Sponge cakes are simple desserts, but in most countries, they differ from the typical American version you might know. Learn the basic recipe that Italian mothers make.
All Italian kids grew up with pan di spagna. It’s the basic sponge cake that can be eaten with the hands. Sure, it doesn’t have attractive colors that can make kids’ eyes open wide with interest, but just the same, it’s one of the best midmorning or midafternoon snacks they can get that’s made by their own moms (or nonna). It beats the commercially bought, fully loaded treats available in supermarkets nowadays — it has just eggs, sugar and flour.
It’s also that kind of cake that will always be around when families get together, because it’s a traditional dessert. Typically it is filled with crema pasticcera, or pastry cream, in the middle and then simply covered with a good sprinkling of powdered sugar. It may not be big on looks, but the taste will always be dependably and deliciously Italian.
Being married to a man with a big family of women who love to cook, I learned a lot of things in the kitchen. Living in an Italian home is like being in a casual culinary school day in and day out. You speak about food while cooking, and you still speak about food when you are not cooking. Pan di spagna was one of the first recipes I learned from my mother-in-law. It’s a basic kind of cake that has been around for generations in all Italian households, with their own recipes that have been tried and tested for years. With different cooks and opinions, there are a lot of pan di spagna recipes in personal recipe books. I have a few too, and when I am short on time, I usually follow this simplest recipe, with a soft and spongy result. You can add anything you want to the base, like candied fruits, nuts or chocolate. Buon appetito!
Pan di spagna con crema pasticcera (Italian sponge cake with pastry cream) recipe
Yields 1 (9-inch) cake; serves 6 – 8
Prep time: 20 minutes | Bake time: 40 minutes | Total time: 1 hour
- 5 eggs, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup sugar
- Pinch salt
- 1 vanilla pod (or zest of 1 organic orange or 1 organic lemon)
- 1-1/8 cups flour type doppio zero or “00” (can be replaced with all-purpose flour)
- Oil spray or butter
- 1/8 cup almond liqueur or orange juice (any kind of liqueur or juice will do)
- 1/8 cup water
- 2 cups pastry cream (see recipe below)
- 1/3 cup icing sugar
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Prepare the baking pan (springform works best) by spraying it with oil or rubbing it with butter. Line the bottom part and sides with baking paper in the correct size.
- In a large bowl, whip the eggs, sugar, vanilla or citrus zest and salt on medium for about 10 minutes.
- Sift the flour, and fold it into the whipped egg mixture.
- Pour the batter into the baking pan, and bake for 35 – 40 minutes or until the cake is baked through. Check by inserting a toothpick in the middle. If it comes out clean, then it is cooked. If not, bake for a few more minutes.
- When the cake is done, let it cool.
- Slice the cake in the middle with a very sharp knife or a thin nylon thread (like the kind used for fishing) to make the slice even.
- In a small bowl, mix together the liqueur and water, then brush both inner parts of the sliced pan di spagna with the mixture to moisten the cake.
- Spread the pastry cream all over the pan di spagna, then put the other half back on top.
- Garnish the top with the icing sugar by using a sieve to distribute it evenly. You can be creative and make some shapes too.
Crema pasticcera (pastry cream) recipe
Yields 2 cups
Prep time: 10 minutes | Cook time: 10 minutes | Total time: 20 minutes
- 2 cups milk
- 1 vanilla pod
- 5 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- In a medium saucepan over low heat, warm up the milk with the vanilla pod and the seeds scraped off from the pod until the milk is almost boiling.
- In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar until creamy and light in color. Add the cornstarch gradually while whisking, and then set aside.
- Remove the vanilla pod from the milk, and discard it.
- Turn on the heat again, and over low heat, whisk the egg mixture gradually into the milk until it becomes thick and creamy. If the pastry cream becomes too thick after it cools down, just thin it out with a little bit of milk, and whisk well.