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Portuguese Sponge Cake (Pão de Ló)
45 minutes 25 minutes active, plus cooling
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Outside Lisbon, home cook Lourdes Varelia baked for us a classic Portuguese sponge cake called pão de ló. Its outward appearance was, to us, unusual—deeply browned, wrinkly and sunken, and the dessert was brought to the table in the parchment in which it was baked. And another surprise was in store: slicing revealed a layer of gooey, barely baked batter between the upper crust and the airy, golden-hued crumb. Sweet, eggy and tender, the unadorned cake was simple yet supremely satisfying. When attempting to re-create pão de ló at Milk Street, we turned to a recipe from “My Lisbon” by Nuno Mendes, who, in an uncommon twist, adds olive oil, giving the cake subtle fruity notes along with a little more richness. We adjusted ingredient amounts and added some baking powder as insurance for a lofty rise; we also modified the mixing method and the baking time and temperature. The cake is delicious with Mendes’ suggested garnishes—a drizzle of additional olive oil and a sprinkle of flaky sea salt—but it also is excellent with fresh berries and lightly sweetened whipped cream. Leftovers will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.
8 to 10
Don’t overbake the cake. The best way to test for doneness is to insert a toothpick 2 inches from the edge, not into the center of the cake; the toothpick should come out clean. The type of cake pan—dark-colored nonstick or conventional light-toned metal—affects how quickly the cake bakes, so the recipe includes two different baking times, one for dark pans and one for light. Don’t be alarmed if the cake sinks and shrinks dramatically and forms folds and creases as it cools; this is normal.
25 minutes active, plus cooling
grams (1 cup) cake flour
teaspoon baking powder
teaspoon table salt
large eggs, plus 4 large egg yolks
teaspoons vanilla extract
grams (1 cup) white sugar
cup extra-virgin olive oil
01Heat the oven to 375° with a rack in the middle position. Cut a 12- to 14-inch round of kitchen parchment. Mist a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray and line the pan with the parchment round, pushing the paper into the edge and against the sides of the pan, allowing it to form folds and pleats. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
02In a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the whole eggs, egg yolks and vanilla on medium until frothy, about 2 minutes. With the mixer running, gradually stream in the sugar. Increase to medium-high and beat until very thick, pale and tripled in volume, about 6 minutes.
03Reduce to medium-low and, with the mixer running, add the flour mixture 1 spoonful at a time, then slowly drizzle in the oil. Immediately stop the mixer (the oil will not be fully incorporated), detach the bowl and fold with a silicone spatula just until the batter is homogeneous; it will be light, airy and pourable.
04Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the cake is domed and well-browned, the center jiggles slightly when the pan is gently shaken and a toothpick inserted 2 inches in from the edge comes out clean, 22 to 25 minutes if using a dark-colored pan or 30 to 33 minutes if using a light-colored pan.
05Cool in the pan on a wire rack until barely warm, about 1 hour; the cake will deflate as it cools. If areas of the cake’s circumference stick to the sides of the pan, run a knife around the inside of the pan to loosen. Lift the cake out of the pan using the edges of the parchment or remove the sides of the springform pan. When ready to serve, carefully pull the parchment away from the sides of the cake, then cut into wedges.
I’ve made this cake twice now, and I am not seeing the custardy layer you describe. The first time, I figured I overcooked it. The second time, I took it out in 23 minutes. There was only a little custard just in the very center of the cake. What am I doing wrong? What else can I try to get this right? The taste is great, but I would like to have the custard layer.
The cake is easy to make and tastes really good. However, I don't know what kind of a pan I have. Its light inside and black outside. I baked it for 25 minutes. The toothpick came out clean from the edge but when I cut into it (when I was ready to serve) the center was not cooked (Yuck!). So that was disappointing. I should have put the toothpick in the center as well :(
The recipe specifies 'cake flour'; is this just all purpose flour or does it have cornstarch in it? The article in the magazine for this recipe says it's flour "spiked with baking powder".. but I can't find the ratio on the internet. Most of the info on cake flour is a combination of all purpose and cornstarch. I am so confused.
Hi Cindy -
The main difference between types of flour is in the gluten content. Flour can be made from high-protein wheats (“hard wheat”) or low-protein wheats (“soft wheat”). The more protein in the flour, the more gluten develops, which leads to more strength, volume, and elasticity in the final baked product. Cake flour—made from soft wheat—has the lowest protein content of all flours (7-9% protein). Since its gluten proteins are very weak, cake flour is often used to make soft, tender baked goods like cakes, pastries, or biscuits. A chlorination process further breaks down cake flour’s gluten, creating a flour that’s even more delicate. All-purpose flour is made from a mixture of hard and soft wheat and has a moderate protein content (10-13% protein), so it holds its shape without delivering the same density or level of gluten development as, say, bread flour. A widely-used substitute for cake flour is to remove 1/4 cup from 1 cup of all-purpose flour and replace it with cornstarch. But this is a substitute for cake flour, it's not actually cake flour.
In the article the author is simply saying that Lourdes Varelia used flour and baking powder to make the cake. In some parts of the world, bakers use self-rising flour that has baking powder already added to the flour. Since that isn't as widely available here, in our adaptation, we use cake flour and baking powder rather than self-rising flour.
The Milk Street Team
Made this cake today and it was delicious! Will definitely make again. I think I slightly over baked the cake by a minute or two yet still had a small custard layer. The picture for this cake makes it appear to have a crusty top layer. Mine didn’t form a nice top crust. Did I do something wrong?
Tried this recipe with GF flour - Better Batter brand -- turned out amazing. Had to watch carefully to get the cook time right. Our springform pan was red on the outside and white on the inside. Not sure if that is dark or light but we baked it for about 25-26 minutes and removed it exactly at the suggested color/consistency. Wonderful with a little powdered sugar and whipped cream topping. Will definitely make again.
As others have mentioned, the time was way off for me. I have a dark cake pan; the centre of the cake was raw even after 30 minutes. I use an oven thermometer, so I know the oven was exactly at 375F. It would be great if the Milk Street team could revisit this recipe to make it foolproof.
Hi Mariano -
When it comes to baking, there are many variables that can affect the final outcome. Temperature fluctuations in your oven, how many times you open the door, slight variations in pan size, how much or how little you beat the eggs, temperature of the batter - these can all affect the timing and results. This is why we not only provide approximate cooking times, but also visual clues in our recipes. In this recipe, the clues to look for would be: "bake until the cake is domed and well-browned, the center jiggles slightly when the pan is gently shaken and a toothpick inserted 2 inches in from the edge comes out clean."
The Milk Street Team
Saw this cake made on tv. Looks awesome but before trying it out I would really like the nutritional value of an individual serving. My husband has health issues that require low glycemic foods. Would be nice for all of your recipes. Thank you! Btw love the show.
Hi Ann -
We are so grateful for your support and are happy you are enjoying the show!
We understand that it's helpful to know the nutritional information for recipes. However, since we are not a health food magazine we do not have a nutritionist on staff to accurately calculate the nutritional details for all of our recipes. We have found that the computer programs that some publications use to calculate nutritional information are not very accurate, which is why we won't use and publish their results. That being said, for individuals, our best recommendation is to use a smartphone app or website into which you can enter ingredients to at least give you a general picture of the nutritional details of a dish. For reliable results, however, we would recommend consulting with a nutritionist or your doctor.
The Milk Street Team
This cake was amazing! SO easy to make with a stand mixer and it uses ingredients that are often in my pantry. The instructions are very clear (I attempted a similar recipe not long ago, but without the clarity of this one and it did not have good results). Definitely take it out of the oven sooner rather than later. We ate it with the traditional olive oil and sea salt and it was delicious. My children loved it; I had a piece two days later and it was even better. Highly recommend this recipe!