Valentine’s Day is coming up quickly, and with it couples all over will be looking for elegant desserts to serve after a romantic dinner. Cakes are always a classic option, and as you decide between chocolate-coated versus fruit-filled, you may notice that there are a plethora of options for the actual cake bases themselves: butter cakes, pound cakes, biscuit cakes, and more. For those looking for something light and airy versus buttery and dense, you’ll probably land on options that use either angel food cake or sponge cake. These cakes use many of the same ingredients, have similar consistencies, and slightly different flavors, which may make you wonder—what’s the difference between angel food cake and sponge cake?
If you’re confused about the differences, you’re probably not alone. Sponge and angel food cakes are similar in a lot of ways, and to the naked eye (and tongue), you’re going to notice that both are light and springy without a heavy dense flavor. This is because neither of them use butter in the recipe for moisture, flavor, texture, or body. Instead, the base is simply made with eggs, sugar, salt, and flour. So in some sense, angel food and sponge cakes are relatively more healthy for you than many other kinds of cake.
In addition, neither of these cakes use baking soda or baking powder as a leavening agent. Instead, eggs step in to do the work of helping the cakes rise and expand, and are a key reason they have their signature airy texture. Often cream of tartar is used to help the rising process, but some angel food cake purists will insist that it’s not necessary because perfectly whipped egg whites should provide all the leavening needed. Personally, I believe if you’re confident in your angel food cake baking ability, it’s really up to you. But if the recipe calls for cream of tartar, you’ll still get the flavor and texture you’re looking for.
While both cakes use eggs, the primary difference between angel food cake and sponge cake is which part of the eggs get used. Specifically, angel food cake only uses egg whites, while sponge cakes use both egg whites and yolks. In angel food cake, egg whites are whipped into soft peaks, using plenty of sugar, then folded in with the rest of the ingredients to make a fluffy batter. Sponge cake, on the other hand, whips the egg whites and yolks separately, then combines them together along with some salt and cream of tartar before adding to the remaining ingredients. Some sponge cake recipes don’t necessarily whip the whites, but it’s still important that they are separated and not just beaten as whole eggs. The addition of the yolks gives sponge cakes a slightly richer flavor than angel food cakes.
In addition, many angel food cake recipes call specifically for cake flour, while sponge cakes can more easily use all-purpose flour. Cake flour is a more finely milled, delicate, low-protein flour that won’t weigh down the egg whites and the texture of the cake overall. However, like the above note regarding cream of tartar, if you need to use all purpose, your cake will not be a failure.
Finally, angel food cakes do best when cooked in a tube pan. Tube pans are like Bundt pans, but without the fluted edges and with a detachable bottom. Because angel food cakes are so light and don’t use any leavening other than the egg whites and maybe cream of tartar, they’re in danger of collapsing on themselves while they cool. By using a tube pan, you can invert the cake on the center hole and remove the bottom to help it keep its shape.
So no matter which cake you decide to go with on Valentine’s Day—or any other day—you’ll find something light, delicious, and delectable! See below for some options on how to dress up and use your sponge or angel food cake creations.
One of the most classic ways to use sponge cake is the refreshing and relatively easy strawberry shortcake. Note that because of the texture and lack of butter for moisture, sponge cakes can be challenging to cut. This recipe recommends a serrated knife, but sometimes a knife dipped in hot water can also make cutting easier and less messy. Get our Strawberry Shortcakes recipe.
Among the many reasons why Twinkies are a guilty pleasure, the soft, spongy texture mixed with the creme is just a treat for the senses, even if it’s not a treat for the waistline. Make you own version of Twinkies with this super easy recipe. Get our Homemade Twinkies recipe.
This is a great example of how you can still make a light and fluffy angel food cake even with cream of tartar. The hint of orange takes this one over the top. Get our Orange Angel Food Cake with Strawberries recipe.
This layer cake is made with angel food cake that hasn’t been baked in a tube pan, which makes for beautiful presentation. To keep it from collapsing, each layer is baked in its own more shallow cake pan instead of a tube pan. Get our Angel Food Layer Cake recipe.
Don’t have a tube pan? Or even a few cake pans for the layer cake above? Try cupcakes! As mentioned, angel food and sponge cakes can be hard to cut to make into smaller individual desserts, so a great way around it is by making individual cupcakes. Because cupcakes are so small, there’s less risk of the finished cake collapsing on itself. Get our Angel Food Cupcakes recipe.
Sponge cakes are delicate and therefore really go well with delicate ingredients like whipped cream and fruit. But if you want to kick it up a notch in the flavor department, try this one. Walnuts in the batter and a flavorful caramel sauce makes this version taste more like a “real” cake, but without the heaviness of a thicker base. Get the Walnut Cake with Caramel Whipped Cream recipe.
Trifles are a great use for sponge cake: They’re easy to assemble, beautiful to display, and a cinch to dish out. This one uses a rich lemon curd, which is an excellent use for any egg yolks you may have sitting around from making all of those yolk-less angel food cakes. Get the Lemon Mousse Trifle recipe.