Really good Passover desserts can be difficult to come by. The one Passover dessert that has always brought me happiness and that I make and eat all year around is a Passover Sponge Cake. There are many sponge cake recipes out there, and I find them all to be similar. This recipe is an adaptation of my grandmother’s recipe, implementing some cake making techniques I picked up in culinary school. As I mention in my Mandel Bread recipe post (not for Passover!), my grandmother was a great baker! If you’re new to beating egg whites or have encountered issues doing so, I suggest you watch the video included here.
What is a Passover Sponge Cake?
During the Jewish holiday of Passover, we traditionally do not use flour in our baking and instead use ground matzah (and/or other ingredients) in its place. While we avoid eating leavened foods such as bread, we go to great lengths to make cakes that leaven naturally, such as sponge cakes. Go figure. My sarcasm aside, Time has a brief article on what Passover is about and why we do not eat leavened foods.
How is a Passover Sponge Cake Different from Other Sponge Cake?
Simply put, Passover Sponge Cake does not have flour in it. Sponge cake made during the rest of the year is generally made with all purpose flour or cake flour. In place of the flour, this recipe uses a combination of Passover cake meal and potato starch. Passover cake meal is nothing more than finely ground matzah. This cake, like most sponge cakes, relies solely on beaten egg whites for the cake to rise. In other words, it is mechanical leavening that occurs without the addition of a chemical leavener, such as baking powder or baking soda, and without the addition of an organic leavener such as yeast.
How to Make Passover Sponge Cake
While it may seem scary, Passover Sponge Cake is actually not difficult to make. The two best pieces of advice I can give is to have your ingredients all weighed out or measured before you begin mixing, and be sure to beat the egg whites properly. While I highly urge you to weigh the ingredients, if you are going to use measuring cups, be careful not to pack the dry ingredients in. Lightly spoon the dry ingredients into a measuring cup and use the back of a knife to smooth it down.
1. Separate the Eggs
Separating eggs can be tedious. I suggest doing this step first for two reasons. First, it is easier to separate eggs when they are cold. Take them out of the refrigerator and immediately start to separate them. Second, egg whites tend to obtain more volume when beaten at room temperature. By separating the eggs first, they can come to room temperature while you gather the rest of the ingredients.
Best Practices for Separating Eggs
When separating the eggs, you should have three bowls in front of you. Use the bowl from your electric mixer for the egg whites. And double check that the bowl is very clean, as well as the whisk attachment to your mixer. You want to avoid getting anything else in the bowl of egg whites or they might not whip up as they are supposed to.
Be sure to have another large mixing bowl for the egg yolks. And, most importantly, have a small bowl into which you crack each egg.
Use that small bowl to drain the egg whites into. Once the egg is separated, pour the egg yolk from the shell into its designated bowl, and empty the contents of the small bowl into the bowl of the electric mixer. Keep repeating until you have gone through all the eggs, one by one.
The reason for the small bowl is to make sure your large bowl of egg whites never gets contaminated if some shell falls in or the yolk decides to join the white when you are trying to separate them. If something goes wrong in the small bowl, just discard that egg (or save it for something else), clean out the bowl and dry it, and grab another egg in its place.
2. Sift the Dry Ingredients
Sifting the dry ingredients, which is just Passover cake meal and potato starch, helps to separate any clumps and to aerate them. Sponge cake is reliant on air at every step, so the more air you can incorporate into the batter, the better. If you are using table salt, you can sift that with the other ingredients. Whisk the mixture together a few times just to fully incorporate all the dry ingredients. If you are using a flaky sea salt (which is my preference), whisk it into the sifted cake meal and potato starch.
3. Zest the Lemon
Place half of the total amount of sugar (you can eye ball it) into a small mixing bowl. Add the zest of one lemon. Use your fingertips to press the zest into the sugar. This helps release the oils in the lemon, providing deeper flavor. (You could also do this step before cracking the eggs so that you just add the yolks to the lemon zest/sugar mixture.) Set this bowl aside. Juice the lemon and also set that aside. You’ll only need 1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice.
4. Start Beating the Egg Whites
Using the whisk attachment, turn the mixer on to a medium-high speed. I suggest a 6 or 7 on the KitchenAid. After a minute or two, the egg whites will start to become frothy. Once you can barely see any liquid in the middle, add 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice, and allow the whites to keep beating. The acid in the lemon juice will help the egg whites take on more air as it denatures the protein. Resist the urge to increase the speed on the mixer. While the process will certainly go faster on a higher speed, allowing the whites to beat slightly slower than at the highest speed allows the proteins to become stronger, which will help the structure of the cake.
5. Whisk the Egg Yolks and the Sugar
Whisk the egg yolks with the lemon zest/sugar mixture until it is light, pale and fluffy. I like doing this while the mixer works on the egg whites. You can certainly use a hand mixer for this, if you prefer. You can also do this step in your stand mixer before beating the egg whites, but be certain to clean and dry the mixer bowl and whisk attachment very well before putting the egg whites into the bowl. Once the mixture is thick and pale in color, whisk in the juices.
6. Add Sugar to the Egg Whites
Once the egg whites appear to be forming soft peaks, meaning they are no longer frothy and appear as a white liquid with little shape, slowly add the rest of the sugar. When I say slowly, I mean it. Just add a little at a time, let it whisk in, then add a drop more. Keep going until all the sugar is incorporated. The sugar also helps the proteins in the whites hold their shape, but you want to avoid adding too much at a time because their weight could destroy some of the air bubbles you just created.
Continue beating the whites until they hold stiff peaks. That means, when you turn the mixer off and hold up the whisk, what is on the whisk stays in tact and does not fall over. Also, as you remove the whisk from the egg whites, you feel the stiffness of the whites. If you the whites are close to stiff peaks, at this point you can turn the mixer up all the way for another minute or so until you reach stiff peaks. Yes, you may need to stop the mixer several times to check if stiff peaks are formed.
7. Make a Sacrifice
It sounds much more dramatic than it is. Take approximately one-quarter of the stiff egg whites and add it to the large bowl with the egg yolk mixture. Using a rubber spatula, fold the whites into the egg yolk mixture. You can even stir it a little to get it all combined. You are sacrificing a small portion of the whites to lighten up the egg yolk mixture. Once that is done, carefully pour the rest of the whites on top of the lightened up egg yolk mixture. By carefully, I mean that you should hold the bowl of the egg whites close to bowl of yolks so that the whites do not have far to fall. You want to treat the beaten egg whites with respect (unlike the sacrifice).
8. Marry the Ingredients
Sprinkle the dry ingredients on top of the egg whites. Again, using a rubber spatula, fold all the ingredients together, just until they are fully combined. For those of you familiar with that hysterical scene from Schitt’s Creek, do not be scared of folding! Folding ingredients is not stirring them. You are being much more gentle when folding.
Standing in front of your bowl, use your rubber spatula to make a line, working towards you, down the middle of the bowl. Be sure to allow the spatula to go to the bottom of the bowl. When you get close to the edge of the bowl closest to you, turn the spatula towards the left as you pull the spatula out of the bowl. Using your other hand, rotate the bowl approximately 45 degrees. Use the spatula to make another line down the middle of the bowl towards you, and repeat the process until all the ingredients are fully incorporated. Resist the urge to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Once the ingredients are mostly combined from folding, you can scrape down the sides and fold them into the rest of the batter.
Folding is so important here. If you were to stir the ingredients, you would deflate all the air bubbles you created in the egg whites. Folding also continues to aerate the batter.
9. Bake, Invert, Cool and Enjoy!
Bake the cake for at least an hour. I find that it takes approximately an hour and five minutes to an hour and ten minutes. The top should be nicely browned and the sides should look like they want to start to separate from the pan. Once you remove the cake from the oven, immediately invert it onto a heat proof surface. (I just fold up a kitchen towel.) Allow the cake to cool completely upside down. It may seem like it is cooled after one hour, but I would give it at least two hours. When you flip it back over, it may slightly deflate, and that’s ok. Use a knife to cut around the edges and the inside edge. It is best to use a spatula to lift the cake from the pan onto a serving platter.
Frequently Asked Questions About Making Passover Sponge Cake
What kind of cake pan is best for a Passover sponge cake?
Use a 10 inch diameter angel food cake pan. Be sure to buy an aluminum one and not a non-stick one. The cake should be able to stick to the pan so that, when you invert it to cool, it stays in the pan. I recommend this Wilton one or this Nordic Ware one
How should I store a Passover sponge cake?
If you make the cake in the evening, keep it inverted over night in the pan. Once the cake is cool and you remove the cake from the pan, leave the cake out at room temperature for a few hours to allow the top to harden slightly. The cake stays fresh in an airtight container for at least several days. It also freezes beautifully.
Passover Sponge Cake
- 9 large eggs
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced (reserve 1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of lemon juice)
- 250 grams sugar, divided (1¼ cups)
- 63 grams Passover cake meal (½ cup)
- 95 grams potato starch (½ cup)
- ¼ teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt
- 62 grams orange juice, at room temperature (¼ cup)
- Preheat oven to 325° F.
- Separate the eggs so that the egg whites are in the bowl of an electric mixer and the egg yolks are in a large, separate mixing bowl. Set both bowls aside.
- In a small bowl, combine half of the sugar with the lemon zest, using your fingertips to press zest into the sugar. Set aside.
- In a small mixing bowl, sift together the cake meal and the potato starch; whisk in the salt. (If using table salt, sift it with the rest of the dry ingredients.) Set aside.
- Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites on medium high speed (6 or 7 on a KitchenAid). Once they start to foam (barely any of the liquid is visible in the center), add 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice. Continue beating, and once the egg whites start to form soft peaks, slowly add the remaining sugar, just a little at a time and keep whisking until stiff peaks form. You may increase the mixer speed to the highest speed once the sugar is fully incorporated.
- While the mixer is beating the egg whites, add the lemon zested sugar to the yolks and whisk until pale and fluffy. (If you have a hand mixer, feel free to use it. Alternatively, you can whisk or beat the egg yolks with the lemon sugar with the mixer before beating the whites, but be sure to clean the mixing bowl and the beaters very carefully before beating the egg whites.) Whisk in 1 Tablespoon lemon juice and the orange juice.
- Once the whites have formed stiff peaks, fold in approximately ¼ of the stiff egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Once fully combined (no streaks remain), carefully add the rest of the egg whites to the bowl and then pour the dry ingredients over the egg whites. Fold just until the whites and dry ingredients are no longer visible.
- Spread into a 10-inch angel food cake pan, being careful not to overwork the batter to avoid deflating the aerated batter.
- Bake for 65-70 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean, the top is nicely browned, and the cake has just started to pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove from oven and invert, allowing cake to cool completely in inverted pan.
- Once fully cooled, use a knife to cut the cake around the edges to release it from the pan. Allow the top to harden slightly. Store the cake in an airtight container or plastic wrap. It will keep well at room temperature for least several days. It also freezes beautifully.
- If you prefer the top of the cake to have more of a crust, add only 50 grams (¼ cup) of the sugar to the egg whites. Add the remaining 200 grams (1 cup) with the zest and the egg yolks.
- This cake does create crumbs, but that's expected for Passover.