Pan di Spagna (Italian sponge base)

Chocolate Pand di Spagna

Pan di Spagna is the most popular sponge base in Italy, a success that is hardly surprising as it is very light in texture and neutral in flavour, so that it can be used pretty much with anything. Growing up in Italy, I’ve always known it, and when I saw the recipe for the first time I was surprised by the fact that no yeast is used. In fact, only three ingredients are needed, eggs, sugar and flour, and it is the correct manipulation of the ingredients that makes it rise and become so soft.
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Ingredients:

5 eggs
150g white sugar
150g plain flour (or, preferably, 75g flour and 75g cornstarch)
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The reason why this sponge works without yeast is due to a property of eggs, that have the capacity of incorporating air when whisked (this capacity is obvious also when making a meringue, that uses only the egg whites, for example).
Therefore, the eggs are whisked with the sugar until they reach the desired consistency (see below), and then the flour is incorporated, being careful that the volume of the mixture is reduced as little as possible. Imagine that like a structure with microscopic air bubbles, a bit like a sponge, but fluid: the heat, during baking, will make the air expand, thus making the cake raise; at the same time the heat will cook the eggs and the flour, making them hard enough to hold that shape.

See below the process. I suggest that you line the baking tray and sift the flour beforehand if you are using an electric hand whisk, whilst you can do it while whisking if using a planetary mixer:

  1. Preheat the oven at 180C
  2. Line a baking tray with baking parchment
  3. Sift the flour and starch together or (this is quicker) whisk them with a hand whisk (it will have the same effect as sifting)
  4. Using a planetary mixer or an electric whisk, work the eggs with the sugar until it forms ribbons. It takes 10 to 15 minutes, so quite a bit of work but it’s worth it. This step is very important and needs some considerations:
    – If using an electric hand whisk, work like a planetary would, moving it in a circle, it will be quicker
    -In Italian we say that the mix is ready when it ‘writes’, i.e., when you lift the whisk (after switching off!), the mix that falls leaves a trail on the surface

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

  5. When the mix ‘writes’, we are ready to incorporate the flour; this is a critical step, as you need to be fast and light handed at the same time. Some chefs even suggest that you use your hands but I think it’s way too messy and use a wooden spoon or -even better- a silicon spatula. Throw the flour/ cornstarch into the mix all at once and fold it in with quick upward strokes; the mix will lose some volume but your goal here is to keep as much volume as possible
  6. When all the flour has been incorporated, put the mix in the baking tray that has previously been lined, and bake without opening the oven for at least 20 minutes
  7. Cooking time can vary, but it is around 30 minutes; to check if it’s ready, insert a cocktail stick in the middle: the sponge is ready when it comes out clean
  8. Do not take out of the oven immediately or it will collapse: turn it off and let it cool down inside for at least 15 minutes

After that the base is normally sliced and used for assembling a cake

VARIATIONS:

LEMON:
The good thing of pan di Spagna is its neutral flavour that makes it suitable for virtually any type of cream; however, someone (me included to be honest) might find it boring: to add a bit of freshness, add the filtered juice of half lemon to the eggs and sugar before you start whisking.
IMPORTANT: add it before you start whisking, if you add it at the end it will ruin it!

CHOCOLATE:
Depending on what you are using it for, a chocolate pan di Spagna will be more suitable than a plain one: simply mix 50g of cocoa powder with 50g of flour and 50g of corn starch (some recipes say 75g of cocoa with 75g of flour/corn starch, but I tried and the proportion I gave you works better for me)