Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Quest for Chinese Sponge Cake...

On Sunday night my parents invited my family over for homemade pizza (we make everything from scratch for pizza in our family) and, like usual, I made dessert.

Now that Bride and Groom 1.0's hot air balloon wedding has passed (they loved their cake by the way, so much so that Bride 1.0 kept one of the birds as a memento) and my son's 8th birthday party fast approaching, along with my Cupcake Hero entry, I decided that Sunday would be a great day to make a dessert just for my family and I. A dessert that had no ulterior motives, no weddings, no birthdays... Perhaps just to end the week on a sweet note. A week of immense heat, humidity, and second degree sugar burns. After Saturday night's Asian dinner success, I have been itching to try more Asian recipes. During Saturday night's dinner my father had mentioned that since I love baking so much, I should try and learn how to make Chinese Sponge Cake also known as Gai Don Go. Otherwise known as "Chinese Birthday Cake."

Chinese Sponge Cake is nothing more than a light, but slightly eggy, sponge cake with layers of whipped cream and fruit. It is light. It is sweet in the most understated manner. It is simple.
Chinese Sponge Cake aka "Chinese Birthday Cake"
It is delicious.

It apparently is also very difficult to find a recipe for. I cannot tell you how many searches, forums, and websites I had to go through even to find something that looked to be promising. One of the main problems is because most Chinese Sponge Cakes, or anything of the sponge or cake nature, in Chinese cooking tends to be steamed. This cake, however, is baked which made the search all the more difficult. Fear not though, for I have hope for all of you out there in search of the Holy Grail of Chinese cooking, for I have found one that is so close to the Chinese bakery style cake that my own Chinese father kept the half of the cake, and all the cupcakes, that I had brought over to end our meal. If that does not tell you it is great, I do not know what will. This recipe is Chinese father approved.

Cute China Doll
(Recipe adapted from Chocolate & Zucchini. Makes 36 cupcakes. Or 1-9x13 cake. Or like I did: 18 cupcakes and 1-9in cake. )

  • 1 cup plus 1 tbsp cake flour (if you do not have cake flour around, take a 1-cup measuring cup and put 2 tbsp of corn starch in the bottom, then fill the rest of the way with all purpose flour. It makes a good substitute)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 6 eggs, separated (room temperature)
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar (I added it to further stabilize the egg whites)
  • 1/4 tsp salt (She asks for a pinch, what is a pinch really?)
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3 cup oil
Preheat oven to 340F degrees.

  1. Prepare souffle cups, if making cupcakes, or ungreased aluminum cake pans. DO NOT use nonstick cake pans. However, if you only have nonstick cake pans, line the edges, just the edges, with aluminum foil. It will give the cake something to grip to which will help with the rising of the cakes. The rise of this cake is quite crucial.
  2. Sift the flour and baking powder together 3 times, or combine the flour and baking powder in a freezer bag, zip it shut with lots of air inside so it will form a balloon of sorts, and shake the bag vigorously to make the flour fluffy. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks, salt, vanilla extract, and 6 tablespoons of the sugar (reserve the rest for later). Whisk for several minutes, until the mixture turns pale yellow and thick ribbons fall from the whisk.
  4. Stir in the water and the oil, and whisk well between each addition. Fold in the flour mixture and whisk until well blended, but don't overmix.
  5. In another large, clean bowl, combine the egg whites, cream of tartar and reserved sugar, and beat with a clean whisk until stiff. You may use an electric whisk or a stand mixer with the whisk attachment; make sure neither the bowl nor the whisk have any trace of fat, or the eggs will not rise and cake will be of flat variety and not of sponge decent.
  6. Fold a third of the beaten egg whites into the batter and mix gently until blended. Fold in the rest of the egg whites, gently lifting the batter up and over the egg whites with a rubber spatula until just blended.
  7. Pour the batter into the prepared cups, or pans, to about 3/5 of their capacity. Bake until set and golden brown (about 20 minutes for cupcakes and 35-40 minutes for cakes).
  8. Invert the cups onto a cooling rack so the cakes will not collapse, and let cool completely.
  9. To unmold, run the blade of a knife around the inside of the cup to loosen, and shake gently until the cake falls out.
Once your cake is cooled, feel free to eat as is, which is absolutely yummy. Or do as I did and decorate with fruit and freshly whipped, slightly sweetened whipped cream. Just use whatever type fruit, or filling, you like. Be creative. Have fun with it.
Chinese Sponge Cake aka "Chinese Birthday Cake"
Happy Baking!


  1. Hi, thanks for sharing the secret, I've been looking over the internet for so long to find such "right" recipe.

    I tried it today and my cake came out in 2 parts : the top half was nice and fluffy, the bottom part was hard.

    I used a non-stick pan with parchement paper at the bottom and I lined the edge with aluminium foil. Also I used a mini-oven.

    I don't know what went wrong. Is the egg yolk batter supposed to be liquid after adding water and oil ? Shouldn't it be thick ?

    I really really want to get it. I believe I am not that far away from the "truth". Can you please give me some advice ? Thanks a lot !

  2. I'm sorry that your cake didn't quite turn out for you. Let's not see if I can help fix that...

    I suspect that the reason your cake was hard on the bottom was because either your egg yolks weren't incorporated all the way or you over mixed your flour component. If your egg yolk mixture wasn't incorporated entirely, it would be heavier than the egg whites and would sink to the bottom resulting in a hard rubbery base. I am only speculating, but that usually ends up being the case with hard-bottomed sponge cakes. Also, be sure to make sure you have checked the temperature of your oven, sometimes if it's not quite hot enough it will cause the sponge cake to kind of separate.

    And to try to answer your question about the egg yolk mixture...did you beat the egg yolks and sugar until really thick and pale? This can take several minutes. If you do it right, it will almost be the consistency of zabaione(thick, fluffy, custardy). After that point, you would mix in your water and oil until just incorporated, you don't want to deflate the mixture too much, but you want it well mixed. It won't be as thick as the egg yolk mixture alone, but it should be still somewhat thick and creamy.

    I hope that you find my advice helpful and that it may solve your problem. I would love for you to enjoy a lovely sponge cake as well.

    If you decide to try again, do let me know if this helped.

    Happy Baking!

  3. Thank you so much for the recipe! and you are right, it was hard to find! so im glad i've stumbled upon your page. i'm planning to bake this cake for my fiance's birthday this week so i hope it will turn out well like yours! just wondering, if my cake mixture will turn out well if i just beat everything by hand? since i dont often bake, so i dont have those machine thingys. please let me know when you get a chance. thanks a bunch!


  4. Annie - Thank you for checking out my page. To answer your question, I see nothing wrong with beating it all by hand. In fact, even though I have a mixer, I usually do most of my mixing by hand. A mixer just makes it go faster.

    Just be sure to beat the eggs until they are very stiff, if you only do them until they are soft and barely hold a peak, the cake will not rise as high. And use great care to fold everything in softly, but fully incorporated.

    I hope your cake for your fiance's birthday turns out well. Let me know how it goes.

    Happy Baking!

  5. Hi Samantha

    Thanks for your reply, I really appreciate it.

    I will try again tomorrow (I won't give up) but I would need to clarify a few things before :

    - About the egg yolks, I believe I beat it long enough to be pale and thick. The failure might come from the addition of water + oil. How am I suppose to mix them ? In what order ? Flour then water then oil ?
    - Are the egg whites supposed to be ready to be incorporated to the yolk batter ? Because I left aside the yolk batter to whisk the whites so I assume the baking powder had time to react with the wet ingredients which might be a reason for the failure.

    My main concern is more about the incorporation of water and oil. It seems so weird to me that after having a thick batter, you have to make it more liquid with water. Isn't it spoiling the whole work ?

    I've looked also at other recipes and some of them say to whisk together yolks and water and oil (not one by one), so I am confused. But I will stick to your recipe as I have made some progress with it and I am sure I will succeed eventually.

    I hope I am not bothering you too much with my questions :)

    Thanks a lot !

  6. It's not a problem whatsoever, as I would like you to have success with this recipe.

    As per the egg yolk mixture. You mix the oil and water into the egg yolk mixture before the addition of the flour mix. Then after the base of the batter (ie: the egg yolk mixture + water and oil+ flour mixture) is put together, then you whip the egg whites and fold them in. This will not only give the baking powder a little time to react to the wet ingredients, but also gives it a little more weight to hold up to folding in the egg whites minimally.

    I too have seen other recipes that have you mix them all together at once, but I notice that it usually doesn't give the yolks enough time to thicken with that method.

    So once again to clarify: egg yolks, salt, vanilla extract, and 6 tablespoons of the sugar first. Beat until thick and pale. Then mix in the oil and water at the same time. After the water and oil have been mixed into the egg mixture, then add the flour mixture. And after you've mixed in the flour mixture to the egg yolk/water/oil mixture,finally whip the egg whites, cream of tartar and reserved sugar until stiff. Fold this into the other mixture and put into pan and bake.

    I hope this fixes your problem. Do let me know how your second try goes.

  7. Hi Samantha,

    My second try was not so better : the cake is more homogeneous but on the overall it is not as fluffy as first time and didn't rise too well.

    I realized my cake pan is 7" and not 9", does it matter ?

    I really don't knoz what went wrong this time...


  8. Fabienne,

    I don't believe that having a 7" pan versus a 9" pan would really cause much of a change. If this second try was more homogeneous, we are on the right track I suppose.

    I have to ask, are you flipping the pan upside down to cool? If you don't invert the pan to cool, your cake will somewhat collapse as it cools. It is quite important to the cooling process. I find the easiest way to cool the cake upside down is to set four coffee mugs in the shape of my pan and rest it on them.

    I feel badly because this second attempt didn't yield the results that you had wanted and I can't think of many other ways to help address your problem.

    I am sorry I can't be more helpful.

  9. Samantha,

    Third attempt and I think I am definitely on the right path.

    First my egg whites did rise very well (contrary to the second try) and the yolk mix was quite thick.
    Second I used a 9" pan and didn't use parchment paper at the bottom, so when I flipped the pan upside down it didn't fall down because not sticking to the pan.

    The cake turned out not so bad but I'm sure I'm still missing something because the top is always burnt (I have a mini-oven so it's really low and maybe that's the reason why) and the center of the cake is kind of wet even after it's cooled (when I press on the sides, it flattens and then goes back to normal size but when I press down on center, it flattens and that's it, as if there was still water), so it is not as light as expected.

    Otherwise, I'm happy I'm making progress :)

    Thanks for your advice !


  10. Fabienne,

    I'm glad you're happier with this last attempt.

    I think that your mini oven might be the culprit of your cake browning a little too much on top and being still a little wet in the center. I have never cooked with a mini oven, but perhaps you could drop the temperature slightly and cook it a little longer.

    I don't know, but I'm glad each attempt is bringing you closer.

    Happy Baking!

  11. Hi Samantha!
    Thanks for your advice! and reading the convo between you and Fabienne should really help me as well on my first attempt! Since i dont have much time to do a trial & error, hope it turns out well the first time! I will definitely keep you posted!

    Thanks again for being so helpful!


  12. Samantha,

    I tried once again with a baking pan and one muffin cup, as a test, and I figure out that even though the cake didn't turn out so well (again), the cupcake however was absolutely perfect. It was so fluffy and it melted in my mouth. I'm so glad I thought of testing the cupcake size because it means I got it right and the only issue is my oven (I guess). Then I assume my oven doesn't allow me to bake such kind of cake (so delicate).

    The only alternative I think may work is to bake in a swiss roll pan (less thick) so it bakes faster and doesn't burn. then I can cut it in half to have 2 rectangular layers to make my cream cake.

    I won't give up (I'm so close to achieve my dream). I'll try again and let you know (yay, so so happy). Thank you so much for your advice and I really hope it will help Annie as well.


  13. Fabienne,

    I'm so glad you finally found a degree of success with your cake.

    I think a swiss roll pan might be your best bet with success for a cake considering your oven.

    Yes, do let me know how your next attempt goes.

    Happy Baking!

  14. Hi Samantha,

    Just wanted to let you know my cake turned out really well! i was very surprised and everybody thought it was pretty good considering my lack of baking. Thank you to your great recipe and all your advices! i followed them very carefully. =) The only complaint I have is beating everything by hand! it was very tiring and took a long time. i am definitely going to invest in a electric mixer next time!

    Thanks again!


  15. Hello Annie,

    I'm glad that your cake turned out well. Yes, I agree, mixing everything by hand can be quite the labor of love...hahaha.

    Perhaps your investment in an electric mixer and your increased courage to bake will bring you more baking success in the future :)

    Happy Baking!

  16. I'm excited to try this. I'll let you know how it goes! :)

  17. Hi Samantha,

    I TOTALLY agree...finding a recipe for this was super hard and I wish I found yours earlier!

    I also found a similar recipe using 6 eggs that worked well and have posted step-by-step pictures. Not sure if ours look similar but maybe your readers can use this as a frame of reference.


  18. Hi Samantha

    Could you please also post some frosting and icing recepies? I like the Chinese cakes very much. I like to make similar frosting like the Chinese cakes has which is light, soft, fluffy, light-sweet.

  19. Hi Samantha,

    I have no luck with this. The cake rise at the top nice like a sponge cake but as I cut into the cake the middle to the bottom didn't rise. Please help....

  20. Excellent recipe!
    I wanted to ask how did you make the icing for the cake, I tried beating the whipped cream but it never got thick enough to decorate the cake with.
    please help!

  21. Thank you so much, I've been looking all over for this recipe! I will definitely make it when I have time, I just have one little question:
    How did you make your whipped cream? Did you put gelatin in the whipped cream or not? Thanks again

  22. Another question i forgot to mention in the post above is:
    Does cream of tartar have to be used? Is it optional? What does it do to your cake?

  23. Hi! I'm a beginner at baking and used this recipe to bake my dad a birthday cake today...which turned out to be really good! So a big thanks to you!
    I've had many disastrous baking moments, so it was a really pleasant surprise that it turned out so good. Many compliments were received!

    Incase people want to know...I used three 7" pans to make three layers with cream & fruit in between each layer and topped the whole thing in cream (easily made by electronically whisking whipping cream, gelatin & icing sugar)

    Will probably be using this recipe again, so thanks again Samantha! =)

  24. Hello Samantha, I have been looking for this cake recipe for such a looong time. So excited that it might be the one. When I was younger, my dad would always get my birthday cakes from a bakery in Chinatown, London - with loads of fruits glazed on top and a chocolate plaque with my name and message! Loved it.

    One question - if I don't line the bottom of the pans, will the cakes come out easily??? Very worried about the cooling process.

  25. This was fantastic. Just the way I wanted it! Thank you so much!


  26. Great recipe. Finally made the perfect cake. Thanks for the tip about cooling upside down. Worked great.

  27. Question: If we use nonstick cake pans, does that change the amount of time it needs to bake? And do you have a recipe for the cream?


  28. What is the recipe for making the whip cream? Thanks

  29. My creation!!! (I took you literally on the ''get creative'')

    *is proud* .. I've never really made something so pretty... (well.. it looks pretty to me at least..)

  30. hi i tried your recepie today n it came so nice i was looking for this recepie for long time thanks for helping

  31. Can I use the all purpose flour to make this cake?

  32. Tried it for the first time, and it works wonderfully

  33. Is it possible to make this cake without eggs? I cannot eat eggs...

  34. Thank you very much for shaing this fabulous recipe. I just baked a birthday cake for my son tonight and it turned out perfect - light and spongy. Exactly the way I like it. My son who usually doesn't care for cakes, but really like this one. Next time, I will make a green tea cake with this recipe and will let you know how it turns out. You are awesome! Keep up the good work!

  35. Hi Samantha,

    I'm a relatively experience baker who is now venturing into the Chinese sponge cake. I like this kind of cake much more than the American ones because they are not as dry, and yet light and fluffy. My question for you is do you know how to make the cake texture super fine like the one we get from the stores? The air bubbles on those cakes are so small and the cakes are so soft. I have read through your threads and so far, found a lot of good advises already. Thanks you so much.

  36. hi Samantha,
    Thanks for sharing the recipe. When use the aluminum foil to line the cake pan, which side of the foil should face out for the cake to grip on? the shiny side or the non-shiny side?

  37. Hi Samantha
    I had always wanted to bake the Chinese sponge birthday cake & layer it with fruits n cream. Thank u for sharing . Just wondering did u use a tube pan or a normal 9 inch aliuminium pan. Do I invert it to cool as soon as it comes out of the oven. I had tried various recipe but they all turn out not fluffy & also collapse in the middle.