An Italian Sponge – Simplicity that is Sublime

cake-venetianClean lines and high level function have been a hallmark of Italian design. In cooking simple ingredients well-prepared define Italian cuisine. The Italian aesthetic for simplicity in form and function combined with tradition is never better demonstrated than by the Italian sponge cake (Pan di Spagna), a simple, airy cake made with only 3 ingredients: eggs, sugar and flour…no baking powder, no butter and no oil!

The Italian sponge is used as a base for fillings and candied fruits and is key ingredient in hundreds of classic Italian desserts like zuccoto and Sicilian cassata. Pan di Spagna‘s light airy texture absorbs “like a sponge” (once cooked, it can absorb almost up to twice its weight) so it is often layered and soaked with a flavored syrups or spirits or used to soak up the juices from fresh fruit. It stacks wonderfully. Layered with a cream filling it is an impressive dessert but just as enjoyable eaten on its own sprinkled with powdered sugar.You will find its simple, delicious flavor and spongy texture a perfect base for your Italian layered or rolled cakes and desserts.

I was introduced to the Italian Sponge by my mother-in-law Marion who used it to make Italian Rum Cake, a family tradition for celebrating birthdays and many special occasions. I have never made it as well as she or my Aunt Margaret who Americanized it as the chiffon but I have learned a few secrets to perfecting a successful Pan di Spagna.

  • Use extra large eggs at room temperature
  • Use cake flour if possible
  • Beat the egg whites until tripled in volume but not dry
  • Beat the egg yolks and sugar for no less than 15 minutes; it is during this stage that air is incorporated
  • The dry ingredients must be sifted together and added on top of the egg mixture, a little at a time and deliberately folded gently together with a spatula or wooden spoon. If you pour too much flour in too fast it will sink to the bottom of the bowl
  • While the cake is baking don’t be tempted to open the oven door or the cake will deflate quicker than a Patriot’s football
  • When the cake is done, turn off the oven but leave the cake inside with the oven door slightly ajar for about 10 minutes
  • Cut the cake only when it has cooled
  • If you plan on layering the sponge, soaking the layers with a flavored syrup or liquor, do so and then wrap the layers in cling film and leave in the refrigerator overnight before spreading each layer with filling for the final assembly

There are many versions of Pan di Spagna. I have a version made with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling that I use in place of pastry cream or custard. It also eliminates the need to soak the layers in a flavored syrup or liquor as the creme is made with Piemonte DOCG Moscato.

Pan di Spagna with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling

Ingredients for the Pan di Spagna:

5 large Eggs
1 1/2 cup Sugar
1 1/2 cup Flour
(you can add 1 teaspoon Vanilla or  1/2 teaspoon Lemon Zest) as a flavoring

Directions:

Let eggs come to room temperature before starting. Butter and flour a 9″ (23 cm) cake pan. Set aside.  Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Sift the flour into a bowl; set aside. Separate the eggs yolks in one bowl; whites in another. Add the sugar to the egg yolks, and whip with an electric mixer until thick. Stir in the lemon zest and vanilla. Rinse the beaters off well,  whip the egg whites to a stiff peak. Then fold the beaten egg white into the yolk mixture. Add the flour a bit at a time to the egg mixture, and fold it carefully in. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, place in oven, and bake for about 20 minutes. When done, a toothpick will come out clean, and the top will be golden. Turn upside down on a wire cake rack to cool.

Assemble the Layers:

Slice sponge cake in half with a thin bladed serrated knife to form two layers.Combine stabilized whipped cream with the Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream (according to taste)   to make a filing for the layers. Retain some of the whipped cream to be used as a frosting. Place bottom sponge layer on platter cut side up, generously spread layer with filling. Top the cream layer with another layer of sponge cake. Frost the top sponge cake layer (and sides of cake) with remaining stabilized whipped cream. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour before serving. Refrigerate any leftovers.

You may have noticed that the Italian Sponge has a Spanish name. Pan di Spagna means Bread of Spain. For nearly half a century, Spanish monarchs ruled Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. Gastro-historians credit the introduction of a Spanish influenced “sponge-like” cake to the Northern Italian table because the learned cities of the North like Parma in Emilia Romagna embraced a cosmopolitan cuisine and were influenced by the marriage of the Parmese Duchess Elisabetta Farnese to the Spanish King Philip V (1714).

Others attribute the Italian sponge to Giovanni Battista Cabona from Genoa. Cabona went to Spain in the mid 1700’s as part of the domestic entourage of the ambassador of Genoa. The inventive young baker was asked to create a new and original cake for a royal Spanish banquet. Working with basic and simple ingredients, Cabona was able to create an incredibly light and airy cake, and gave it the name Pan di Spagna, in honor of the hosting country. The cake so pleased the Court of Spain that it was renamed Génoise, in honor of the Genoese creator. Throughout Europe it is still known as Génoise, while in Italy it has maintained its original name, Pan di Spagna.