In a letter Sylvia Plath wrote to her sister-in-law Olwyn Hughes from May 1959, she included a recipe for her heavenly sponge cake. Plath recommends making the cake in a funneled high cake pan, which my wife tells me is like a angel food cake pan (also known as a tube pan. If you are a fan of a certain Plath scholar you can use a bundt pan and achieve ... wait for it ... Bundt-zen! Sorry.). Plath even includes a drawing of the pan in the left margin of her typed letter.
Being wholly culinarily uncoordinated, I begged (it was not pretty) my wife to try the recipe out.
The ingredients you will need are:
6 separated eggs;
1½ cups sifted sugar;
1½ cups cake flour;
1½ teaspoons baking powder;
¼ teaspoon salt;
6 tablespoons water;
½ teaspoon lemon extract; and
1 teaspoon vanilla.
And maybe a new exercise regime!
Plath includes pretty detailed instructions for making the cake. Not being able to quote them I will paraphrase…
Beat egg yolks together until they are lemon-colored adding sugar as you go;
Add water and the flavorings;
Beat while adding the cake flour;
Beat egg whites to a froth (can you just imagine the joy this gave Plath?);
Add in the baking powder and salt to the frothed egg whites;
Continue beating until very firm;
Fold this gently and thoroughly into the egg yolk stuff;
Add in granulated sugar over the top before placing in oven;
Oven should be at 325° and it bakes for one hour;
Wait until the cake pan is cold before removing.
Plath instructs her sister-in-law to sift the sugar; but granulated sugar does not need sifting. We did sift the cake flour ("Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus, / Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.") and feel that Plath may have put the sift part in the wrong place… Who knows, it might have been an act of unconscious, devilish cake sabotage? And, we cheated, using our pink mod cons rather than doing stuff by hand... She ends the letter wishing Olwyn some happy times with her eating. This letter is held by the British Library in the Olwyn Hughes Correspondence: ADD Ms 88948/1/1.
This is not a cake for everyone. If you are vegan, this recipe by Charlotte White from the Food Network UK might help you if you want to try it without eggs.
The cake turned out nicely, very light (though heavier and more dense than angel food cake) with a scrumptiously crispy sugary top and a nice flavor of lemon throughout, which surprised us as there is really so little in there. We recommend cutting large portions and serving with a hot beverage (tea or mocha, perhaps) and your favorite book by or about Sylvia Plath.
Here are some pictures!
|Whipping the eggs|
|Sifting the cake flour|
|Ready to fold|
|Folded & sugared|
|Done baking - mmmmm - & cookies, too!|
I do not wonder why
I have gained weight
|Close-up & personal|
|I see you looking while I was "quiet at my cooking"...|
(and shameless self-promotion)
Plath made various sponge cakes in her time: some lemon, some orange, and likely some other. She made a sponge cake several times in North Tawton. One time she made it for the Tyrer's, but she ended up serving it to Rose Key over tea as the Tyrer's did not show up. She called it her "big fancy sponge cake made with 6 eggs" (Journals 665). Rose Key (wisely) praised it. The journal entry is undated, but it might have been circa 3 February 1962 as the words "cake -- sponge" appear in her 1962 Lett's calendar (housed at Smith College). In a 7 February 1962 letter to her mother, Plath writes about making Aunt Dotty's 6-egg sponge that week. She later made a sponge cake on 21 April 1962 (also on her Letts calendar, and two days after she wrote "Elm"). This time she served it to Marjorie and Nicola Tyrer and was told how Nicola's underwear had been caught in their charwoman's hoover. And on that note...
If you have not already, please read David Trinidad's wonderful poem "The Sylvia Plath Cake Cookbook".
All links accessed 16 January 2014.