Although hot milk cake recipes date back to the early 1900s, the sponge did not become popular until the 1930s. Bakers loved the cake for its ease and versatility and also because it was inexpensive to manufacture. When ingredients like eggs, dairy, and sugar were rationed during World War II, cooks turned to budget-friendly desserts like mayonnaise cake and hot milk sponge, allowing them to to cook with a skinny pantry. During wartime, powdered milk was an essential ingredient, and those with limited access to fresh dairy products often rehydrated powdered milk with water for their cakes. Readers wrote to newspapers for advice on how to best use powdered milkand food writers including Robertson shared hot milk sponge recipes that called for skim milk powder, which made the cake even more affordable.
Writer Jessie Johnson shared a hot milk sponge recipe in Pasadena Post in 1930 and described the cake as “foolproof” and “delightfully moist”. This sentiment was echoed by a columnist from The Times Herald in 1937, who remarked, “This hot milk cake deserves notice because it will serve so many purposes… It seems to be one of those ‘recipes that never fail’.”
The hot milk sponge is, indeed, reliable. Whisking the eggs until doubled in volume keeps the cake light and fluffy, and also gives the cake its height. Unlike sponge cake or mousseline, however, hot milk cake does not rely entirely on eggs for its structure. Baking powder provides extra security against potential collapse, making it a foolproof option for bakers who want a cake as light as mousseline but without the labor required of mousseline.
On the phone Zoë François, author of Zoë makes cakes, shared with me his love of the hot milk sponge. “It’s one of my favorite cakes,” she says. “I love its texture. I love its tenderness, its richness. Part of what makes the cake so tender is the fat content of whole milk and butter. Just like the reverse creaming method makes a cake more fluffy by coating the gluten-forming proteins in the flour with fat, I suspect that the fat from melted butter and milk – which are heated together – helps prevent excessive gluten development in a hot milk cake, and that the fat in liquid form more effectively and evenly coats the flour particles.Although Francois agrees that a buttery sponge cake has a deeper, richer flavor, she prefers to use oil in her hot milk cake, which gives a moister cake with a slightly looser crumb.
François uses hot milk sponge cake as a base for birthday cakes, and also uses it to make Boston cream pie and classic Victoria sponge cake. Most of the time, though, she likes to keep it minimal with just whipped cream and berries. Like François, I decided to keep it simple the night I made him a sponge cake with hot milk. Hungry for dessert, I couldn’t bear to wait for the cake to cool completely. I dusted the cake – still warm from the oven – with a little powdered sugar and used my hands to tear off a piece of the cake. Although icing and fruit would have been nice, there was no need for it. It was quite delicious on its own.
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