Pan di Spagna is a sponge cake, and therefore made with no fat.
It is very similar to a Genoise and to pasta margherita, and, despite the Spanish sounding name, it’s actually Italian.
It is used as the basis for many other desserts, including Cassata, Tiramisu, Zuccoto and Zuppa Inglese. Once cooked, it can absorb almost up to twice its weight in a flavourful liquid.
It relies for its leavening solely on well-beaten egg whites and yolks.
The dry ingredients have to be mixed together, and then combined carefully by folding with the beaten egg so as not to break down any of the air that you have managed to beat up.
Some recipes now sneak in butter, and a starch such as cornstarch or potato starch, and even baking powder.
It can be flavoured with vanilla and / or lemon zest. Another old version also contains grated chocolate; and a third, is less sweet, and contains chopped hazelnuts.
Pan di Spagna can be eaten plain, dusted with icing sugar, or split in half and layered with jam.
Stale Pan di Spagna can be toasted and buttered.
In pastry shops in Italy, Pan di Spagna is sold by weight.
Beat sugar with egg yolks until the yolk mixture becomes clear and triples in volume and reaches the ribbon stage. With an electric mixer, this could take 15 to 20 minutes.
Fold in the flour mixture carefully; fold in the beaten egg white carefully. Pour into a buttered, floured cake pan.
Bake in an oven around 300 F (150 C) for around 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the recipe.
Never open the oven while it’s cooking. A toothpick or wooden skewer should come out clean.
Some recommend that when the cake is done, turn the oven off and leave it in there for another ten minutes.
Let cake cool completely before using it as a base in other desserts.
Pan di Spagna freezes for up to 2 weeks, or wrap in plastic film, and store in the refrigerator and use within several days.
Spain ruled parts of Italy, mainly Naples, Sicily and Sardinia from about 1559 to 1713 (the influence began and ended at different times for different parts). It was the time when the Spanish Empire was the biggest one in the world. Consequently, Pan di Spagna may have been introduced by Spaniards entering Italy through these regions.
Or, perhaps it was carried to Italy in the 1400s by Jews expelled from Spain.
Pan di Spagna is not an ancient cake — it wouldn’t rise well with honey, only good white sugar.
Pan di Spagna means “bread of Spain.”