“You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.”
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Godmersham: Wednesday, June 15, 1808
During the renaissance, Italian cooks became famous for their baking skills and were hired by households in both England and France. The new items that they introduced were called “biscuits,” though they were the forerunner of what we now consider to be sponge cake. The earliest sponge cake recipe in English was recorded by Gervase Markham in 1615. These sponge cakes weren’t exactly your Betty Crocker behemoths, though – they were most likely thin, crisp cakes, more like modern cookies. Macaroons were developed during this period, as were spiced buns such as the Easter staple, hot cross buns.
By the middle of the 18th century, yeast had fallen into disuse as a raising agent for cakes in favor of beaten eggs. The cooks of the day must have had arm muscles like Schwarzenegger – it takes an awful lot of beating by hand to do what we can accomplish in a few minutes with an electric mixer! Once as much air as possible had been beaten in, the mixture would be poured into molds, often elaborate creations, but sometimes as simple as two tin hoops, set on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. It is from these cake hoops that our modern cake pans developed.
Amazingly, it seems that the idea of cake as a dessert was particularly late in coming. Initially, they were served as a snack with sweet wine, much as madeira cake still is. Large, elaborate cakes would often be made as part of the display for banquets, but these were rarely eaten. The style of eating since the Middle Ages had required a selection of dishes to be on the table all at the same time. These would be removed and replaced with another vast array, but in the mid-nineteenth century the fashion changed and Service à la Russe became all the rage. Now the meal was served by servants, bringing diners individual dishes (similar to modern restaurant service), and while such a performance wasn’t within the reach of most people, it did result in a feature that everyone could enjoy – the dessert course. Now the decorated cake that we all know and love finally put in its appearance.
Sponge cakes are leavened by whipping eggs (whole, yolks only or whites only) with sugar. Whipping air into the mixture is what makes them light. When baked, the air bubbles expand from the heat of the oven and the cake rises.
Among the more popular Sponge cake types are the European styled Biscuit and Genoise, which more often than not are moistened with syrups because of their tendency to be somewhat dry. The right amount of syrup results in soft and tender crumbs, too little can render the cakes dry or tasteless, while too much produces soggy units. Hardcore European versions have liqueur as part of their syrupy additives, resulting in notably enhanced flavors. In both the Genoise and Biscuit, cornstarch replaces some of the flour, causing the cake to be tighter. Superfine sugar is recommended to achieve an extra fine texture.
Naples Biskets use the same batter, but are poured into shaped pans (you can use Madeleine tins) and baked as tiny cakes or cookies.
Take 3 Egs both Yolkes & Whites, & beat them in a bason, or wooden Bowle a quarter of an hour, then put to them halfe a pound of Sugar, & beat them together as long againe, ghen put to them 6 Ounces of fine flower & a graine or 2 of muske, being steeped in a spoonfull or two of Rosewater, & bat them well together while your Oven is a heating, & when it is as hot as for Manchett, butter your pans, & put your bread into thme & bakce it, & dry it, & keep it for your Use.
Period recipe, 1698
A modern recipe for Naples Biskets can be found here.
Portions of this article were reprinted with permission from the Medidrome article: The Peerless Cake Baker: The Surprising History of The Cake, by Helen Stringer.
Enjoyed this article? Browse our giftshop at janeaustengiftshop.co.uk for Regency recipe books!