Simple, light and elegant, sponge cake was the quintessential cake of the Victorian era, transformed into endless style and flavor combinations. Some were served plain, garnished simply with fruit, whipped cream or a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar. Others took it up a notch by adding flavorings such as lemon or orange. The most elegant were delicate, two-layer cakes with a jam or cream filling and perhaps some icing drizzled on top.
Cookbooks from the latter part of the nineteenth century contain pages of sponge cake recipes – Almond Sponge Cake, Hot Water Sponge Cake, Cream Sponge Cake, even Perfection Sponge Cake, which called for a whopping fourteen eggs. Then there were the many recipes that used sponge cake as a base, such as Boston Cream Pie, Charlotte Russe (individual dishes lined with sponge cake and topped with whipped cream), Strawberry Short Cake, and the luscious Victoria Sponge. This cake sandwiched Chantilly cream and jam between two fluffy golden cake layers. A favorite of Queen Victoria, it was supposedly introduced by the Duchess of Bedford (one of her ladies-in-waiting) in the 1880s and quickly became a huge hit.
These wondrous Victorian desserts evolved from the “biscuit bread” and “sponge fingers” which spread throughout Europe and America in the 18th century. They were typically named after their place of origin – Savoy, Naples, Lisbon and Spanish biscuits, for example – and became especially popular in England. All were made from fairly similar cake batter; it was the baking molds that differentiated them. Some biscuits were a small oblong-shape (like ladyfingers), but others were essentially cake (this type of molded cake was often called a biscuit). Savoy cake was an especially fancy version of sponge cake – baked into a very high, spectacular mold reminiscent of a tall building or sculpted work of art.
In the early part of the 19th century (before chemical leavenings such as baking powder and cream of tartar came on the scene), a sponge cake’s light, airy texture was achieved by beating eggs and sugar for a long time until they were thick, smooth and pale yellow. This “mechanical leavening” whipped air into the eggs to produce a mass of bubbles called a foam, allowing the cake to rise up nice and light due to the expansion of the air bubbles during baking. It was a long and tedious process that sometimes took hours – a task often delegated to servants.
But the Victorian age introduced many kitchen conveniences, including the invention of the rotary eggbeater around 1870 and chemical rising agents such as saleratus (an early form of baking soda), baking soda and baking powder. These newfangled gadgets and ingredients made the cook’s job easier, although many still preferred using eggs as a rising agent. In the words of cookbook author Belle De Graf, “a true sponge cake contains no baking powder but is lightened entirely by the air which has been beaten into the eggs.”
Most recipes called for beating the egg yolks and whites separately, then gently folding them together with the flour and other ingredients. However, celebrated Philadelphia cooking school instructor Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow felt this was seldom necessary if they were just going to be mixed together, and it actually helped prevent the cake from developing streaks during the baking process. As noted by her famous pupil, Philadelphia notable Eliza Leslie, “The justly-celebrated Mrs. Goodfellow always taught her pupils to beat the whites and yolks together, even for sponge-cake; and lighter than hers no sponge cake could possibly be.”
Flipping through the journal of Anna Smith Maxwell (also known as Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion’s “First Lady of the House”) on one of our many freezing days this winter, I was struck by the large number of sponge cake recipes, including Sponge Jelly, Cream Sponge Cake, Orange Cream Cake and Charlotte Russe. Tired of the harsh, cold weather, I thought testing a few of these light, dainty-sounding cakes would be a perfect way to welcome spring.
The two recipes I decided to try were Hot Water Sponge Cake and Cream Sponge Cake. But as is the case with many older recipes found in manuscript cookbooks, they were just listings of ingredients, with no specific directions or guidance. For example, here is the Hot Water Sponge recipe:
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar 4 eggs. 1 ½ cups Flour
2 small tea spoonful [sic] baking powder. 4 table spoons [sic]
boiling water pinch of salt
This one especially intrigued me because it was attributed to “Wanamaker.” I thought it might have been the version served at the famous Philadelphia department store, first opened by John Wanamaker in 1876 on Market Street, complete with an in-store restaurant. It was originally referred to as his “Grand Depot” store, which Wanamaker cleverly set up in an abandoned railway station. That structure was replaced in 1910 with the beautiful neo-Renaissance style building that today houses Macy’s. Hand carved columns and intricate crystal chandeliers were special details of the store’s lavish restaurant, the “Grand Crystal Tea Room,” which served breakfast, luncheon and afternoon tea. A 1914 menu from Wanamakers’ sister store in New York does list sponge cake and cream sponge cake – each costing just 14 cents. So although I was unable to confirm the source of the recipe, it is possible it was the version served in the Tea Room.
I looked at a number of different Hot Water Sponge Cake recipes from other sources to get comparisons and more exact instructions, and ended up using Fannie Farmer’s version from the Boston Cooking School Cookbook as a guide. Fannie’s recipe uses only two eggs (versus 4 for Anna’s), only 1 cup of flour compared to 1 ½, and slightly less sugar. So I split the difference and used three eggs, but kept the flour and sugar amounts the same as Anna’s recipe. The only other difference was that Fannie added lemon extract, but I decided to leave it out to stay truer to Anna’s version.
So the recipe I followed ended up looking like this:
Hot Water Sponge Cake
3 eggs, separated
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 ½ cups flour
2 small teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons boiling water
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt and set aside. Beat egg whites until stiff and set aside. Beat yolks of eggs until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually add half the sugar and continue beating, then add the water, remaining sugar, egg whites and sifted flour, baking powder and salt. Bake 25 minutes in a shallow buttered and floured pan (I lined mine with parchment paper). Remove cake from oven and allow it to cool for several minutes, then run a butter knife around the edges and turn the pan upside down to cool completely.
Neither recipe gives any instructions about garnishing or decorating the cake, so I just sprinkled confectioners sugar on top and rimmed the edges of the cake plate with fresh berries, then served with whipped cream. It was very good and looked fabulous, but not as “light” as I would have expected. My taste tasters said the same. Perhaps it baked a little too long, or I should have used less flour, as Fannie did. Next time I think I will try cutting the flour a bit and see what happens.
My next attempt was Cream Sponge Cake. Here’s the version from Anna’s journal:
Cream Sponge Cake
6 eggs. 2 cups sugar. 2 ½ flour. 2 teaspoonsfull Cream tartar in the Flour, stir the eggs, sugar, & flour one minute, and when ready to bake add a teaspoonful of soda dissolved in two spoonfuls of milk. Make a Cream of Corn starch, flavored, split-the-cake and pour on the mixture.
This recipe took me awhile to figure out. I found any number of Cream Sponge Cake recipes in various period cookbooks, but they were often quite different. And I had no idea what “Cream of Corn starch” was. Finally I found what I was looking for in Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book – which makes sense as other recipes from Anna’s journal were from Mrs. Rorer, who ran the Philadelphia Cooking School in the late 1800’s. Mrs. Rorer’s recipe was almost exactly like Anna’s, except it included explicit instructions, including explaining how to make the Cream of Corn starch filling. The main difference is that Mrs. Rorer uses the weight of the eggs to balance the flour and sugar – I just used the amounts that Anna listed. Mrs. Rorer also says to dissolve the baking soda in vinegar, whereas Anna’s calls for milk – I ended up going with the vinegar. Note the filling needs to cool down so it should be made before the cake.
Here’s my version:
Cream Sponge Cake
2 cups sugar
2 ½ cups flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vinegar
Break and separate the eggs carefully. Beat the yolks and sugar until very, very light, then add the whites, which have been beaten to a stiff froth, mix carefully, and slowly sift in the flour. Dissolve the baking soda in the vinegar and stir quickly into the cake. Mix thoroughly and carefully, turn into a well-greased large shallow pan (I used a 13 x 9 inch rectangular, but you could also use a springform if you prefer a round cake), and bake at 350 for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
The (Cream of Cornstarch) Filling
1/2 pint of milk
1 1/2 tablespoonfuls cornstarch
2 tablespoonfuls sugar
Grated rind of half an orange
2 tablespoonfuls orange juice
Yolks of 3 eggs
Heat the milk in a saucepan. Beat the cornstarch, sugar, and eggs together until light, then stir into the boiling milk, and stir until it thickens; take off the burner and add the juice and rind of the orange. Stand away to cool. This should be made before the cake. When the cake is done, turn it carefully from the pan, bottom upwards, and spread it, while warm, with the filling. Cut the cake in halves, and fold the bottoms together, thus having two layers of cake with a thick layer of filling between. Cover the top with Orange Icing.
1/2 pound of powdered sugar
1 tablespoonful of boiling water
Grated rind of one orange
Sufficient orange juice to moisten
Put the sugar in a bowl, add the rind and then the water and juice. The icing should be very stiff, and used immediately.
This cake was delicious! I was not surprised as all the cakes I have made from Mrs. Rorer’s recipes have been outstanding, always imparting fresh, subtle flavors – different from many modern recipes which tend to be bolder and more over the top. My taste testers loved this cake. Anna Maxwell and Mrs. Rorer would have been pleased – one out of town guest even requested some to take home. Perfect for any springtime celebration, give this cake a try and help usher in the season!
Mrs. Goodfellow – The Story of America’s First Cooking School by Becky Diamond
Baking in America by Greg Patent
The Boston Cooking-school Cook Book By Fannie Merritt Farmer, 1906
The Department Store Museum Blog – http://departmentstoremuseum.blogspot.com/2010/06/john-wanamaker-philadelphia.html
Fannie’ Last Supper by Chris Kimball
The Food Timeline – http://www.foodtimeline.org/
Historic Food Blog – http://www.historicfood.com/Savoy%20Cake%20Recipe.htm
The imperial and royal cook By Frederic Nutt
Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book: A Manual of Home Economics By Sarah Tyson Heston Rorer
Vrq Level 2 Certificate in Professional edited by Pam Rabone
What’s on the Menu? – http://menus.nypl.org/menus/34029
Who Made America? – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/wanamaker_hi.html
Learn more about America’s first cooking school – http://www.amazon.com/Mrs-Goodfellow-Americas-Cooking-School