Livin’ On Sponge Cake

Three delicious birthday cakes that are sure to please - plus one that’ll guarantee some laughs - A People & Food Online exclusive.

Our friend Ginger was turning 70-something, so my husband, Carl, and I decided to throw a cruisers’ potluck birthday party for her at Mario’s Marina on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce.

Carl and I met Doug and Ginger Wilson in 1994 when we arrived in Guatemala aboard Camryka for the first time. Since then, we’ve been delighted to see them every year that we’ve returned to “The River That Swallows Gringos.” They have a ferrocement boat, Sakoose II, which they built themselves in Canada and sailed mostly in the waters of Belize. Over the years, especially as Ginger’s health has declined, Mario’s Marina has become home for them. “Got theater to watch right here,” Ginger confides. Mario’s has made them a little apartment, right smack at the heart of the whole complex; Ginger and Doug have dubbed it The Cabana. Cruisers parade by The Cabana, stop in, chat awhile, and leave uplifted by having witnessed a marriage where love shines like new money.

Ginger’s quick wit is notorious on the Rio Dulce, and nothing of any significance passes her without a wisecrack from her. She loves a good practical joke. Hatching a plan, I volunteered to make the birthday cake — sponge cake.

For Ginger’s birthday party, 25 or so cruisers gathered by the marina’s pool. The grill was hot and ready, the tables loaded with everyone’s prime potluck concoctions. We drank to Ginger’s good health and wished her many, many more birthdays. We pigged out, as only hordes of locusts or cruisers at potlucks can do. Then it was time for the cake.

It was a beautiful cake -- a full four inches tall, 10 inches across, fluffy white icing, and a garnish of fresh red hibiscus blossoms centered amongst tall skinny candles all aglow. Another cruiser contributed a candle that played “Happy Birthday” and the crowd’s out-of-tune-but-enthusiastic singing soared to the tops of the marina’s palm trees. Ginger grinned from ear to ear, took an enormous breath, and puffed the candles out. We all cheered and someone handed the birthday girl a knife.

The knife sunk through frosting, then — boing! -- bounced. Ginger’s eyes darted my way and she made the slightest little twitch of a smile when she saw me watching her. She knew I was up to something, but gamely she tried again. BOING! She nodded to her audience, then squared her shoulders and tried again. Curious cruisers leaned in a little closer, collectively holding their breath, willing the knife to cut through the cake. Ginger wore a look of slight consternation, and I could see her thinking, “If I get this damn thing cut, do I really have to EAT it?”

After one more heroic effort, she gave up. “Mary, I don’t want to hurt your feelings¿” she began, looking me in the eye. Seeing my lips twitch, her eyes twinkled and she burst into laughter — she knew then she’d been had! As the crowd joined in, I produced the real birthday cake — a hoppin’ good pineapple-carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. She had no trouble at all cutting this one!

Pineapple-Carrot Cake*

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups carrots, grated
8 ounces pineapple, drained and chopped
3 1/2 ounces dried coconut, grated
1 cup pecans, chopped

In a small bowl, stir together flour, soda, salt, and cinnamon. Beat eggs, sugar, oil, buttermilk, and vanilla at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Fold in carrots, pineapple, coconut, and pecans. Pour batter into a greased and floured 9-inch x 13-inch baking pan. Bake at 350° F for 30 to 35 minutes or until a knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on rack for 10 minutes then remove from pan and continue to cool on rack.

Cream Cheese Frosting

3/4 cup butter or margarine, softened
11 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with electric mixer until creamy. Add vanilla and mix well. Gradually add powdered sugar until mixture reaches spreading consistency. Spread on top and sides of cooled cake. Decorate with live flower blossoms and candles.

(*Adapted from a recipe by Kimber Leggettt in Buen Provecho, Rio Dulce Cookbook by Mary Heckrotte.)

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It’s been more than a year since I made Ginger’s “sponge” cake, and she’s still talking and laughing about it. This year, all of us gathered again at the Rio Dulce, for Doug’s 80-something birthday. Ginger asked me to make his cake. Of course I couldn’t do another “sponge” cake, and I didn’t have any more tricks up my sleeve -- so I made this mouthwatering local favorite instead.

Guatemalan Tres Leches (Three Milk) Leches Cake*

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
6 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 cups sugar
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
12 ounces evaporated milk
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
Whipped topping (see recipe below)
Sliced fresh strawberries (optional)

Sift together flour and baking powder. With electric mixer on high, beat egg whites and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Gradually add sugar, then egg yolks one at a time. Turn mixer power to medium and gradually add flour mixture, then milk. Mix well. Pour batter into a greased baking pan. Bake at 350° F until springy on top and knife inserted in center comes out clean. Let cake cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes then poke holes in cake with a toothpick at one-inch intervals. Leave cake in pan.

Stir together evaporated milk, heavy cream, and sweetened condensed milk. Pour over cake, making sure to get mixture down sides of cake into pan. Cover and chill at least one hour or overnight.

Whipped Topping:

This cake is normally topped and served in its baking pan. It can, however, be removed to a cake platter when cooled for more elaborate decorating. Lay platter on top of baking pan and then invert, carefully easing the container from the cake using a spatula if needed. Spread top and sides of cake with store-bought whipped cream, or make your own topping by whipping together:

1 cup COLD whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Add sliced fresh strawberries and candles.

*(Adapted from an unpublished recipe by Karen Rhea, S/V Rhea of Hope, Rio Dulce, Guatemala.)

From-Scratch Chocolate Cake

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons butter
9 tablespoons cocoa
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup walnuts, chopped

In a large mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter with electric mixer on high power. Beat in cocoa and eggs. In a separate container sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With mixer on medium power, alternate adding flour mixture and milk to sugar mixture, starting and ending with flour. Add vanilla and using high power, mix well. Fold in walnuts.

Pour batter into a greased and floured 9-inch x 13-inch baking pan. Bake at 350° F for about 30 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes then remove to cake plate.

From-Scratch Frosting

1/4 pound plus 3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon lemon juice
9 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg, beaten
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1 pound powdered sugar, sifted

In a medium mixing bowl, with electric mixer on high power, beat together butter, lemon juice, cocoa, vanilla, and egg. Gradually add powdered sugar until the mixture reaches desired consistency to frost cake. Fold in chopped nuts and spread on cake.

(Adapted from recipe for From-Scratch Chocolate Cake and Frosting in Mama's Memories, Wisdom and Corn Cookbook by Mary Heckrotte.)
"Sponge" Cake Secrets

If you know someone who’d get a kick out of a birthday “sponge” cake, here are some of my secrets: Most any sort of foam rubber will do, and around boaters it’s usually easy to come by. Carve the foam to the desired cake shape, whether round, square, rectangular, or something more exotic. There are two tricks to making the Secret Sponge Cake more realistic. First, you’ll need to carve out a hole on the underside of the sponge large enough to insert a can filled with nuts and bolts, rocks, or anything heavy. Otherwise, if the recipient happens to move or pick up the cake, its light weight is a dead giveaway. I once had to talk very fast to convince a suspicious guest that the cake he’d just moved was an exquisitely fluffy old-fashioned angel food cake! Second, you need to use the point of a knife to make little slits in the sponge in which to insert each candle BEFORE icing the cake. If the candles are just stuck into the frosting, they’ll fall over — another giveaway. Using canned frosting is easiest, though any frosting will do. Keep the frosting sanitary as cruising kids love to stick their fingers in when the jig’s up. A little dab of frosting on the underside of the foam will keep the cake from sliding on the plate. Decorate in whatever fashion suits the occasion and be sure to keep the ingredients secret!