All the fuss we hear today about use of the health mavens' latest no-no — now, don't even say it — margarine — with its bad reputation for trans-fats got me thinking about what Jewish bakers used a mere generation or three ago.
They could use butter, but this often interfered with baking for special occasions, such as Shabbat or holidays, when meat was de rigueur. Then it dawned on me: Sponge cake was the standard Jewish dessert of choice, along with a glass of tea, of course.
For years, whenever you requested and received kosher food on an airline, you could be sure that you'd get a sponge-cake derivative for dessert: remember those jelly rolls?
Remember Bar Mitzvah kiddushes held after Sabbath-morning services? Along with the herring and shnappes, sponge cake would surely sit on the table.
This light, airy dessert — also known by the French term genoise — gets its ethereal texture from beaten egg whites, which are folded into a fluffy mixture of egg yolks and sugar. Sponge cakes do not contain shortening of any kind.
Most Passover cakes can be included in the sponge-cake category, since the use of any leavening agent (other than eggs) is prohibited.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the term "sponge cake" most likely came into use in the 18th century, though the Oxford English Dictionary has no reference earlier than a letter Jane Austen wrote in 1808 (she evidently liked sponge cakes).
Anyway, back to margarine. Where did it come from?
In 1869, Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés invented a substance that he called "oleomargarine," which became shortened to the trade name "margarine" (and, of course, we've all heard of the old product called "Oleo").
Today's margarines now refer generically to any of a range of broadly similar edible oils.
Manufacturers originally produced "oleomargarine" that was far from pareve: by taking clarified beef fat, extracting the liquid portion under pressure, and then allowing it to solidify. When combined with butyrins and water, it made a cheap and more or less palatable butter-substitute, soon occupying a substantial segment of the market.
This, however, did not make dairy farmers very happy. As early as 1877, the first American states had passed laws to restrict the sale and labeling of margarine. By the mid-1880s, the federal government had introduced a tax of two cents per pound, and devotees needed an expensive license to make or sell the product. More importantly, individual states began to require the clear labeling of margarine, banning passing it off as real butter.
The key to slowing margarine sales (and protecting the established dairy industries), however, emerged as restricting its color. Margarine naturally appears white or almost white: by forbidding the addition of artificial coloring-agents, legislators found that they could keep margarine off kitchen tables. Bans on coloration became commonplace around the world, and endured for almost 100 years. Growing up in Minnesota, I remember these margarine restrictions.
Then, the Great Depression brought a renewed wave of pro-dairy legislation; World War II, a swing back to margarine. Postwar, the consumer lobby gained power, and little by little, the main margarine restrictions were lifted, the last state to do so being Wisconsin in 1967. However, some vestiges of the legal restrictions remain in the United States: the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act still prohibits the retail sale of margarine in packages larger than one pound.
In the meantime, margarine manufacturers had made many changes. Modern margarine can be made from any of a wide variety of animal or vegetable fats, and is often mixed with skimmed milk, salt and emulsifiers.
How it stands today: "Traditional" margarines for such uses as spreading on toast contain a relatively high percentage of saturated fats, and are made from animal or vegetable oils. (Note: Check labels for kashrut issues.)
Conventional margarine contains a much higher proportion of so-called trans-fats than butter, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and the American Heart Association have all recommended that people to limit intake of trans-fat.
For this reason, margarine manufacturers have been reducing the amount of trans-fats in their products since the mid-90s. The last couple of years have seen the marketing of margarines high in mono- or poly-unsaturated fats, which are made from safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed or olive oil, said to be healthier than butter or other types of margarine.
So take your pick: margarine or butter. Or bake with oil — canola being the best. Or fall back on that old standard — sponge cake. Serve a plain vanilla sponge cake — dust it with powdered sugar, if you like — or branch out: Slice and fill with sweetened, nondairy whipped cream.
And remember the following hints: Sponge cakes are usually baked in tube pans, since the center tube helps the heat circulate during baking, and also supports the delicate structure of the cake. Do not grease the pan for sponge-cake batters. The ungreased pan lets the batter cling to the sides as it rises.
Many recipes say to invert your sponge cake baked in a tube pan onto a funnel or bottle immediately after removing it from the oven. To me, this is living dangerously. Try the recipe below to avoid taking any chances (no inversion). P.S: Never remove a sponge cake from the pan until it's completely cool!
1 cup, plus 2 Tbsps., sugar
1/4 cup cold water
1 tsp. lemon extract (or vanilla extract)
1 tsp. lemon zest
1 cup cake flour
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1/4 tsp. salt
Take eggs out of refrigerator, and carefully separate yolks and whites. Let whites sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, beat egg yolks until thick and lemon-colored, 3 to 5 minutes.
Gradually beat in 1 cup sugar. Add water, lemon extract and lemon zest. Beat in flour.
In another bowl, beat the egg whites for 45 seconds on high.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, cream of tartar and salt. Continue to beat until whites can hold a 2-inch peak, but are still moist. Fold this whipped mixture into yolk mixture.
Pour batter into an ungreased 9-inch tube pan.
Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour, or until top is golden-brown and cake springs back when pressed.
Cool in pan on a rack for an hour, and then remove.
Blueberry Jelly Roll
5 medium eggs, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup cake flour
1/2 cup blueberry jam
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Beat eggs, sugar and lemon juice until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add vanilla and blend in flour just till it disappears.
Spray a 15×1-inch jelly-roll pan with nonstick spray, then line with parchment baking paper. Pour in the batter and gently tap the pan to remove any bubbles.
Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until golden and the sides pull away from the pan.
Sprinkle paper towels with powdered sugar and turn the cake out onto them. Let cool.
Spread the cake with the jam, roll up, and sprinkle again with powdered sugar.
Slice and enjoy!
Rivka Tal is a food writer based in Jerusalem.