Melting, rubbing in, whisking... sponge can start life in many guises. Here is the secret to making a basic fluffy sponge without reaching for a packet
For many of us, "creamed" cakes are where our cakey careers start; beating butter and sugar together, adding eggs, then folding in flour to make a simple sponge. There are shortcut recipes, but this technique is worth mastering, as once you've got the knack there are endless variations.
Get everything ready
Always heat the oven first, making sure there is a shelf ready in the middle, and line or prepare the tins before you start mixing. Raising agents in batter get to work quickly, so a cake sat on the side for too long can have big holes and a poor rise. The temperature of the ingredients is vital too. Eggs must be at room temperature and butter soft, without being greasy.
Creaming simply means beating butter with sugar until light and fluffy, trapping tiny air bubbles. The air bubbles you're adding, plus the CO2 released by raising agents, will expand as they heat up, and the cake will rise. A wooden spoon and elbow grease will do the job, but an electric mixer is your best bet. Pick a good deep bowl and scrape the mix from the sides of the bowl a few times as you beat.
Go slowly with the eggs
Beating eggs into the butter and sugar mix will trap even more air, but it's vital to take your time to prevent a split (and less fluffy) mix. Pour 1-2 tbsp of beaten egg on to the creamed mix, beat with the electric mixer until completely incorporated, then repeat. When all the egg has been added, the mix should be very light and fluffy. If it starts to look slimy, beat in 1 tbsp of the weighed flour and it will recover.
Folding in the flour
Pick a large metal spoon or thin rubber spatula for this bit, as a wooden spoon will crush your carefully crafted bubbles. Whatever the recipe, I always first mix the flour with any salt and raising agents, cocoa, etc in a bowl, then sift this over the batter. Using a figure-of-eight motion, cut and turn the flour through the batter until even. Take care not to stir or overwork it, or your cake will become tough.
Before it goes into the tin
Dry cakes often contain too little liquid, which is where the term "soft dropping consistency" comes in. Ideally, a spoonful of batter should drop easily into the bowl when given a gentle shake. To get there, recipes often call for a little milk to be folded in after the flour. If there's a lot of liquid to be added, sometimes the flour and liquid are folded in alternately, to prevent splitting.
Carefully spoon the batter into the tin and level the top. Some people use scales to split the batter accurately between the tins, but counting dollops works for me. Take care not to let too much heat out as you put the cake into the oven.
Is it cooked?
Sunken cakes are normally under-baked. If you need to move a cake to get an even colour, then wait until it is risen and set all over, normally two-thirds through the cooking time. Work fast to conserve oven heat.
When ready, a skewer or cocktail stick (or a strand of spaghetti if you're stuck) inserted into the middle of the cake will come out dry, or just slightly oily with a few crumbs.
Uncooked mix? Test again in 5 minutes' time. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then transfer your fluffy cake to a rack to cool.
Jane Hornby is the author of Fresh and Easy: What to Cook and How to Cook It (RRP £29.95).To order a copy for £23.96 plus free p&p, visit theguardian.com/bookshop
Put into practice: orange cake with ginger cream cheese frosting
Makes one, three-layer 27cm cake (serves 10-12)
375g soft butter, plus extra to grease the tin
375g caster sugar
6 eggs, beaten in a jug
375g self-raising flour, plus a little extra for the tin
3 tsp baking powder
The juice of 1 orange, and zest of 3
3 tsp vanilla extract
For the icing
500g cream cheese at room temperature
200g icing sugar
1 tsp ground ginger
Candied orange slices, to decorate
1 For the cake: heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Grease three tins, add a little flour and shake it around the tins to cover the butter in an even layer. Tap out the excess.
2 Cream the butter and sugar together for a few minutes until light and fluffy, regularly scraping down the sides of the bowl if you are using a mixer. Gradually add the eggs to the mix little by little, beating well after each addition, until well incorporated. Your mixture should be pale and cloud-like.
3 In a separate bowl, sift the flour and baking powder together, then fold into the buttermixture with a large metal spoon.
4 Mix the orange juice and zest into the milk with 2 tsp vanilla extract, then gently incorporate into the mix a little at a time. The mixture should now nowbe at the soft-dropping stage and fall easily from the spoon.
5 Divide the batter evenly between the tins and smooth the tops. Bake for 20 minutes on the middle shelf, then remove and allow to cool before turning eachout and cooling fully on a wire rack.
6 Beat the cream cheese, icing sugar and ground ginger together until light andfluffy, then use to sandwich the three cakes together. Top with candied orange slices, if you like.
Adapted from Brighton Bakes by Jessica Haggerty (Book Guild)
Photo: Great result every time: a proper fluffy sponge cake. Photograph: Tamin Jones for the Guardian