Say ‘Benvenuto Estate’ (Hello Summer) with my Pan di Spagna or Spiced Elderflower Italian Sponge Cake!
I was driving home from work a couple of days ago and I saw these gorgeous white flowers. I’m no botanist, but I know elderflowers when I see them. They were everywhere. Huge snow white blooms all along the roadside for kilometres. I had to pick them. Well, I had to go back to the office and convince Giulio to come with me to pick them because it was definitely a two man job.
Tuscans love to forage. In other times of the year, we have to beat the crowds to gather the mushrooms and wild asparagus that grow in our local macchia or scrublands. We live in the countryside, so we’re surrounded by endless stretches of vibrant green forests hiding plenty of goodies. I translated a forager’s guide to the area a couple of years back and I couldn’t believe how many herbs, fruits and vegetables grow wild in my corner of Southern Tuscany.
But no one was picking these elderflowers. When I saw them, I immediately thought of elderflower cordial. This bright lemony syrup is all the rage in Northern Italy, where you can find it in any supermarket, but the trend hasn’t caught on with the Tuscans. A quick google confirmed that I could make it at home, as long as I picked the blooms in the early morning and brewed them up straight after so as to capture their delicate flavour!
Oh the looks we got! It’s a small town, so we definitely knew the people who were slowing down to stare at us as we picked the flowers. Giulio almost died, he was so embarrassed and kicked up the biggest fuss when I started taking pictures.
I picked so many elderflowers that I made three litres of cordial. I seeped the leftover bunches in some vodka I had lying around the house, but I’m less convinced that will work – we’ll see in a month’s time.
The elderflower cordial was delicious though. For roughly 10 minutes work, two kilos of sugar and the newly gleaned knowledge that Giulio is allergic to elderflowers, I had the most aromatic cordial. It tastes like spring sunshine, lemons and flowers.
I can’t wait to mix it with sparkling water or sparkling wine for summer cocktails.
Today’s recipe is entirely inspired my foraging expedition and summer flavours to come. Obviously you don’t have to DIY your own elderflower syrup to make this. You can plenty of really good elderflower cordials at the supermarket, just look for one that’s not make from elderflower flavourings or concentrate. The ones made from actual flowers are a bit pricey, but they’re worth it.
Pan di Spagna literally means Italian sponge cake. The recipe is my parents-in-law’s. They would make 100s of these light and fluffy cakes in their tiny Tuscan bakery for birthdays, communions and the odd wedding. Giulio’s grandmother was said to be the pan di spagna master. She would sit in one corner of the kitchen and yell at her husband to bring her the ingredients, never budging as she baked.
Italians like their cakes simple and their flavours authentic. They’d never go in for something covered in fondant icing or buttercream. Just real cream and fresh fruit thank you.
Funnily this cake is very similar to the recent royal wedding cake and I’d like to pretend I was inspired, but it was a complete coincidence. I had so much elderflower syrup that I was looking for ways to turn it into delicious edibles.
An Italian sponge cake is a bit different from your usual sponge cake. It uses more eggs, but they have to be extremely fresh. They’re the main leavening agent, giving you a baked cake that is so soft and spongey, it makes a squishy sound when you press it.
This isn’t an ordinary Italian sponge cake though. I’ve spiced it with cinnamon and cloves, which sounds a little strange, but they complement the brightness of the elderflower, lemons and fresh strawberries, adding a warmth and a rich undertone, which I really like.
When making your Italian sponge cake, be very careful at the fold-in stage. I have ruined more than my fair share of sponge cakes. If you over mix, your cake won’t be light and fluffy, but if you under mix, you’ll find a huge lump of flour and/or butter at the bottom of your mixing bowl. I know that this isn’t much help. The best guide is to be a little rough as you fold. Make sure you really get to the bottom of the mixing bowl and push everything upwards as you fold. Scrape around the edges and cut through the middle to combine everything.
Despite my unwelcome warning, this is a very easy cake to make. You can whip it up in 10 minutes, just remember to use two baking pans. It makes assembling the cake so much easier.
And soak, soak, soak. This is an old school tip from my father-in-law. Italian sponge cakes are always better the day after when they’ve had a little time to soak up the flavours of the filling. I brush mine with elderflower syrup and leave it soak for 10 minutes while I prepare the strawberries and cream. Don’t worry, the sponge doesn’t turn soggy. It absorb all that lovely flavour and is beautifully moist rather than dry.
You can fill your spiced Italian sponge cake with whatever fruit you have on hand. I picked my strawberries from the garden. They were all these lovely odd shapes, which I really liked.
I think blackberries or raspberries would be lovely too. As would thinly sliced peaches, which is a favourite in Italian desserts. Finish with a dusting of icing sugar as is custom over here and you have a gorgeous tea cake to herald the start of summer! Finally!
Spiced Elderflower Italian Sponge Cake (Pan di Spagna)
1/2 caster sugar
2/3 plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger powder
zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
50g butter, melted
250ml single pouring cream, whipped
fresh strawberries, quartered
1/2 cup elderflower syrup
icing sugar, for dusting
Preheat your oven to 180°C
Beat the eggs and sugar in an electric mixer on high for 10 minutes. The eggs should triple in volume and turn a lovely light cream colour. The sugar should be completely dissolved.
In another small bowl, sift the flour, spices and baking powder three times.
Gently fold half of the flour into the beaten eggs. Add the remaining flour and melted butter and fold until combined.
Pour the batter into two 18cm-round baking tins that have been greased and lined with baking paper. Bake for 10 minutes or until the cakes are a light brown colour and cooked all the way through.
Cool for 10 minutes, then flip the cakes on a wire rack and cool completely.
Brush both layers generously with elderflower syrup. Leave to soak for 10 minutes, while you chop the strawberries and whip the cream.
Soak the strawberries in the remaining elderflower syrup for at least 15 minutes or until the syrup turns a lovely shade of pink.
Spread the cream over one layer, top with the strawberries and the second layer. Dust with icing sugar and decorate with any leftover strawberries. Serves 6-8.