Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

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Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Breadandwine » July 31st, 2011, 10:44 pm

As a breadmaker of many years I've had many 'received wisdoms' shattered.

I used to think that the more water you put in a bread dough, the heavier it would be - makes sense doesn't it? Until I made a ciabatta using 25% more water than normal and found it rose much better than 'normal' bread.

I used to think that a ratio of 1lb flour to 10fl oz of water was pretty immutable for a dough that you knead (my ciabatta is a semi-batter, mixed entirely in the bowl). Until I came across Dan Lepard's method of breadmaking which introduces at least another 7% of water into a dough.

I thought bread without salt would be tasteless - until I made some for my first grandchild and found that, using Dove's organic wholemeal flour at least, it is not at all tasteless!

There are many other received wisdoms I could quote - not all of which I subscribed to - but the subject of this post is sponge cakes.

Coming from a family of bakers, I've always known that a Victoria sponge is made with the ratio of 4,4,4,4, and that a Madeira cake contained twice as much flour - but that's about the extent of my knowledge.

I certainly never imagined you could make a decent sponge without eggs and butter (or marge) - until, that is, I looked at vegan chocolate cake recipes and made one myself.

(The 'blurb' even suggested that this was 'The best chocolate cake ever'. Don't know about that, but it was bloody good!)

The making of it was simplicity itself - assemble dry ingredients, s/r flour, sugar, cocoa powder and salt; add wet ingredients, water, oil (I used sunolive) and vanilla extract - then mix.

When it's mixed pour into your cake tin(s) and bake at 175C for 20 minutes. (Story and recipe on my blog - pic coming soon.)

http://nobreadisanisland.blogspot.com/2 ... -this.html

Dead easy - and, since it got rave reviews from the guests (all who tried it, anyway) at a family party, it set me wondering why we thought we needed butter and eggs?

So that's my question to you, folks - why do we need these ingredients? Is it simply a case of 'Because my mother always made it that way'?

Cheers, Paul
Last edited by Breadandwine on August 1st, 2011, 9:55 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Suelle » August 1st, 2011, 5:11 am

I'm surprised the recipe worked as well without the vinegar, as that should have been what reacted with the bicarbonate of soda to produce CO2, which would aerate the sponge mix as it cooked.

Although many people love this recipe, the only time I tried it (or one very similar - without eggs, anyway), the cake had to be thrown away, it was so vile. I suppose everyone else can't be wrong, so I guess I made a mistake somewhere with measuring the ingredients.

In the early days of cake making, batters would be raised just by the amount of air which could be beaten by hand into the sugar/fat mixture, and the eggs. Chemical additives weren't in use as raising agents. Kitchen maids could spend hours beating a cake mixture! Solid fats would be used as a matter of course, as there wasn't a history of oil production in cold northern climates, but it's not possible to beat air into a sugar and oil mix in the same way, as you don't get the same emulsion. Likewise eggs - if you beat eggs and sugar together the mixture becomes pale, thick and greatly increased in volume because of the air held in the mixture. This is, IIRC, because beating unravels the protein in the egg whites (as for meringues).

So before chemical raising agents cakes would need either eggs or solid fat to be able to hold beaten in air! Most recipes use both, as without strong flavours such as chocolate, a cake with neither eggs nor butter is very bland in flavour!

That's a simplified view, as fats and eggs also have other roles in baking, but there's a fuller explanation of cake ingredients here:
http://www.baking911.com/cakes/101ingredients.htm

Another vegan cake recipe that was surprisingly light in texture, although fairly plain in taste:
http://leitesculinaria.com/51410/recipe ... -cake.html

My experiences of it:
http://mainlybaking.blogspot.com/2011/0 ... opita.html
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Mamta » August 1st, 2011, 5:16 am

why do we need these ingredients? Is it simply a case of 'Because my mother always made it that way'?

Probably true.
Was it as tasty as the one with eggs, really?
Does the traditional one last longer?
Is it more moist?
It would be interesting to make two side by side and then compare.

It is like making a chicken/meat/beans/chickpea curry without any frying of onions-spice mix etc. as the traditional method dictates. Just bung everything together in a pressure cooker (or slow cooker) and cook. It is pretty tasty with no work involved!
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby barnsleycook » August 1st, 2011, 5:37 am

I have made a couple of chocolate cakes using a bland oil and they tasted vile. Perhaps it is because I can use the traditional ingredients that I am able to do a side by side comparison and I'm afraid the traditional method wins for me. I also found that the ones made with oil were pretty dry.
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Suelle » August 1st, 2011, 6:34 am

barnsleycook wrote: I also found that the ones made with oil were pretty dry.


That's interesting, because most professional cooks/experts say that cakes made with oil are moister and keep better than cakes made with butter.

As you may know, as I've said it often enough, a lot of my baking at the moment is with oil rather than butter, because of cholesterol problems in the family. I've had mixed experiences using oil - the slightly heavier madeira style cakes seem more successful than lighter sponges - but in general I've been quite pleased with the flavour. I wouldn't want to regularly leave eggs out of cakes though! The Greek Walnut Cake aside (see link in post above), if I'm not using butter I feel I do need eggs for a richer flavour and texture.
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Breadandwine » August 1st, 2011, 10:12 am

Thanks for all those considered replies! :)

I didn't use vinegar because I used s/raising flour and didn't think I needed it.

I've just had a look at the remains (there was less than a quarter left after the party) and it's just as moist as when I made it on Saturday.

That's a fair point about cocoa powder giving the cake a strong flavour - perhaps the next time I'll aim for a vanilla sponge.

Which leads me to my next question - I've never bought vanilla extract before, although I was aware that I should avoid vanilla essence. I paid £1.67 for a small bottle of what was labelled 'Vanilla extract' - but, on reading the label the amount of extract was minimal. (I haven't got it hand ATM, I'll check the actual amount
tonight.)

So, what should I be looking for?

Cheers, Paul
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby barnsleycook » August 1st, 2011, 11:28 am

Suelle wrote:
barnsleycook wrote: I also found that the ones made with oil were pretty dry.


That's interesting, because most professional cooks/experts say that cakes made with oil are moister and keep better than cakes made with butter.


I had heard that as well so you can imagine my disappointment when I made Mary Berry's Death by Chococlate cake for my daughter's birthday (
http://lyns-hobbies.blogspot.com/2007/1 ... -cake.html) and it turned out dry in comparison to a bog standard chocolate victoria sponge. I also thought it had a harsh unpleasant taste.
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Suelle » August 1st, 2011, 12:13 pm

barnsleycook wrote:I had heard that as well so you can imagine my disappointment when I made Mary Berry's Death by Chococlate cake for my daughter's birthday (
http://lyns-hobbies.blogspot.com/2007/1 ... -cake.html) and it turned out dry in comparison to a bog standard chocolate victoria sponge. I also thought it had a harsh unpleasant taste.


Even more interesting, because I really like that chocolate sponge recipe. Although I usually make it with treacle (Michael Barry's Crafty Chocolate Cake - http://www.oxfam.org.uk/coolplanet/kidsweb/recipes/choccake.htm) I've also made it with caramelised condensed milk instead of treacle or syrup:
http://mainlybaking.blogspot.com/2011/01/chocolate-sponge.html

What brand of cocoa were you using - some of them can be quite harsh and bitter?
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Suelle » August 1st, 2011, 12:26 pm

Paulthebread wrote:I didn't use vinegar because I used s/raising flour and didn't think I needed it.

I've just had a look at the remains (there was less than a quarter left after the party) and it's just as moist as when I made it on Saturday.

That's a fair point about cocoa powder giving the cake a strong flavour - perhaps the next time I'll aim for a vanilla sponge.

Cheers, Paul


I didn't notice you'd used SR flour - as you say, you wouldn't need the vinegar in that case! :D


Which leads me to my next question - I've never bought vanilla extract before, although I was aware that I should avoid vanilla essence. I paid £1.67 for a small bottle of what was labelled 'Vanilla extract' - but, on reading the label the amount of extract was minimal. (I haven't got it hand ATM, I'll check the actual amount tonight.)

So, what should I be looking for?


As long as it's labelled pure extract from beans rather than essence or flavouring, you should be OK.

In general I look for something labelled 'extract' which only contains vanilla beans, alcohol and water. The one I'm using at the moment is Ndali (Fairtrade). The main part of any extract will be the alcohol and water, so it doesn't necessarily matter if yours contains what looks like a small amount of extract - it depends on what exactly it means. Nielsen-Massey is a good brand too.
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Breadandwine » August 1st, 2011, 11:03 pm

Well, I'm not a happy bunny!

The stuff I've got is labelled:
LANGDALE
'Extract of vanilla'
Natural ingredients.

The contents are :
Water
Propylene glycol
Vanilla extract 1.3%
Caramel (E150a)

Further info:
This essence is prepared from Natural Extracts of Vanilla

Now that, to me, smacks of misleading advertising - or labelling, and I shall be taking it up with the SM who sold it to me.

If the word 'Essence' had been on the front of the bottle, I would not have bought it.

I shall look out for your suggestions, Sue. Thanks.
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Suelle » August 2nd, 2011, 5:29 am

That doesn't really sound like a real vanilla extract does it? Very misleading!

You could try vanilla sugar - buy a vanilla pod or two and poke them into a jar of caster sugar. After a while the sugar takes on the flavour of the vanilla.

On the whole, I prefer using an extract though - I've never got a really strong flavour into sugar that way!
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Lokelani » August 2nd, 2011, 11:01 am

I've also been using the Ndali one. The ingredients are Fairtrade ugandan vanilla beans, alcohol (38% volume) & water. It had a third off in Waitrose & although it still seemed expensive, it is quite a big bottle.

I bought a big bottle from Lakeland which is the Nielsen-Massey brand but to me it gave everything I used it in a hint of bacon rather than vanilla! I'm sure it must just be my tastebuds as others rave about that one!

I've also not got much flavour out of the sugar that I always keep a vanilla pod in. Mind you the vanilla pods in the jars are probably pretty old. I wonder how often they should be replaced?

A large part of the flavour of a victoria sponge for me is the butteryness. I think I'd really miss it. There have been exceptions but I've not really liked most of the oil based cakes I've made.
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby suffolk » August 3rd, 2011, 6:03 am

Whenever I use the seeds from a vanilla pod I put the pods into my caster sugar jar and just keep topping the sugar up and giving it a shake every so often. I start afresh about every year to 18 months or so.
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Breadandwine » August 4th, 2011, 8:53 pm

Thanks, folks, I shall look out for the Ndali one, methinks. And when I get it I'll have a go at a vanilla sponge cake.

Just to add to my report, I ate the rest of the cake on Tuesday afternoon, by which time it was almost 3 days old. It was as rich and lush and delicious as ever. I ate the last morsels with real regret!

Fancy making one for the weekend, now!

Cheers, Paul
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Suelle » August 5th, 2011, 10:57 am

Paulthebread wrote:
The stuff I've got is labelled:
LANGDALE
'Extract of vanilla'
Natural ingredients.

The contents are :
Water
Propylene glycol
Vanilla extract 1.3%
Caramel (E150a)

Further info:
This essence is prepared from Natural Extracts of Vanilla


This vanilla may not be too bad, after all. I was comparing brands in Waitrose today and the Nielsen-Massey brand only had 3% vanilla extract. Other brands state their content differently so it's difficult to compare.

The Langdale Vanilla Flavouring, in contrast, had no natural vanilla at all!
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Breadandwine » August 8th, 2011, 9:38 am

One odd thing about the stuff I've got is that is recommends no more than one tsp to a kilo - of what it doesn't say! :?

Made another cake on Saturday - tweaked it a bit (as per usual!)

I upped the flour to 200g - to make it a little less sweet if anything - and upped the water by a fifth as well, to 300g. I added 3 tsps of vanilla instead of 2.

So I had a bit extra, which I tipped into two small cake tins.

When I was baking it I checked the small tins after 10 minutes, then 12, then finally 15 before they were done. I gave the two large cakes 24 minutes instead of 20, which was a little better, I think.

Didn't seem to make any difference to the cakes that I'd opened the oven several times...

I've shared half with the grandchildren and family - the other half I'm keeping for me to nibble on. It's not a great deal different (slightly less lush?) to the last cake so I think I'll carry on with the original quantities - it just fits two 7" cake tins, after all.

(I filled and topped it with the vegan chocolate spread I forgot to say.)
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Breadandwine » December 27th, 2011, 12:03 am

Been making a few of these, recently, and they're all turning out OK - even the ones I made today using cup measurements which I don't like to do. It's turning into an easy every day recipe - bit like making bread, really!

Here's some of the details - the rest are in the My Daily Bread posts:

http://nobreadisanisland.blogspot.com/2 ... -this.html

Cheers, Paul
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby aero280 » December 27th, 2011, 12:32 am

I have two bottles of Vanilla Extract.

The first is from Tesco:

Nielsen-Massey Vanillas
118ml
Alcohol 35%
Sugar,
Vanilla Bean Extracts 3%


The second bottle is one that came from America (via ianinfrance):

Golden Gate Brand
240ml
Planifolia Vanilla Beans,
Water,
Alcohol from Sugar Cane 35%,
Sugar. All Natural
2 Fold (i.e. double strength)

Check it at http://www.saffron.com/vanextract.html

It's a bit confusing as the website says that their Vanilla Extract contains no sugar. Does the "Sugar. All Natural" on the label mean "No added sugar"?
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Re: Received wisdoms - and sponge cakes

Postby Mamta » December 27th, 2011, 7:27 am

Does the "Sugar. All Natural" on the label mean "No added sugar"?

Sounds like it.
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