It’s been an incredible and incredibly busy few weeks on the farm with calving progressing well, harvesting and preserving the last of what ended up being an unexpectedly abundant summer, and preparing for and hosting the sponge cake masterclass taught by my neighbour, friend and prize winning baker, Beryl Olsen. Which, I have to say, was an extraordinary experience and one I feel so honoured to have been part of.
I think I can speak for everyone when I say we all learned so much; a few of the things that really struck me as important are jotted down below.
Know your cooking gear. Beryl has owned the same spatula for 52 years, and she only ever uses that spatula for sponges. Because it works. And she knows it works. It’s yellow plastic and very delicate but she has treasured it so it has lasted a very long time. It never goes in the dishwasher. She has had the same Tupperware measuring cups for near to the same length of time and she knows exactly how a quantity of flour and custard powder need to sit in that cup for it to be right. Her Kenwood mixer is 46 years old – when she holds the bowl and spins it backwards she knows exactly what to look for in the way the beaters move through the cake mix to judge when the cake is ready. She has had the same sponge tins for decades and decades, and they are so shiny and smooth with having been scrubbed with steel wool to remove any trace of roughness that a sponge would never dare to stick. Her electric oven is 23 years old and has a broken door seal but she produces cakes most of us could only ever dream of time after time.
I wonder how many of us will ever get to know our equipment this well. And I wonder if our collective obsession with owning the newest, shiniest, fastest, biggest, most expensive kitchen gadget in town is actually making us worse cooks, rather than better.
Books can’t teach us everything. People in my generation and younger have relied so heavily on books for their food and cooking knowledge. We’ve had to. As communities disperse, families get more and more far flung, and life gets busier in a very particular kind of way, opportunities for incidental contact with older more experienced cooks become rarer and rarer. Beryl said on Saturday, of the sponge makers in her generation and older, ‘but their cakes always turned out!’ I suspect that’s because they learnt from watching not reading. (Sponge cake guests…and didn’t we learn so much just from watching!) And because they made the same small reportoire of things over and over again. And because they knew their cooking gear. They were masters of the things they made, even if those dishes would now be seen as a bit old fashioned or whatever. It’s so lovely to have so many ingredients to choose from these days, so many recipes, so many ideas, but I hope we’re still mastering things, and adding to the knowledge pool based on our own experience and practice.
The details matter. Now these are the details that matter for Beryl’s sponge. I’m quite sure that each family sponge recipe has its own rules. But you never know, maybe these will help!
- You can’t cook a sponge in a hurry. Every stage is important, and you need to take it slowly. Much more slowly than you think. This is especially so when adding your sugar. Add it slowly so that it properly dissolves. Total beating time for your eggs is 20 minutes. As in, actually 20 minutes. Not an unspecified period of time that feels like 20 minutes. And folding. Your folding action needs to be emphatic and smooth, but add your dry ingredients in three stages with a good minute or two of thorough folding with each addition. The spatula with which you fold needs to be thin and stiff. Like a knife with a larger surface area.
- Be careful when using your you beaut whizz bang whisking machine when beating the eggs – these machines are much more powerful than the mixmasters of old so perhaps try at 75-80% of full speed until you find the sweet spot.
- The total weight of dry ingredients in a sponge is low compared to most modern cake recipes. You need to sift these at least three times before you add them, and if you lose a little flour each time as it sticks to the plate or whatever it can make a difference. Beryl always sifts onto greaseproof paper so that not a single grain is lost.
- Scrape any last traces of egg white from your shells once you’ve finished seperating the eggs. Beryl collected the last few drips from all her shells into a cup to show us that even over four eggs it does add up to a small but significant quantity.
- The sponge is cooked when it feels slightly springy to the touch and starts to pull away from the sides of the tin. Cooking time will vary depending on your oven but expect to check around the 20 minute mark. Before that time do not open the oven door or your sponge will collapse…aarrgghh! Your oven will have its own idiosyncratic way of doing things and you will need to experiment to find the temperature that works for you. As a starting guide, Beryl preheats the oven to 200 degrees C, but then drops it back to about 190 degrees at the ten minute mark. I’ve been experimenting with my wood fired Rayburn and the temperature needs to be significantly lower than this, probably due to the much smaller capacity of the oven. Anyway, go experiment.
Sponges can be gluten free! Beryl’s featherlight sponge recipe (aka ‘Eva’s Sponge’) uses cornflour which is naturally gluten free, as well as White Wings custard powder, also gluten free. No more flat cakes for all you non gluten people out there! How good is that!
Anyway,what a day. I can’t say thank you enough to everyone for coming along, and to Beryl for teaching us. Beryl, I am still overwhelmed by your generosity, unflappability and knowledge. And, I am loving, LOVING cooking sponges.
Thank you so much.