cup triple-sifted flour, sifted before measuring
- 1 cup vanilla sugar, less 1 or 2 tablespoons
- juice and zest of 1 sweet orange
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 aluminum angel food cake pan, with removable center tube
- confectioner’s sugar (optional)
All-purpose flour or cake flour? Mom has always used all-purpose flour, which gives the sponge a satisfying, slightly rustic texture. In our family, that’s the standard we love and have come to expect. But when a formal occasion calls for a more elegant presentation, I use cake flour, which gives the cake a very fine crumb.
Have everything ready before you begin:
Triple sift the flour into a cup measure, and level it with a metal spatula.
Zest the orange rind, and toss it in a bowl with a tablespoon of the sifted flour to separate the strands.
Juice the orange and discard the pulp.
Measure the sugar. Removing two tablespoons produces a cake that’s very moist and not overly sweet. If you like yours sweeter and slightly drier, use a full cup.
Vanilla extract is alcohol based, so keep the bottle closed until it’s time to use it.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (176°C).
Separate the eggs, putting the whites into a large mixing bowl and the yolks into a smaller one. Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer. (Use a whisk if you’re strong and patient). When they turn foamy white and begin to form soft peaks, beat in the sugar in a slow stream, just until the peaks are stiff enough to hold their shape. Over-beating will dry them out.
In the smaller bowl, beat the egg yolks very well until they are creamy and lemon-colored. Add the orange juice and vanilla extract and blend them in thoroughly. Carefully blend the beaten yolks into the egg whites a little bit at a time: using a rubber spatula and a light touch, cut into the meringue, lift, and ‘fold’ it over the egg yolks. Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat. When all the yolks and meringue are blended, add the flour: sprinkle a small amount across the top of the batter, cut in and fold, this time making sure to avoid making lumps. Take your time folding in the flour. Use a light hand and don’t mix the batter any more than you have to, or you’ll knock the air of it and the cake won’t rise. Fold in all the flour this way and finally the orange zest. As soon as everything is just blended, stop.
Pour the batter into an ungreased angel food cake pan, turning the pan slowly for even distribution. Place the pan on the center rack of the oven. (If your oven is very small, you may need to lower the rack one level). Ovens being ovens, there can be a huge disparity in baking times; the cake will bake in 45 to 55 minutes. When you begin to smell its aroma, pay attention to the time, and check the cake once after 45 minutes. It is done when the top is shiny and golden, and springs back when pressed lightly with your finger.
Remove the pan from the oven and immediately invert it. Let it rest undisturbed until cool.
When ready to serve, carefully cut around the edge of the pan with a long, thin-bladed knife or metal spatula. Lift the cake from the pan, and with the thin knife separate it from the center tube and bottom. Cut the bottom very carefully, as this will become the top when you serve the cake.
You can present it plain, or finished with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Choose a doily (or any stencil) with lots of cutouts, lay it on top of the cake, sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar, and remove the doily. (Amazing what you can do with a doily, isn’t it).
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