Cover of the May-june issue of Epicurean magazine

photos by Scott W. Clemens

One wonderful sponge cake opens the way to a splendid possibility of desserts and composed cakes. That is why it is a building block for a terrific amount of dessert making at my house. But the cake is also lovely enough, in purity, to be the dessert anytime.

The cake is easy, sure, fine and so light that we call it Cloud Cake or sometimes feather cake. It takes just six ingredients and no butter. This sponge cake formula is slightly different from classic ones which have no ice water nor baking powder. So this cake is especially airy—and accepting of fillings or sauces or a lacing with a spirit or liqueur.

This particular cake is beautifully easy to make. You just need a good electric beater. And you need to be careful in three ways: 1) Beat egg yolk and sugar mixture until sugar dissolves. 2) Take time to gently fold; do not stir. 3) Do not overbeat the egg whites (see sidebar).

Sometimes I bake the big cake just to have on hand in my freezer, ready to go, to carve off slices and serve with dessert or afternoon tea or to cut into needed shapes or slices for composed desserts. To freeze cake: Let cool from baking; remove from pan; wrap well in clear plastic wrap; then overwrap, air-tight, in a plastic bag. Sponge cake is proper for ice cream; because it has no butter to cause a conflict from the two unlike forms of cream together (cream and butter) and the resulting clash of richness (Angelfood cake is also right as a cake for ice cream).

Perhaps my favorite way with the cake is with quality vanilla ice cream. Period. I cut wide slices, place each on an amply sized dessert plate, dust lightly with sifted vanilla powdered sugar and side with scoops of the good ice cream. To make vanilla powdered sugar, bury a split vanilla bean in a quantity of powdered sugar, cover tightly, and store for at least 24 hours or indefinitely.

Here is that tender cornerstone cake along with recipes for some winsome cakes and desserts it makes possible.

It is important to use very fresh eggs. In order to get best cake volume I use the wire whip of my electric mixer for both the yolk and the white mixtures, rather than the basic general-purpose beater. Have whites near room temperature.

If the bowl in which you beat the yolks is not wide at the top, you may want to transfer the yolk-sugar mixture to such a bowl for easier, more effective folding.
basic sponge cake

Basic Cloud Sponge Cake

Makes about 12 servings.
1 1/2 c. sifted cake flour 1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
5 large eggs, separated
1/2 c. ice water
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 t. almond extract
3/4 t. cream of tartar

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a large bowl of electric mixer, beat egg yolks until thick and lemon colored. Gradually add water, beating until mixture is pale colored and foamy on top. Gradually beat in sugar, and continue beating until sugar is dissolved. Lightly hand-whisk in almond extract. Sift dry ingredients over and fold into yolk mixture in three additions. In a separate bowl with clean beaters, beat egg whites with cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Turn over yolk mixture and gently fold in. Turn into an ungreased 10 inch tube cake pan. Bake in a 325 °F oven until cake springs back when lightly touched, about 1 hour. Invert pan and allow to cool. Loosen from pan with a thin bladed knife.

orange glaze cake

Orange Glaze Cake

Makes about 12 servings
2 c.. powdered sugar
1/4 c. fresh orange juice
1 T grated fresh orange peel
1 T Grand Marnier or Cointreau or Triple Sec or other orange flavored liqueur
Basic cloud sponge cake (above)

Stir sugar and juice together in a small saucepan. Heat just to boiling. Remove from heat and stir in orange peel. Allow to cool without stirring. Stir in liqueur. Brush any loose crumbs from cake. Spoon glaze evenly over top of cake and spread down sides.



Strawberry Cake and Creamstrawberry cream cake

Makes 6 servings
4 c. very thinly sliced ripe strawberries
About 2/3 c. sugar plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 1/2 c. heavy (whipping) cream
3/8 t. vanilla
12 1/2 inch thick slices orange glaze cake (above)

Turn berries with sugar to sweeten, about 2/3 cup. Let stand at room temperature until juices form, about 30 minutes. Beat cream with the 2 tablespoons sugar and the vanilla just until very softly whipped. For each serving, place one cake slice on a scooped dessert plate. Top with a spoonful of berries, then a second cake slice and more berries. Side with or pass whipped cream.

Cake and Ice Cream and Dark Chocolate Sauce

Makes 4 servings
4 thick slices basic Cloud Cake (above)
About 2/3 pint premium vanilla ice cream
Dark chocolate sauce (recipe below)
For each serving, place a cake slice in a shallow dessert plate. Top and side with ice cream. Spoon on or drizzle chocolate sauce.

Dark chocolate sauce . Chop 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate into small pieces. Stir together in a small heavy saucepan l/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons light corn syrup and 1/2 cup water. Cook over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Heat to boiling, then whisk in 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa. Remove from heat; whisk in chocolate; whisk until chocolate melts. Strain through a fine sieve. Whisk in about 1 l/2 tablespoons brandy. Reheat before serving by setting container of sauce over or into a pan of hot water.

Date in Date Custard Cloak

Makes 6 servings.
Serve sauce at room temperature (not chilled).

Six slices basic Cloud Cake (above), cut 1 inch thick at widest part
Date custard sauce (below)
2 T finely chopped lightly toasted pecans

For each serving put a cake slice in a shallow dessert plate. Ladle sauce generously over. Center with pecans.

Date custard sauce . Beat together thoroughly in top part of double boiler yolks of 4 large eggs, 2 cups half and half, 1/2 cup sugar and 1/16 teaspoon salt. Cook over hot (not boiling) water, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens slightly and coats a silver spoon. Strain. Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla. Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Stir in 1/2 finely cut-up moist dates.

Cake with Fresh Raspberries and Ice Cream

Makes 3 servings.

Each of the three ingredients holds its satisfying fine flavor; so the three come together in a mutually enhancing balance.

Lightly sprinkle cake slices with sifted vanilla powdered sugar if you wish. If berries are not fully ripe and sweet, turn with a little sugar to sweeten.

3 thick slices basic Cloud Cake (above)
1 pint fresh ripe whole raspberries
About 1/2 pint premium vanilla ice cream

Arrange on each dessert plate a cake slice with slender edge placed at center of plate. Also arrange, touching cake and at center, a loose pile of berries and a shapely pile of slender arc-scoops of ice cream.

Lofty Mascarpone Cream on Feather Sponge

Makes 8 servings

You can use cream cheese instead of mascarpone if you wish. You can cover and chill the cream cheese for three to four hours before serving if necessary. I have enjoyed this with a fine golden Italian dessert wine such as Torcolato.

3 egg yolks
4 1/2 T brandy
1/2 c. plus 2 T sugar, divided
1/2 lb. very fresh mascarpone (or 1/2 lb. cream cheese at room temperature, plus a few grains of salt)
2 egg whites
2 T plumped golden raisins (to plump raisins, soak in hot water for 5 minutes; drain and dry).
8 thick slices basic Cloud Cake (above)
2 t. freshly grated lemon peel

Whisk together yolks, brandy and 1/2 cup of the sugar in top of double boiler. Place over hot (not boiling) water. Cook, whisking until thick, light, smooth and increased in volume. Turn into a bowl and cool, whisking occasionally. Add cheese, and beat until mixture is smooth and fluffy. In a separate bowl with clean beaters, beat egg whites until foamy, gradually beat in the 2 tablespoons sugar; beat only until soft peaks form. Gently and thoroughly fold whites and raisins into yolk mixture. For each serving, place a cake slice on a dessert plate; spoon cream over and alongside; sprinkle cream with lemon peel.
For the following two desserts, which are to be soaked and held before serving, bake cake a day ahead of time if possible; wrap cooled cake well in clear plastic wrap and keep at room temperature. Then the cake will hold its form well, even under the inundation of saturates and fillings and toppings. 

Crystal Almond Currant Cake

Makes 8 servings.

Here you change the cake proportions and baking pan of the basic cake in order to make a layered strip cake.

Basic cloud sponge sheet ‘preferably baked one day ahead’ (recipe below)
1/4 c. golden (medium) rum
3/4 c. red currant jelly, stirred smooth
Crystal almonds (below)

Cut sheet cake crosswise into four even strips. Place one strip on a platter; spoon 1 tablespoon of the rum evenly over top. Spread with one fourth of the jelly. Top with second cake layer and repeat to use all cake, rum and jelly. Sprinkle top with crystal almonds. Cover with clear plastic wrap. Allow to stand at room temperature for about 8 hours. Cut into slender slices.

Cloud sponge sheet . Follow directions for basic Cloud Cake except:
Use 3/4 c. plus 2 T sifted cake flour
3/8 t. baking powder
1/8 t. salt
3 eggs
1/3 c. ice water
3/4 c. plus 2 T sugar
3/8 t. almond extract.

Spread evenly into a 15 X 10 inch jelly roll pan which has been buttered, lined with waxed paper and the paper buttered. Bake in a 375°F oven until cake springs back when lightly touched, about 15 minutes. Do not overbake. Loosen edges and turn out on wire rack. Gently remove paper when cake is cool. Trim off cake edges if you wish.

Crystal almonds . Spread 3 tablespoons finely chopped blanched almonds close together in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar to cover. Broil about 6 inches from heat until nuts toast very lightly and part of the sugar melts. Cool. Crumble finely.

Walnut Praline and Coffee Trifle

Makes 8 servings.

This is subtle and lush.

Break cake slices to fit evenly into serving dish if necessary. Though you can compile the trifle several hours ahead, do not add the praline topping until about two hours before serving.

10 ounces basic Cloud Cake—preferably baked one day ahead
6 T brandy
Coffee custard (below)
2 t. finely shaved or grated bittersweet chocolate (optional)
1 c. heavy (whipping) cream
2 T sugar
3/4 t. vanilla
Walnut praline (below)

Cut cake into slender slices. Arrange half of the slices to cover bottom of a crystal serving bowl (about 2 quart capacity). Sprinkle evenly with half of the brandy. Pour half of the custard evenly over the top. Sprinkle with chocolate. Top with remaining cake, brandy and custard. Cover and chill for 3 hours or more. Beat cream with sugar and vanilla until softly whipped; swirl over custard to cover. Sprinkle with praline. Cover and chill for 2 hours or more. Spoon out to serve.

Coffee custard . Whisk together thoroughly in top of double boiler 4 large egg yolks, 2 cups half and half, 1/2 cup sugar and a few grains of salt. Cook over simmering (not boiling) water, stirring, until mixture thickens slightly and coats a spoon. Strain into a bowl. Whisk in 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder or crushed instant coffee crystals and 1/8 teaspoon vanilla. Cool, whisking occasionally.
Walnut praline. In a small heavy saucepan, heat 1/4 cup sugar over medium heat, stirring, until it melts about halfway. Stir in 2 tablespoons coarsely broken walnut meats; continue cooking and stirring until syrup coats nuts and becomes deep amber. Pour into a buttered shallow pan to cool and harden. Break into pieces, then whirl in a food processor or crush with a rolling pin to make coarse crumbs.

Historical note: I got the original Cloud Cake recipe from my friend, Harolyn Thompson; Harolyn got it from her mother, Lucille Zwaschka; Lucille got it from her sister-in-law, Esther; and the research trail ends there. Esther died a few months ago. I have made a few recipe changes over the years. 


For a fine sponge cake:

1) Beat sugar into egg yolk mixture until sugar is completely dissolved. Test by rubbing a little of the mixture between fingers; mixture should not feel grainy.

2) Always fold; do not stir. (Folding is easier to do than to read about. It is all right if you almost feel mesmerized as you fold). Use a flexible rubber spatula and a rounded-rectangular motion to incorporate dry ingredients into yolk mixture until batter is smooth, and whites into yolk mixture without breaking the air bubbles. Take time and care and use a tender    touch: With the flat side of the spatula held horizontally to top of cake mixture, move it through ingredients to be folded to the side of the bowl, then curve downward with the spatula flat side parallel to the side of the bowl, then turn the spatula to be parallel to bottom of bowl, then round up with spatula flat side parallel to side of bowl. Repeat the tucking and gentle cutting motion; rotate the bowl frequently. Continue until dry ingredients, then whites are evenly enfolded in mixture.

Beat egg whites just until soft peaks form; then they will be moist and easy to fold. These desired peaks are shiny and have rounded tops which form as you lift the beater. Do not overbeat whites, or they will be stiff and dry and almost flaky, and difficult to fold into other ingredients, and the finished cake will not have its proper pleasing volume and lightness.

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