Basic Lemon Sponge Cake: The Egg Foam Method–That’s a Whole Different Cake

Strawberry "shortcake" made with sponge cake.  Lovely!

Strawberry “shortcake” made with sponge cake. Lovely!

Li wrote to me the day before yesterday.  He had a question.  Here it is:  “When I first started baking I used recipes from Sweden’s top selling book “Sju sorters kakor” (Seven kinds of cakes/cookies).  The method mostly used starts by whipping sugar and eggs until they turn light and then adding dry ingredients and melted butter. In most American recipes, the creaming method is often used. Have you heard of this Swedish method? Is there a name for it? What do you think of it? I find that the Swedish method in baking muffins makes the muffin tops… not crunchy but more caramelized or something while the creaming method makes them softer.”  Not only is this a great question, but Li also makes some great observations about the differences in the final product depending upon mixing method.

I don’t know this method as the Swedish Method, per se, but I am familiar with this as the “sponge,” “genoise,” or “egg foam method.”  Before I get all ahead of myself, we need to make a distinction between American-style cakes and European-style cakes.  American cakes contain relatively high amounts of fat.  The fat carries flavor, acts as a tenderizer and helps with leavening, specifically in The Creaming Method.  European-style cakes contain relatively little, if any, fat.  This means that European cakes have a more delicate flavor, are drier and also tougher than American-style cakes.

Ew.  That doesn’t sound good at all, does it.  Who wants a dry, tough, tasteless cake?  And how can this be, anyway?!  The Europeans are known for their creative and delectable cakes.  What gives?  Take a dry, tough-ish genoise and soak it with simple syrup flavored with a little liqueur, and you’ve changed the whole ball game.  This dry, kind of tasteless cake soaks up the syrup and, rather than getting mushy like an American-style cake might get when wet, transforms into a lighter-than-air yet moist cake.  Really, really tasty.

Why this big difference in cake styles?  Why would Europeans opt for sturdy, light cakes that need to be soaked with a syrup to be tasty while Americans just load in a bunch of fat?  The primary reason is flour.  I’m not a comparitive botonist (is that even a real job?) so I don’t know all of the reasons why, but the deal is that the wheat flours used in Europe have a much lower protein content than American wheat flours.  Knowing this fact helps to clarify things a little.

Remember, flour and eggs play together on Team Structure.  Fat and sugar are on Team Tender.  If European flour is low in protein content (gluten), it stands to reason that the eggs will have to step up their game and play a more front-and-center role in giving the cake structure.  Since American flours are higher in protein, more gluten can develop.  So why not just dump some syrup on it?  If you activate too much gluten when making an American-style cake with American flour, your cake will be chewy.  Syrup can add moisture to a dry cake, but it can’t hide chewy.

Here’s how the whole Egg-Foam Method works.

  • Whisk dry ingredients together thoroughly.
  • Whip eggs/yolks/whites (depending on your recipe) with sugar until very light in color, tripled in volume and creamy.  You’ll know it’s ready when a bit of egg mixture dropped back into the bowl sits on top of the rest for at least 10 seconds before sinking back in.  The egg mixture will be very light and poufy.  Some recipes will call for whipped yolks and whites.  In this case, whip the yolks first, as the emulsifiers in the yolk will allow this mixture to stand for a few minutes without deflating.  If you beat the whites first, you’ll end up with a watery mess.  I’m telling you.
  • Pour egg mixture into a large bowl.
  • Sift dry ingredients over the egg mixture and gently but thoroughly fold together
  • Fold in melted butter at the end (if your recipe calls for it).

After baking, egg-foam cakes are generally completely cooled in the pan upside down (so they don’t collapse before the proteins in the eggs and flour set up).

You want a recipe?  Okay:

Basic Lemon Sponge Cake
 
What You Need
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • heavy pinch of salt
  • 6.5 oz. sugar
  • 1 TBSP fresh lemon juice
  • zest from one lemon
  • 4.5 oz. all purpose flour
What To Do
  1. Whip the yolks and salt until slightly thickened and lighter in color.
  2. Gradually add half of the sugar, then the zest and juice.
  3. Continue whipping until the yolks are very light and billowy.
  4. Pour the egg mixture into a large bowl.
  5. In another large clean bowl with a clean whisk, whip the whites until they are foamy.
  6. Gradually add the rest of the sugar and whip to medium-soft peaks. If you whip your whites to stiff peaks they will be too hard to fold into the yolks, so settle down--you want the peaks to slump over quite a bit when you raise the whisk out of the whites.
  7. Dump the whites on top of the yolks.
  8. Sift the flour over the top. Don't dump in the flour, or you'll break a lot of your bubbles and have a flat, dumb cake.
  9. Gently but thoroughly fold the three components together.
  10. Bake in a parchment-lined ungreased pan at 325F until the top springs back when you press on the center.
Other Stuff to Know
To make this a vanilla sponge, replace the lemon juice with 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and leave out the lemon zest. For chocolate, replace the lemon juice with 2 teaspoons of vanilla, leave out the zest and replace 1oz of flour (by weight) with cocoa powder

This lemon sponge would be lovely as a base for strawberry shortcake.  Slice it in half, horizontally, and fill with beautiful macerated berries.  The cake will soak up the juices, and you will be very happy.  You could also just soak it with a simple syrup made from 1 1/2 parts sugar to 1 part water.  Bring to a boil, then cool.  Add a splash of vanilla, lemon extract, Grand Marnier–whatever sounds good.

Thanks, Li, for the question.  I hope I’ve been able to clarify the difference between this method and the creaming method.  Oh!  I almost forgot.  Li mentions the textural difference between final products when using the different methods.  In recipes that call for a lot of whipped eggs, you are apt to get a thin layer of “crunchy” on the outside of your baked goods.  Sometimes this layer isn’t even attached to the rest of the cake–think about brownies.  They do this sometimes.  This thin, crunchy layer is actually a coating of baked meringue.  Since this layer can be kind of waterproof, it’s best to slice off the very outside crust from a genoise or sponge cake before you soak it with syrup.

OK, I think I’m done now.  Enjoy your sponge cakes, people!

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Li says

    Thank you so much for explaining it to me! I just called it the Swedish method since I didn’t know what it was called. You’re a fountain of information. The egg foam method is used a lot in that book, especially for sponge cakes, shortcakes and muffins. We usually don’t soak the cakes but maybe we’re just used to this method? This method makes great muffins tops though :)

  2. says

    I knew something about the notion of strong vs. soft flours, but I hadn’t appreciated that particular distinction between European and American varieties – really interesting bit of background info. Even though I’m on the European side of the pond, I’ve always stuck to creaming and shied away from sponges – this encourages me to try :)

    • says

      Fantastic; I’m glad I can provide you will some extra pastry esoterica! Just remember, unlike being able to switch between 2-stage and creaming method for American-style cakes, you’ll need to find a good low-fat recipe. You’ve got one to start with–but there are literally hundreds and hundreds to choose from.

  3. says

    The new look is fabulous! Somehow you have managed to make my least favorite dessert look good. Perhaps I’ll give strawberry shortcake another try this summer with your sponge cake recipe.

  4. says

    Swedish method? :D

    Let’s say that Nordic method, as here in Finland (and we are not part of Scandinavia, just next to it) we also use whisked egg and sugar foam in our cakes (and many other baked goods).

  5. ND says

    This is my first visit to this web page, witch I accidentally found wile searching for some answers; and I really liked. It’s informative and functional. You clarify some of my questions. Thank you

  6. Addi says

    Thanks for your knowledgeable explanation. You are amazing!
    I still have some questions though:
    1. U mentioned that American flours have more proteins, therefore more gluten will develop. I don’t understand why this fact has something to do with american cakes tend to be greasy and European cakes being dry before pouring syrup.
    2. Sugar is a tenderizer and it stablizes the egg white foams in angel cakes. Does it act the same 2 roles as in whole egg foaming and egg yolk foaming.
    3. My head is spinning with all the mentioned leaverning methods. Experimentally speaking, can we add battered butter in cream method to egg foams, with baking soda/ baking powder, and create a super cake? Or, we can enhance the foaming by doing any two of the three methods?
    4. You have this great article about whole egg foam. Can you dive in further in explaining separate egg foaming and whole egg foaming? What criteria determine which method to use?
    Thanks !!
    Addi

    • says

      Hi, Addi. You’ve asked some really excellent questions. Rather than just shooting off a quick response here in the comments, I’m going to make sure I have all of my ducks in a row, do some research and then write a post that will hopefully address all of your questions. If you haven’t already, go ahead and subscribe to my rss feed so you’ll know when the post is up. I do already have a few things scheduled, but I promise that I will get to a more in depth egg foam post soon. :)

  7. Addi says

    Dear Jenni,
    Thank you so much for your super fast reply. I will do the RSS and your website has already on my bookmarks so I will regularly check your articles here.
    Eggs are always infinitely intriguing to me. After reading more of your amazing articles, questions about eggs slowly foam up:

    I thought yolks hinder egg whites from foaming because they contain oil. Why do we beat whites and yolks together when the recipe requires whole eggs instead of separated eggs? Your recipe suggests separate eggs, does that mean it’s better to separate eggs when we make sponge cakes?

    In separated eggs foaming, beaten yolk (with oil or without oil) to the ribbon stage might include air bubbles in the yolk mix, do we also add sugar here to straighten the bubbles?

    I see a sequential steps when reading your cake recipes. I can’t help but wonder, why do we add salt? when can we incorporate dry team and team tender? can we beat them altogether with yolks since yolks are not as fragile and delicate as egg white?

    sorry for asking so many questions all at once. Your articles are just so inspiring :)

    Happy day!
    Addi

    • says

      Never apologize for asking questions–I love it! That doesn’t mean I won’t have to do some research, though! ;) I’ve copied down all your excellent questions into a Word doc and will be working on a post next week. And your questions really are excellent. I hope my post can do them justice. Stay tuned, Addi! :)

  8. Jerribrownfield says

    Understanding that this blog was made over 3 years ago, I don’t know if you’re still around to answer my question but I have nothing to lose, right?  I’m American so don’t do a lot of sponge cake other than at holiday time for trifle and yule logs.  When you speak of of ‘soaking’ with syrup, exactly how is that done?  Are you brushing the liquid onto the cake surface?  Is there a general rule for the quantity of syrup to brush on each layer?  i.e.  1/4 cup per 8′x 1′ layer (I like to tort thinner layers).

    I teach cake decorating here in California and have students who want to fill their cakes all the time with fresh fruit (especially strawberries) and even with my warning NOT to do so as it will just create a soggy mess of cake that will literally dissolve in front of their eyes (one student took photos of her imploded cake….poor girl).  I know there are a few bakeries here that will use syrup to keep their cakes moist but would you know if they are using this method only on sponge cake or can it be used on our ‘creamed method’ cakes as well in moderation?

    I appreciate any guidance you can lend ~ great web site too!!  Just found it yesterday but I plan on exploring it a lot!

    • says

      Hi, Jerri! I’m still here:)  God love the people who refuse to listen to their teachers! (Don’t you feel a little smug when the implosion happens?;)

      I use soaking syrups on genoise and other sponge-type cakes almost exclusively.  I use Rose Levy Beranbaum’s ratio of about 6 ounces syrup per 9″x2″ cake layer, so scale accordingly.  I’d say that 2 oz or 1/4 cup would be about spot-on for your layers (as you suggested). And, yup, you just brush it on:)

      On American-style cakes (and I’m American from North Carolina–I just like to differentiate for international readers), you can brush a light layer if the cake is to be held for a couple of days in the fridge or something, but I’ve found the best way to keep a butter cake moist is to just wrap that puppy up tight as soon as he comes out of the pan and toss him in the fridge until cool. All the moisture that would’ve evaporated during cooling stays in the cake, and it’s not soggy at all. I first read about that trick in a cake decorating book, and I didn’t believe it until I tried it. Now, I do it w/all my American-style butter cakes.

      Hey, if you want, you could come over to my fan page on facebook.  Things are pretty active over there, and I’d love to have you! http://www.facebook.com/PastryChefOnline

      Anyway, I hope I’ve helped some.  Tell your bull-headed students if they want fruit filling just use jam or make a gelatin-stabilized mousse filling. Otherwise, whatever happens, happens! lol

      Take care:)

    • says

      Good thought, and absolutely! Egg foam cakes are much “tougher” than butter cakes and stand up well to rolling. Spread the batter in a lined jelly roll pan (or two, depending on how much batter you end up with) to a depth of maybe 1/2″. When it comes out of the oven, let it sit for a few minutes and then carefully roll it up in a lint-free towel and let it cool all rolled up. Then, when you’re ready to fill it, just unroll, brush on some syrup and your filling and then roll him back up! :)

  9. Dee says

    In your article, you mention that American flour contains more protein than European flour. I recently noticed this as I’ve been experimenting with baking cakes and cupcakes and have found it most difficult to find cake flour without loads of protein or really much cake flour in general (in Dallas, TX anyways). Do you have a particular brand or type of flour that you prefer to use for cake baking?

    • says

      Hmmm, Dee. I guess that depends on what you mean by “loads of protein.” I like to use either Swan’s Down or King Arthur unbleached cake flour, either of which give me a nice, fine-textured cake. If you can find White Lily all purpose, that will work too as it’s also perfect for making tender biscuits. If you can’t find any of these, you can make your own by substituting some corn starch for a portion of the weight of your all purpose flour. You’ll have to experiment with the proportions, but a good place to start is 12.5% or roughly 1 tablespoon per cup (replace 1 T flour per cup with 1 T corn starch). Hope that helps, Dee!

  10. amapanda says

    Im so glad i found your website! its really helping me understand what is going on behind the methods, im supposed to write a paragraph about how these methods are important for my pastry class in culinary and id be lost without this site! thank you :)

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