Aoife Noonan’s How to be a Better Baker Part 1: Light and airy sponge cake
There is simplicity and charm in a fluffy sponge, without any complicated flavours
A simple sponge cake with subtly sweetened cream and seasonal fruit is my favourite treat to enjoy with a cup of strong tea
Aoife Noonan will host a 30-minute live cooking class on how to be a better baker on Sunday, November 1st, at 3pm on the Irish Times Food Facebook page
Today and for the next four Saturdays, we’re going back to basics here. For Food Month at The Irish Times I will be sharing recipes for some simple, adaptable bakes that you’ll return to again and again and may be useful as we find ourselves cooking more at home again during lockdown.
On Sundays at 3pm, beginning tomorrow, you can join me on the Irish Times Food Facebook page as I host 30-minute live videos sharing tips on how to be a better baker. Tomorrow I will be baking this sponge cake and sharing tips on how to get the best results with it and how to vary the ways you can serve it, as well as answering your baking queries.
As a pastry chef, I am often asked what my favourite dessert is, and to the surprise of many, my answer is always a sponge cake. A simple sponge cake with subtly sweetened cream and seasonal fruit is my favourite treat to enjoy with a cup of strong tea. There is simplicity and charm in a fluffy sponge, without any complicated adornments or flavours. It is delicate, melts in the mouth, and is perfectly balanced when paired with cream and sweet fruit. It is a soothing and familiar bake, and one which every cook should have in their back pocket.
The secret to a light and airy sponge is in the description: air. A Genoise sponge is a type of sponge cake with no obvious leavening agent, no baking powder or self-raising flour in sight. The air is incorporated by whisking eggs with sugar over a saucepan of simmering water, for at least five to 10 minutes until pale and almost tripled in volume, before removing from the heat and continuing to whisk until cold.
Cool, melted butter is added, followed by plain flour, which is folded in in stages. Folding in the flour gently is crucial to avoid knocking out any of the air you have just incorporated, which would result in a dense, flat sponge once baked. It is different from standard sponge cakes, usually laden with butter, which makes them rich and slightly heavy. This sponge has a much lower fat content, which ensures a lightness and cloud-like texture.
I use room temperature eggs when baking, as it allows all of the ingredients to blend together seamlessly, and it is important to sift the flour before adding to the mix to avoid little lumps in the batter.
I always have a sponge in the freezer. It is a versatile bake to have stored away, ready to be broken up into fingers and fashioned into impromptu trifles, piled into glasses with compote and cream, or defrosted whole and enjoyed with lemon curd and berries as a quick fix teatime treat.
I often add lemon or orange zest to the cake batter before baking if I want a little citrus back note. Vanilla extract is also a lovely addition and will make the kitchen smell wonderful. This recipe is a complete blank canvas and the sponge can be frosted or filled with your favourite buttercreams or icing.
LIGHT AND AIRY SPONGE CAKE
For the sponge:
55g unsalted butter
4 eggs, at room temperature
125g caster sugar
125g plain flour
Cream and fruit of your choice
Icing sugar for dusting
1 For the sponge: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and grease a 20cm sandwich tin with a little butter or flavourless oil.
2 Melt the butter gently in a small saucepan or in the microwave. Set aside to cool.
3 Put the eggs and sugar into a heat proof bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Whisk the mix using a hand whisk or electric beater, for about five minutes if using an electric beater; if whisking by hand, it will take a few minutes longer.
4 Once the mix is hot to touch and the sugar has dissolved, remove the bowl from the heat. If you have a kitchen thermometer, the eggy mix should be about 55 degrees. At this point I like to pour the mix into the bowl of a stand mixer and using the whisk attachment, continue to whisk until it is cold. Alternatively, continue to whisk using an electric beater or by hand.
5 Pour in the cooled butter, and mix until combined. Sift the flour and in batches, gently fold in a third of the flour by hand. Repeat with another third, and finally fold in the remaining flour, making sure not to overmix. When you cannot see any more flour in the mix, pour into the prepared tin, and bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
6 Leave the sponge to cool completely in the tin, before turning out and serving with softly whipped cream and your favourite fruit. Dust with icing sugar to serve.