PAN DI SPAGNA
Italian Sponge Cake
by Gina Depalma
As any student of pastry arts will tell you, the basic recipes that are the building blocks of great desserts often cross the boundaries of country and culture. A perfect example of this is the basic sponge cake. The French know it as Genoise and to the Italians, it is Pan di Spagna, or literally translated, the “bread of Spain.” A simple, airy cake, flavored with vanilla or citrus zest, (or in some cases, both), it is the basis for Sicilian Cassata, Zuccoto, Zuppa Inglese, and the ever-popular Tiramisu.
To understand the origin of Pan di Spagna is to learn of the historical connection between Italy and Spain, which dates back to the conquest of Spain by Rome during the rule of Julius Caesar. Throughout the Middle Ages, the tables were turned as the Spanish, along with the French, effectively carved out their own areas of dominance in the regions of what we now know as modern day Italy. For nearly half a century, Spanish monarchs subsequently ruled Naples, Sicily and Sardinia, known as The Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
Under Spanish rule, Southern Italy tumbled backwards. Overtaxed and exploited, the peasant classes were stricken with famine and disease while the Spanish treasury was filled with whatever could be stripped from the country’s agriculture and trade. Superstition and ignorance grew among the common people, a scar that has lasted even through modern times. Over the 500 years of Spanish dominance, Sicily perhaps retained the most of the Spanish flavor, evidenced in the Spanish influence upon the distinctive Sicilian Baroque architecture, the footprints of the Spanish language upon the Sicilian dialect, as well as culinary contributions such as Pan di Spagna.
Though the “Spanish sponge” may have entered Italy through Naples and Sicily, its presence has been noted in other regions of Italy for centuries. In the Courts of Bologna and Parma in Emilia-Romagna, the cake became a specialty of noble and convent kitchens. Parma long held a relationship with Spain which was further strengthened by the marriage of the Parmese Duchess Elisabetta Farnese to the Spanish King Philip V in 1714. During the 18th century, Spanish-influenced specialties such as Pan di Spagna became widely popular amongst the nobility and clergy of the more internationally-minded cities and centers of learning.
As with any sponge cake, Pan di Spagna’s delicate texture makes it the perfect recipient for liqueurs and flavored syrups, and when soaked, it can be layered with cream fillings and molded in to specific pans or shapes. Though it forms the base for many popular Italian cakes and desserts, Pan di Spagna can easily be enjoyed plain, sprinkled with a bit of confectioner’s sugar and savored with a glass of Vino Santo. It makes a wonderful and light breakfast when eaten with fruit preserves or fresh berries, and once it becomes stale, it can be cut into slices and toasted until crisp, almost in the manner of biscotti.
Over the past few years, I have stumbled across various recipes for Pan di Spagna. Some contain butter, some do not, though I must confess that for my palate, a bit of butter greatly increases the tender qualities of the cake. I have also found many recipes that utilize cornstarch or potato starch instead of or in addition to flour, but I find that cake flour makes for the most tender texture. As with any sponge cake, it is important to remember two important tips: The egg yolks and whites must be beaten to their full, voluminous potential, and the dry ingredients must be sifted and folded in quickly and efficiently, so as not to make the cake tough or rubbery. The following recipe for Pan di Spagna is my adaptation – an amalgam of my favorite versions. Purists beware: I have completely departed from tradition with the addition of a bit of baking powder for extra lightness.
Preheat the oven to 325°F degrees. Grease and flour a two nine inch round cake pans, or one 17 inch jelly-roll pan.
Sift the cake flour, baking powder and salt together into a small bowl and set aside. Place the egg yolks and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer and, using the whip attachment, beat until tripled in volume and light in color. Beat in the honey, melted butter, lemon juice and zest and vanilla extract.
In another bowl, beat the egg whites, 8 in total, with a pinch of salt until firm peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the dry ingredients into the egg yolk mixture, using a rubber spatula. Follow with ¼ of the egg whites, folding lightly and quickly. Alternate folding in the dry ingredients and egg whites – you will have three total additions of dry ingredients and 4 additions of whites, ending with the whites.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s) and bake in the center of the oven until the cakes are lightly golden brown and have begun to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 15 to 20 minutes.