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Grandma Helen’s Sponge Cake

My mother lives in Florida now, and rarely, if ever, bakes anymore because she is busy taking care of my father who has been very ill. I miss her. I miss baking with her. Every spring, she made sponge cake with strawberries. It was a revelation. It just wasn’t spring until we had that cake, airy and bright with lemon zest, stained with strawberries in syrup and blessed with a cloud of whipped cream. 

I miss the smell of her cake in the oven, especially now that strawberries are abundant and stacked impossibly high in their supermarket plastic container towers. Back then, we got our strawberries from a “grocer” that Mom nicknamed “Gaw-jus” because he bragged about his picture-perfect produce in a heavy Bronx accent.

“I went to Gaw-jus,” she’d say, presenting me with the bags full of perfumed berries to wash and slice. “One for the cake, one for me,” I’d say as I cut them and we would giggle together over this weakness we shared, our inability to resist sneaking a little piece before the guests arrived. In my mind’s eye, I see her unguarded, pretty face nearly free of makeup. She prefers simple things. Her wedding ring is often the only piece of jewelry she wears. I remember her fingernails shining with a thin stroke of clear polish on the edge of her spatula as she stirred the egg whites into the cake batter.

“It needed trimming,” she’d say, giving me thin slices off the bottom of the warm sponge cake straight out of the pan that we ate with our fingers, taking them carefully from the knife edge.

It is always 1975 in these memories of my mother baking with me in a New Jersey kitchen wallpapered with outdated yellow and brown pop-art flowers. After all, it’s where the woman who bore me is baking — not just then, but always and forever somewhere in my center, that essential place lost to me so much of the time. And everything she tried to teach me — devotion, patience, the importance of ritual, humility — is there in that simple act of making cake from scratch.

Our sponge cake recipe is an old family recipe from Helen, my Uncle Richy’s mother. A matriarch. In our family, that means strong, compassionate, capable. And so much more. The cake is also much more than its label — usually sponge cake elicits groans in the same way that fruit cake does. None of them are considered any good. This one always gets the raves. I made it for a party recently and it was, as always, a revelation.

Grandma Helen’s Sponge Cake

9 extra large eggs, separated
1 and 1/4 cup sugar (scant cup)
grated rind and juice of medium to large lemon
scant cup all purpose unbleached white flour (Passover cake meal may be substituted)

1. Preheat oven to 340 degrees (convection) or 350 degrees for still oven.

2. Beat egg yolks on an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment for 10 minutes adding the sugar 1/4 cup at a time after 5 minutes. Add the rind and juice of the lemon and beat until well blended.

3.. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Sift 1/3 of the cake meal or flour onto the yolk mixture.  Do not mix it in. Add 1/2 the whites.  Now, fold gently to just incorporated. Then add 1/3 more of the flour followed by almost the entire remaining 1/2 of the whites, leaving just a tad for the last fold. Fold gently. Add the rest of the flour and the tad more whites and fold very very gently to just incorporated. Do this quick as a bunny.  A rubber spatula works best.

4. Place batter in an ungreased tube pan with a removable bottom and tube section or in a spring form. Bake for 1 hour. Check cake after 40 minutes as baking times and oven temperatures vary. Remove from oven and invert pan to let cake cool. Using a sharp thin bladed knife release cake from the sides of the pan before removing and placing on serving plate.

5. With a whisk by hand, or on an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip heavy cream to soft peak, adding vanilla extract and confectioner’s sugar to taste after the cream has thickened slightly. Do not overbeat. Slice strawberries thinly and sprinkle them with sugar to taste, then let them sit in the refrigerator until they form their own syrup. Slice cake and serve each slice with a generous helping of strawberries in syrup and freshly whipped cream.

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I loved the way you wrote this — I felt transported to a simpler and very happy time.
I could imagine the smells and taste the strawberries. And, it’s true, I don’t normally get excited over sponge cake but you’ve made it very enticing.
Great job.


    –  (May 09 2008 at 1:49)


I loved reading this story.  I remember that kitchen and your cool 70’s den like it was yesterday.  Have to admit - I don’t remember this cake - only your mom’s best brownies in the whole wide world.  Maybe you can share that recipe at a later date??  The site is GORGEOUS!!  I love the canister paintings

Love, your cousin Baz

    –  (May 21 2008 at 8:34)

memories, memories, what wonderful memories that pass from generation to generation!  cooking, baking, and sitting around the kitchen table to enjoy the fruits of our labor and the family is like a great big hug that you take with you forever.
your site is food for the eyes!
love, Mom

    –  (May 30 2008 at 1:45)

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