How to bake a sponge

MY GRANDMOTHERS WERE bakers of bread and of cakes. My mother and my aunts are bakers. I bake occasionally. This (mostly) matrilineal and intergenerational baking is one that holds the women of my family together. Many recipes have been shared over the years between my mother and her sisters and with her mother and mother-in-law. I have also slowly begun to write down my mother's recipes. She has homemade cookbooks filled with recipes cut from newspapers and magazines and many written in her own handwriting. I have one of my grandmother's manuscript recipe books – the recipes are written in my grandmother's handwriting as well as the script of my mother, the next door neighbour, friends and even my own twelve-year-old's printing, each letter separate and clear. In 2010 my Aunty Sylvie self-published a cookbook, A Lifetime of Cooking: Compiled with love by Sylvia Harris, for all her family to enjoy. It contained a number of her recipes, photos and memoir snapshots – a gift to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is a record of her daily life and tells stories that acknowledge women's work and women's writing. It was also a gift to her sisters, one of whom is my mother, Phyllis. My mother features prominently in the cookbook as a baker and a sister, in recipes and photos – they have shared a life of cooking together. Cooking is one of the strengths of the women in my family. It represents solidarity, the continuity of family across time and place.

My cooking apprenticeship began when I was four or five, maybe earlier. I watched my mother baking cakes and slices, but my earliest memories are of my paternal grandmother baking bread and Anzac biscuits. I sat on a stool or the bench and watched. At that age I was able to stir the flour with the bicarbonate soda and baking powder, an easy job. If a cake or slice was being made I would have been able to lick the bowl. As I got older I was able to break eggs into the mixture, sift the flour, cream the butter and sugar and add other more exotic ingredients depending on the cake or slice being made. My mother or grandmother would have been by my side throughout the exercise, guiding my hands, talking to me about the texture of the ingredients, describing what they should feel like and look like: 'the creamed butter and sugar should feel like breadcrumbs', 'beat the eggs until they are stiff and stick to the beaters'. This knowledge only comes from doing – knowledge and practice that philosopher Lisa Heldke calls 'thoughtful practice'. It is here where learning to read recipes, cooking and the interrelationship between the recipe and the cook 'merges the theoretical and the practical'. In this sense, Heldke suggests that foodmaking is a '"mentally manual" activity', or 'a "theoretically practical" activity'. Such thoughtful practice is implicit to my aunt, my mother and my grandmothers. It has also become implicit in my own foodmaking, although my own practice is perhaps better represented by Luce Giard's notion of 'anxious practice'.

In A Lifetime of Cooking my aunt pre-empts any feelings of inadequacy that her grandchildren or, in my case, her niece, might feel: she reassures, she tells of her own inadequacy when she first started cooking and also relates her own feelings of anxiety. This sharing of her own once anxious practice reminds us that women often fulfil their domestic role of cooking but are not always confident about their skills and practice. Many women experience a trial and error period, as did Aunty Sylvie, but it is not this earlier anxious practice that A Lifetime of Cooking is returning us to. Rather, it returns us to the recognition of women's skills: valued, learned and practised. In this way, A Lifetime of Cooking also exemplifies Heldke's concept of thoughtful practice.

I AM WRITING this at the kitchen table – a century-old pinewood stretcher table from Western Australia. The table came with me from Perth where, until 2009, I had lived. My mother and Aunty Sylvie have lived their lives in Perth and Gingin (a small country town about eighty kilometres north of Perth). The specific locality that my aunt lived in is called Beermullah, about fifteen kilometres out of Gingin (now she is ageing she lives in the township). My aunt moved to Beermullah from Perth when she married a farmer, Ron Harris. They had a lot in common – they had the same surname and the same birthday (although four years apart). He also came from a large family. My aunt is the eldest of seven children, my mother is the youngest sibling with a fourteen-year age difference between them. Aunty Sylvie and Uncle Ron married when my mother was six years old. There is family folklore that my mother once answered the front door of my grandmother's house and told Uncle Ron that her mother (my grandmother) didn't like him, and neither did she! He became my mother's favourite brother-in-law, and he was my favourite uncle. My mother spent a lot of time at my aunt's house on school holidays, often catching the bus from Perth when she was a teenager to visit and keep my aunt company. Later she would visit when she was on holidays from work. It was on one of these holidays at the age of nineteen that my mother met the local schoolteacher.

My aunt and uncle had two children, a son and daughter, whom my father taught at Beermullah School. It is because of the Beermullah School that my mother and father's lives intersected and as a result my brother and I came to be. My father was regularly invited to my aunt and uncle's house for Wednesday night dinner; this is how he met my mother. It could be said that cooking brought my mother and father together.

Or; How To Bake a Sponge

Mum's sponge:

Pre-heat oven to 170° C fan-forced (180° C normal) electric oven


4 extra large eggs (67 g) room temperature
¾ cup caster sugar
½ cup cornflour
½ cup custard powder
1 tsp cream of tartar
½ tsp carb. soda


1. Custard powder, cornflour, cream of tartar and carb soda – sift together 4 times.
2. Separate eggs. On high beat egg whites until firm.
3. Add caster sugar to egg whites and beat on high for 8 minutes.
4. During 8 minutes – grease pans and line bottom with baking paper. Dust around sides with cornflour.
5. Reduce speed to low (level 2 or 3); add egg yolks one at a time, until combined with sugar and egg whites. Beat for 3 minutes on low.
6. Remove mixture from beaters; add dry ingredients to mixture.
7. Use a metal spoon to mix flour into the mixture. Gently. When combined, beat fast, 50 times. (Make sure you count to 50).
8. Spread evenly into sandwich tins (8 inches; 20 cms). No air bubbles – if so, use metal spoon and tap on the outside of the tin to remove bubbles.
9. Put into oven for 20 minutes. DO NOT OPEN DOOR.
10. Cooked when cake begins to come away/shrink from sides. Can test with skewer after 20 minutes.
11. Take out; place on wire rack in tin.
12. After a few minutes, remove from tin, rest on wire rack, then turn over to make pattern (cross-hatch pattern from the wire rack).

To make up:

1 sponge – cut in middle; cream on one side, jam on the other. Join together.
2 sponges – layer cream and jam and then place together. Dust with icing sugar.

The recipe above has been handed down from Aunty Sylvie to my mother and now from my mother to me. The recipe in my aunt's cookbook, A Lifetime of Cooking, is slightly different. It is the second recipe in the book (after scones) and has all the same ingredients, with the addition of a teaspoon of vanilla essence and a pinch of salt. The method is substantially shorter, perhaps written for more experienced or confident cooks. Aunty Sylvie writes:

Beat the whites of eggs with salt on electric beater. When stiff add yolks and vanilla, beat till light and fluffy. Remove from beater and add sifted flour.
Fold in flour gradually to start with, then give a good hard whip. Turn into 2 greased and floured tins 8' x 2' high.
Cook on middle shelf of stove. Cook for 25 mins roughly in a moderate oven. Cooking time varies a little from 20 to 25 mins.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN the recipe giver and receiver assumes a certain level of knowledge. Heldke addresses this relationship in her 2008 article 'Recipes for Theory Making'. Specifically, she suggests:

when [I] receive a recipe, the more I know about the recipe giver, the better the position I'll be in to assess the relevance for me of their instructions. And, when I'm in the position of giving out recipes, the more I take into account my recipient, the more I attempt to give information that is sensitive to their level of experience, the better off my recipient will be.

It is clear from Aunty Sylvie's method that she has assumed knowledge on the part of the receivers of the recipe. This would not be a difficult recipe for my mum, my other aunts or cousins, or women of a similar age. However, the assumed knowledge of younger generations of Aunty Sylvie's great-grandchildren cannot be taken as a given. It is a more difficult recipe to follow than the one given to me by my mother, who knows that I am not so confident in my baking.

I asked my mother to give me her recipe in 2009, the week before I left Perth to live in Melbourne. We had a 'cooking lesson' before I wrote the recipe down. There are strict instructions about how to make the sponge, also particularly strict ways of doing indicated by the instructions in bold type in the recipe for 'Mum's sponge'. The cooking lesson involved my mother telling and showing me how to make the sponge, but importantly, me 'doing'. As with all good cooks she knew that I would only learn by doing, Heldke's thoughtful practice.

The idea of Heldke's 'thoughtful practice' is implicit in my mother's instructions to me, both in the 'doing and the writing/thinking'. It is typical of my mother that she would explain the method to me in such detail to assist me with the recipe – she knows I am a nervous baker. I need my mother's reassurance; the detailed instructions are her way of letting me know that she is in the kitchen with me watching over me after our separation. We learn to bake by slow apprenticeship. We watch, we learn to break eggs and to separate them, to sift flour, to cream butter and sugar, we stir, we learn to fold, we learn to beat, we learn to use the oven – and there is a difference between wood, gas and electric. Not all heat sources are the same, as Aunty Sylvie attests.

Cake recipes require practical and theoretical baking knowledge. The difference in method from my aunt's sponge cake recipe to the one given to me by my mother represents how different levels of such knowledge can be catered for. Susan Leonardi addresses such assumed knowledge in her groundbreaking 1989 article, 'Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster à la Riseholme and Key Lime Pie'. Leonardi's article established that recipes and cookbooks have epistemological and literary integrity and credibility. While discussing the introduction to The Joy of Cooking (1939), Leonardi suggests that the author, Irma Rombauer, assumes a certain level of cooking knowledge on the part of the reader. Leonardi describes this as 'recipe shorthand'. The sponge recipe my mother gave me does not use recipe shorthand – the method given to me is more precise and instructional. This is because my mother knows that I am not a confident baker. The story of the recipe then is not just how to cook a sponge, it is about the relationship between my mother and me; it is about continuing a tradition of sponge making in my family; and it is about the life history of my aunt and mother. A Lifetime of Cooking is the story of three generations of women with the fourth generation written in as the participatory audience who may or may not use the recipes and cookbook.

THE TELLING OF family history through food – in this case, a sponge cake – is what I am doing in this essay, as well as what Aunt Sylvie did in A Lifetime of Cooking. For me, the eating of sponge cake made by my mother or my aunt immediately transcends time and place and returns me to a comforting childhood and, now that I live in Melbourne, to the place of my family. In a broader sense, one could argue that knowing how to bake a sponge also admits one into an Australian women's cooking tradition.

The sponge has a long tradition in British and Australian cuisine; it connects the two. Barbara Santich in Looking for Flavour (Wakefield Press, 1996) discusses the British origins of sponge, its inclusion in Australia's first cookery book, The English and Australian Cookery Book by Edward Abbott (1864), and the adoption of the sponge as integral to Australian cuisine. 'One particular kind of cake became more Australian than the rest: the high and handsome sponge. Even higher on its cut-glass pedestal, it was the supreme symbol of the afternoon tea table.' Santich lists a variety of sponges from the 'blowaway sponge', the 'neverfail sponge' and the 'cornflour sponge' including many hints at how to make the perfect sponge: use 'duck eggs', use 'day-old eggs', 'make sure you sift the flour three times'. She suggests that 'sponge-making was elevated to an art form' and that rather than the ingredients and recipe it was actually the 'hands that made it that ensured success'. Hands have always been a part of sponge making success in my family. My aunt is said to have the 'lightest' hands in the family; my mother still insists that her sponges are not as 'light and fluffy' as Aunty Sylvie's.

A LIFETIME OF COOKING opens with a vignette of Aunty Sylvie's cooking life – it connects the mid-1940s, when she and Ron married, to the twenty-first century:

I have always liked cooking but it wasn't until after I was married that I really learned to cook (in a camp oven at first). My efforts weren't always a great success, but with patience and practice I learnt to master most things.
I made all my own bread by hand which wasn't quite so easy as it is today with bread makers. However, we never starved and there was generally something for a meal.
You can imagine my joy when I became the proud owner of a Metters No 2. wood stove. To cook in that wood stove was an absolute dream. No more ashes falling into whatever I was cooking, whenever I lifted the lid of the camp oven. Once I mastered the temperature of the stove it was a breeze…
I have loved cooking all my life and sharing food with family and friends…
To all my family, I hope you get some enjoyment from my gift to you. Happy cooking!

This vignette links back to Heldke's insistence that foodmaking is a thoughtful practice, but it also provides a glimpse into Aunty Sylvie's daily cooking activities, her love of cooking, the trial and error of early cooking attempts and the changes in cooking technology over the past sixty years.

The Metters wood stove transformed my aunt's cooking life. No longer did ash fall into her meals, and the ability to control the oven temperature, even if only through three measurements, 'cool', 'moderate' and 'hot', was a vast improvement on the relatively invariant temperature of the camp oven fire. She still practised the 'feel' method for determining oven temperature and this judgment is an exemplar for thoughtful practice. Through knowledge and practice of foodmaking, cooking temperatures can be determined. Cooking successfully on the wood-burning stove required knowledge, including the amount of wood necessary; how much air to admit or let out in the flues; and what cooking time was necessary for successful foodmaking. Because wood stoves were often inaccurate in temperature, the 'sense' of heat was how women gauged the 'correct' cooking temperature. Meg Luxton provides an example: 'If you wanted to cook muffins you stoked up the fire then stuck your hand in and started counting. If you got to eight before it got too hot to stand it, it was right for muffins. Bread was six and pies were ten'. My aunt and my grandmother used a similar method with their ovens. I have vivid childhood memories of watching my grandmother 'measure' the oven temperature.

MY REACTION TO the cookbook took me by surprise. When I first received the book I read it through tears. There are photos of my grandparents' house in East Fremantle, Western Australia, where I lived for a short time as a child, photos of my aunts and uncles, cousins and kitchens which elicited memories of a happy childhood filled with family and food. It is, as Jean Duruz suggests, a type of 'nostalgic remembering'. This is not remembrance commodified; in this case, it is remembrance of cooking, food and family, and perhaps also a type of myth-making within the family, especially of the skill of Aunty Sylvie as a baker. It is central to my mother's (and perhaps even my own) sense of self and her place within her family.

On a recent visit home to Perth I showed my mother Aunty Sylvie's cookbook. She had the same reaction as I did: wonderment and tears. The book is full of memories, more so for my mother than for me, or rather they are different memories. They are memories of her life as a young woman and the times she spent on the farm with her sister. She recalled the building of my aunt and uncle's fibro-cement and iron house in 1947 and 1948, before which they had lived in tents. My uncle built the house himself with only minor help from my maternal great-grandfather and great-uncle Bill. Her comment after reading the book was 'many happy times occurred in that house, many happy memories'. Importantly, she could date the photos and knew where they were taken, at whose wedding or birthday and at whose house.

The cookbook was designed as a memory keepsake. Aunty Sylvie hoped that the recipes would be used as they serve as a reminder of foods she liked to cook and that she had cooked for her children and grandchildren. In this sense the book creates a community – of family and friends. It is evident that my aunt included recipes given to her by my mother, such as Phyl's 'Rich Boiled Fruit Cake'. There are also two recipes from my grandmother, 'Apple Pie' and 'Grandma's cake'. My grandmother's apple pie was a family favourite. On close reading, A Lifetime of Cooking draws together four generations of women in my mother's family: my grandmother, my aunt and my mother, my cousin (my aunt's daughter) and myself.

THE SPONGE RECIPE is a carrier for telling a story about my aunt's life and, also, the stories of other women in my family. A Lifetime of Cooking shows clearly that recipes and cookbooks are much more than a set of instructions. As texts they evoke life histories, recall friends and family, illustrate that foodmaking is a thoughtful, although at times, anxious practice – and in this case, they also tell us how to bake a sponge, the icon which holds this story together.

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