Sometime between last April, when I published the earl grey layer cake with turmeric frosting, and last month, I fell in love with cakes again. Just like I publish a new pie recipe every November, I decided I wanted to publish a new cake recipe every spring, and I’ve been filling up pages of my cooking notebook with spring (and non-spring) cake ideas for weeks. Matcha chiffon cake is at the top of the list, y’all, so keep an eye out for that.
For months, I’d been wanting to do something with lemon, honey, and/or other flavors. I played around with Italian almond ricotta cake (still in progress but will definitely be showing up sooner or later), and contemplated buying mini bundt pans to make mini honey bundt cakes (still hasn’t happened, but we’ll see.) I googled “lemon cake,” “honey cake,” “best spring cakes,” and even “white cake” and “yellow cake” for inspiration, and in March I tried out a few recipes. There doesn’t seem to be a lot in the way of lemon-honey cake online, and all the “honey cakes” I found were spiced and dense, and not really what I had in mind. The recipes I tried the first two times were Frankenstein monsters of other recipes (mostly of my earl grey cake recipe), and they were not working. No matter how I adjusted the amount of fat, liquid, lemon, and flavor, the batter always broke and the texture just wasn’t right.
As always when I get stuck on a pastry thing, I asked one of the pastry chefs at work for advice: How does she recommend incorporating both honey and lemon into a cake that’s light, fluffy, and spring-themed?
Sponge cake. She recommended sponge cake, and I tried to think through everything else she’s taught me about cake, and I realized, I honestly had no idea what a sponge cake was. At the same time as I was working on this, I was hooked on the show, “Zumbo’s Just Desserts,” and in the first season, one of the contestants talks about her mother’s sponge cake recipe.
What is this sponge cake people talking about?
Clearly sponge cakes aren’t the most popular cake in the States.
I changed course and researched different types of sponge cake, the difference between sponges and other cakes, types of cakes in general, and best sponges for layering.
Turns out cake is pretty complex, y’all.
But, I’m a fan of making things super simple, and just like with my lemon curd (which features in this cake recipe), I’m about to make cakes super frickin’ simple and blow some minds.
In general, cakes can be categorized as one of two types (with some cakes straddling the line): Sponge and Butter.
A sponge cake is made with an egg sponge base: eggs, whole or separated, are whipped up with sugar and the other ingredients. The eggs foam up like meringue (in some recipes, it actually is meringue.) There is usually very little starch added, and in some cases, very little fat. Angel food cake, for example, has zero fat, and dacquoise has no starch. Genoise, on the other hand, has a small amount of flour and butter, and uses whole eggs, so there’s fat from the yolks.
A butter cake is what most of us in the States are used to: softened butter is beaten with sugar (“creamed“), and then the other ingredients are beaten in, slowly and one at a time to keep the batter emulsified. The base of the cake batter is the sugar-butter mixture, which increases in volume just like an egg sponge. However, most butter cake recipes involve adding the eggs directly to the batter without foaming them up. This is where we find birthday cakes and yellow cakes.
In the sponge family, we have such cakes as: swiss roll, ladyfingers/savoy sponge, flourless chocolate cakes, tortes, financiers, madeleines, sacher tortes, and of course genoise, dacquoise, and angel food.
On the other, fattier side: pound cake, common chocolate cakes, white cake, yellow cake, carrot cake, red velvet cake, and devil’s food cake.
And straddling the divide: chiffon (a sponge with vegetable oil.)
At first, I was overwhelmed trying to understand what exactly a sponge is, what the types of cakes were, and the differences from one cake to another, but when I started reading about sponges versus butter cakes, the information all felt more accessible.
From there, I decided on a genoise/genoese sponge flavored with lemon zest, doused with honey simple syrup, and layered up with mascarpone and lemon curd.
Genoise, an Italian sponge cake (from Genoa), uses whole eggs, unseparated, for the sponge, and contains some flour and butter. The fat makes the finished cake just sturdy enough that you can slice and layer it, but the air in the sponge allows for dousing with whatever flavored syrup you want (hashtag, booze.) As the name implies, the cake is a sponge, meaning it sucks up whatever liquid you add to it. The cake itself is light and lean (not fatty), so a lot of the flavor comes from the dousing liquid and the other components of the layer cake.
My trouble with the earliest attempts was that I wanted to add lemon zest and juice for that flavor, but the juice was too much liquid, and I couldn’t add enough honey for the honey flavor without breaking the batter. Butter is temperamental like that. By separating the flavors out into a variety of different components, I could get both the lemon and the honey, play with different textures, and keep my cake light and fluffy.
So here it is, the 2018 Spring Cake: lemon-honey genoise, layered with lemon curd and honey mascarpone.
For some extra fanciness, top the cake with candied lemon peel, honeycomb candy, or real honeycomb* (but maybe add the honeycomb candy and lemon peel right before serving because they can’t be refrigerated and the cake needs to be chilled.)
Maybe I’ll need to do a summer cake, an autumn cake, and a winter cake, as well.
*I did extensive research (Googling and asking everyone I know), and yes, honeycomb is both edible and digestible (though most people treat it like gum and spit it out after getting the honey.)
lemon honey sponge cake with lemon curd and honey mascarpone frosting
adapted from The Art of French Baking, by Ginette Mathiot
makes one 6″ cake, 3 layers (double the recipe to make an 8″ – 9″ cake)
The written recipe itself looks long, but I promise you that the process is not long or cumbersome. There’s just a lot to know about each component.
First, watch this video to gain some idea of how to go about making and assembling this cake. This is Mary Berry making a “fraisier cake” (a strawberry genoise layer cake), and I follow almost this exact process. You can assemble your cake more roughly/casually and with fewer tools, if you want.
Note: Finding ways to prepare recipes in advance will save you a lot of stress, and fortunately, advanced preparation is not only easy for cakes, but recommended. “Never bake a cake the same day you’re going to serve it,” a pastry chef at work told me when I mentioned this cake idea to her. Make the sponge in advance, slice it into layers when it cools, wrap each layer individually in plastic, and freeze or chill at least 1 day before you plan to assemble the cake. You should also make the lemon curd in advance, and you could even have the honey simple syrup prepared ahead of time. Of course, the garnishes can be made ahead of time. The candied lemon peel should be kept at room temperature and the honeycomb candy stays best in the freezer, but if you have silica gel, you can keep it at room temperature.
For baking the cake: a small saucepan, a large mixing bowl or a stand mixer, a handheld electric mixer (if not using a stand mixer), a whisk, a rubber spatula, a fine mesh sieve, one 6″ cake pan, parchment or a 6″ parchment round
For making the mascarpone frosting: two mixing bowls, one handheld electric mixer (or you can use a stand mixer, but you’ll want to use the electric mixer in both bowls, so if you use a stand mixer, you’ll need to transfer the whipped cream to another container after whipping it), a silicone spatula
For assembling the cake: a 6″ cake ring (not required but highly recommended), parchment paper or an acetate sheet (if using the cake ring, otherwise neither are necessary), a pastry brush (bristles or silicone), a serrated bread knife, two small-ish (12″ or less) piping bags and tips for the lemon curd and mascarpone, a small offset spatula
lemon genoise sponge
2 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
2.6 oz granulated sugar
zest of 1 large lemon or 2 baby lemons
2.1 oz all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp (0.5 oz) unsalted butter, melted
honey simple syrup
2 oz honey
0.4 oz water
honey mascarpone frosting
3 oz whipping cream
3 oz mascarpone cheese*
2 oz honey
1 oz powdered sugar
*Some regular grocery stores carry mascarpone cheese, occasionally, or you can find it at Whole Foods. It’s like a cross between cream cheese and heavy cream: lighter than cream cheese, but thicker than whipped cream. You can substitute cream cheese for mascarpone, but it will be thicker and have a stronger flavor. A closer cousin of mascarpone is crème fraîche, which is easier to find in the grocery store.
Make the lemon curd in advance. You can make it up to a week in advance and refrigerate or up to 6 months in advance and freeze the curd. Thaw the curd in the refrigerator overnight before assembling the cake.
1-2 days before serving the cake, make the sponge. On the day that you’re serving the cake, make the simple syrup, then make the mascarpone, infuse the sponge with the syrup, and assemble the cake from there.
make the sponge cake
Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C. Butter a 6″ cake pan and line the bottom with a 6″ parchment paper round.
Fill a small saucepan about an inch deep with water and set on the stove over medium heat. This is your double-boiler.
In a large, heat-proof bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, sugar, and lemon zest. Set the bowl on top of the sauce pan, making sure that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water or the bottom of the sauce pan. The water should be simmering, not boiling (despite the term “double-boiler”). If you see steam escaping from the sides or hear boiling, lower the temperature a little bit.
Gently cook the mixture, whisking occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. At first, the mixture will look grainy, like sugar combined with eggs, but once the sugar dissolves, you’ll see a thin foam on top and the mixture will turn darker yellow. It will look smooth, like eggs whisked up by themselves. This will only take about 5 minutes, and if you want to use a thermometer, then the mixture is ready when it reaches 110 – 120 F/43 – 49 C. The bowl and the mixture will feel warm to the touch.
Remove the bowl from the double-boiler and, using either a handheld electric mixer or the stand mixer, and the wire whip/whisk attachment, whip the foam on high until it increases drastically in volume and the bowl cools down completely. The foam will become significantly paler in color and will look a bit like lotion or meringue (but because of the yolks, it won’t act quite like meringue.) Your goal here is to get the foam to the ribboning stage: when you lift the whip/whisk out of the foam, it slowly falls back down and forms a ribbon on the surface of the mixture before disappearing back into the mixture.
You’ll also eventually see the foam stop increasing in volume. As you’re whipping, you’ll see little splatters around the sides of the bowl, above the surface of the foam, and when the whole mixture reaches that far up the side of the bowl, it’s done.
It’s important to whip the foam enough but it’s possible to overwhip. The ribboning will be the best indicator that you’re done.
Once the foam is done, measure out your flour into a small bowl. Using a fine-mesh sieve or a flour sifter (hand-crank is easier than squeeze), sift the flour onto the surface of the foam in 3-4 additions, folding it into the foam with a rubber spatula after each.
After all the flour is sifted and mostly folded into the batter, fold in the butter. The butter can be completely melted or just really, really soft. If it’s completely melted (the way I prefer to do), it’s more likely to pool at the bottom, but it’s easier to mix into the batter. If it’s solid but really soft, it’s less likely to fall to the bottom, but harder to fold into the batter.
You’ll notice pockets of flour throughout the batter and at the bottom of the bowl, and some of the butter may have pooled at the bottom, as well. Keep folding until all of the butter and most of the flour is well-incorporated.
If you’re using a stand mixer with the bowls that have a bump on the bottom, I find it easier to tilt the bowl sideways and fold the batter over itself horizontally, rather than trying to fold up from the bottom around the bump.
Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan. As you pour the batter into the pan, if you see any lumps of flour, just gently mix them back into the batter with your spatula (as Mary Berry does in the video.)
Bake the sponge for 25 – 35 minutes*, until tanned and foam-y to the touch. It should feel almost like a muffin: the center will spring back when lightly pressed down, and the sides of the cake will be pulling away from the sides of the pan.
*It’s very important, like with any other sponge (or anything with meringue), that you don’t open the oven too early! I learned this the hard way. Don’t start opening the oven to test the cake until at least 25 minutes into baking, when the cake starts getting some tan on the surface and pulling away from the sides of the pan. If you open the oven door before the cake sets, it’ll deflate in the center.
Remove the cake from the oven and let cool in its pan for about 5 minutes, then invert the cake onto a wire rack to finish cooling.
When the cake has cooled completely, slice it horizontally into 2 – 3 layers with a serrated knife. The cake should be tall enough to get 3 thin layers, each about 2/3 of an inch. Wrap each layer separately in plastic and keep refrigerated or frozen until ready to assemble.
make the syrup and infuse the cake
Honey simple syrup is just honey with some water. Because the honey itself is already a syrup, there’s no sugar to dissolve, so there’s no need for cooking. The goal is to make a syrup thin enough that it will soak into the sponge, but thick enough that it won’t run out of the sponge. I found that 5 parts honey to 1 part water was a good ratio for the consistency and flavor.
Whisk together the honey and water in a medium bowl.
Don’t pour the syrup onto the cake because it’ll soak in immediately and you won’t be able to brush it around. Use a pastry brush to gently brush the syrup onto one side of each layer (one of the cut sides; the syrup won’t soak through the top or bottom crust).
You can brush each layer as you assemble the cake or you can brush them all before assembling.
prepare the mascarpone
You’ll need to beat both the mascarpone and the whipping cream, but you’ll need to do it separately. You can use the same mixer attachment for both, or even the same bowl, but do the whipping cream first. If using one bowl for both components, transfer the whipped cream to a different container before doing the mascarpone. You don’t need to clean the beaters between whipping the cream and the mascarpone.
First, whip the cream. Cold cream whips up better than warm cream (this is the opposite of eggs: warm eggs whip up better than cold.) Whip the cream until it’s stiff and holds its shape. You should be able to tilt the bowl upside down and the whipped cream will stay. Like with eggs, it is possible to whip the cream too much: eventually, it turns into butter. The cream is done when it starts to look like it isn’t running anymore.
Next, combine the mascarpone, honey, and powdered sugar in another bowl, and beat the mixture until homogeneous and creamy.
Fold in the whipped cream the same way you folded together the cake batter. The mascarpone will be slightly off-white because of the honey and the whipped cream will be relatively pale, so you should be able to see two different colors at first, and you’ll see the colors mix together. Fold until there are no streaks of whipped cream left. This frosting should still be pretty stiff, like the whipped cream but unlike the cake batter.
Taste the frosting and adjust with more honey or sugar as needed. It should have a pretty noticeable honey flavor.
You’ll pipe about 1/3 of the frosting in between the layers and the rest will go on top of the cake.
assemble the cake
When you aren’t using the lemon curd or the mascarpone, keep them in the refrigerator. Additionally, keep the cake chilled when you aren’t in the process of assembling. Cakes and their components are easier to work with when they stay chilled.
You can assemble the cake using cake rings and acetate/parchment, or you can layer it without the extra support. If using a cake ring and parchment or acetate, make a strip wider than the depth of the cake ring (or taller than the cake will be), and set the parchment/acetate inside the cake ring, pressed up around the edges of the ring.
First, place your bottom layer. You won’t need to be spinning the cake around as you would a frosted butter cake, and the finished cake is light enough to pick up and transfer to a cake stand. The bottom cake layer will help hold the parchment/acetate vertically against the sides of the cake ring.
Infuse the bottom layer with the simple syrup.
Using a small piping bag and any tip that has a medium-wide opening, pipe about half of 1/3 of the mascarpone around the edge of the cake layer to form a ring of frosting. Spoon or pipe half of the lemon curd onto the cake inside the mascarpone ring. The frosting helps contain the lemon curd.
Chill the first filled layer (and all of the components except the simple syrup) for at least 15 minutes to let them rest before continuing.
Infuse the second layer of the cake, place it on top of the mascarpone and lemon curd, and repeat the filling process by piping the rest of the first 1/3 of the frosting and the rest of the curd on top of the second layer. At this point, you’re done piping the fillings, unless you want to pipe the frosting on top instead of spreading it*.
*If you do decide to pipe all of the frosting, instead of spreading the other 2/3 on top, I’d still recommend not filling the piping bag all at once. Fill the bag with about 1/3 of the frosting at a time, or else the filling and squeezing will overwork the frosting and it will start to run or break.
If you’re only using two layers, make sure you brush the honey syrup onto the cut side of each layer, not the crust side. You can place the top layer with the crust side up or down.
Chill the partially-assembled cake after finishing and filling the second layer, for at least 15 minutes to let everything rest.
Infuse and place the top layer of the cake onto the filled second layer. Spread the remaining 2/3 of the mascarpone frosting on top so that it covers almost the entire top surface. It should be thick enough that it won’t run down the sides.
Chill the entire cake until ready to serve, and right before serving, you can top the cake with extra honey, candied lemon peel, honeycomb candy, and/or real honeycomb.