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Bert Greene's Kitchen

Tales of Human Frailty and a Spongecake

November 12, 1987|Bert Greene | Greene is a New York-based food writer

This is the saga of my Skyscraper Sponge, the first cake I learned to bake when I was in my teens.

The recipe is somewhat unusual because the tube pan in which it bakes is buttered and heavily dusted with sugar rather than flour. Both amendments have much to do with the cake's subtle flavor and texture.

One of the people to whom I boasted about its size and taste is Rose Levy Beranbaum--cake maker, baking teacher and cookbook author.

As a special friend, I donated the recipe for Skyscraper Sponge to her collection. The day after I sent her the recipe, I received a somewhat plaintive phone call. "Bert," Beranbaum said, "I made the cake. It was beautifully elevated as you promised and light as a cloud. But when I turned the tube pan upside down on a bottle for it to cool, it slipped out of the pan and broke apart.

"It was delicious though. Probably the best spongecake I've ever tasted."

Never Turn Pan Upside Down

The compliment was very small comfort. You see, what I did not confess is that I never turn the tube pan upside down on a bottle. I never do anything to the cake except let the pan come to room temperature on a rack before removing the cake. And it neither slips nor slides until it is eaten.

She made the cake again. Not once but three times before she deemed it ready for inclusion in her baking book. She even made an excursion to Florida (where we both happened to be teaching) with a slice of cake in her luggage so I could match the reproduction against my original. It was a very delicate duplication; certainly as tasty as mine but (and here's the rub) several inches lower in scale. Not quite a skyscraper.

"Rose," I said, "I love your version of my cake but it's just not as towering as mine."

"Oh? But why?"

Whipping the Egg Whites

"Well, I've been thinking about that. Do you whip the egg whites in an electric mixer?"

"Of course," she answered. "Just the same as you do."

"That's what I was afraid you'd say." A decidedly apologetic note entered my voice. "I use an electric mixer for the batter itself. But I always beat the egg whites to a meringue in a copper bowl, by hand, using a balloon whisk."

"Of course," she sighed, "That would make a difference. Whipping eggs in copper by hand expands their volume enormously."


5 egg yolks

1 1/2 cups sugar

Peel of 1 lemon, finely grated

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup sifted cake flour

2 tablespoons orange juice

9 egg whites

Rinse bowl of electric mixer with hot water. Quickly pat dry and wrap hot towel around base of bowl. (If using hand mixer, place bowl in sink of hot water.) Beat egg yolks in warm bowl, gradually adding 1 1/4 cups sugar. Add lemon peel and vanilla. Continue to beat until mixture doubles in volume. Fold cake flour and orange juice into beaten egg mixture, lifting batter to add as much air as possible. Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into batter.

Butter 10-inch tube pan and sprinkle bottom and sides with 2 tablespoons sugar. Place pan in middle of 325 degree oven 1 minute for sugar to slightly caramelize. Pour batter into prepared pan (should be about 1/2 full). Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons sugar over top and bake until golden and firm to touch, about 1 hour.

Cool cake on wire rack. Do not invert pan. Run sharp knife around edges of cake to unmold. Makes 8 servings.

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