I’m passionate about desserts, with eight (soon to be nine) cookbooks on the subject. Although I’m probably best known for my chocolate creations, one of my favorite recipes is a hot milk sponge cake, a deliciously simple vanilla cake that has a light, porous texture perfect (as its name implies) for soaking up delicious syrups, liqueurs, and creams, and can be used to make all sorts of desserts, from simple trifles to ornate layer cakes and roulades.
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Hot Milk Sponge Cake
Sponge cakes are part of the foam cake family
There are a few types of sponge cakes, but all are part of a category called foam cakes because they get all or most of their rise from the air in eggs beaten to a foamy consistency. With the exception of angel food cake, sponge cakes include fat, such as egg yolks, butter, oil, or some combination. The eggs may be whole or separated, there may be additional leavening such as baking soda or powder, and the sweetness level varies among different types.
The most well-known sponge is a génoise, an essential element in a pastry chef’s repertoire. In it, the eggs are beaten whole and no other rising agent is added; a little butter is folded in to enrich the cake. American-style sponge cake usually includes a leavening agent, in addition to fluffy egg whites beaten separately from the yolks to incorporate more air, making for an extra lofty cake.
My favorite, hot milk sponge cake, is something of a cross between a génoise and an American separated-egg sponge cake. Its virtues are many. The eggs are beaten whole, but with extra yolks for stability and richness. I add salt to the eggs, instead of the dry ingredients, for quicker emulsification (which also helps with stability). Baking powder helps ensure the cake will rise, regardless of the skill level of the baker. After folding in sifted flour, I add a mixture of hot milk and butter. The hot milk keeps the butter melted and in suspension so that it mixes uniformly with the other ingredients. All of these tricks make this a great cake for beginners— it always comes out light and springy, yet sturdy enough to soak up flavorings without disintegrating.
One cake recipe, many desserts
The real fun in making sponge cake lies in pairing it with other flavors and textures, morphing it into a dessert. Soaking it with liqueurs, syrups, or juices from things like berries, jams, and fruit curds not only adds flavor but also fills in some of the cake’s spongy holes and makes it softer and more luscious.
This cake can also be baked in different shapes, depending on the type of dessert it’ll be used for. A round cake can be split to make a layer cake, and a sheet can be rolled with a tasty filling to make a roulade. I usually make a square when the plan is to cut it into smaller pieces to use in trifles or verrines to soak up lots of flavors from the other fillings. Getting fancy with the toppings and additions turns this simple cake into desserts that are anything but amateur.