|Soaking Up Texture with Sponges
Sponges are popping up on plates across the country. Paired with everything from Wagyu beef cheek to semifreddo, sponges are far more sophisticated and elegant than you might think. Inspired by different cultures, from Japanese tea ceremonies to Spanish molecular gastronomy, they lend an incredibly light, moist, and airy texture to any dish.
Microwaves, take-out containers, and fine dining don’t seem to go hand-in-hand. But at Gordon Ramsay At the London in New York City, Pastry Chef Ron Paprocki completely surprises us by baking a delicate sponge for his Raspberry Creme, Cinnamon Sableé, and Green Tea Sponge in a microwave inside of a pint-sized box that is essentially a Chinese take-out container without the handle.
Paprocki first came across the spongy aesthetic in Natura, Albert Adria’s book filled with natural dessert ideas, and was inspired to incorporate a similar technique into his own pastry. Utilizing a traditional genoise, his first attempt to create that distinctive coral-like sponge failed. Searching for an alternative method, Paprocki decided to nuke it. He puts his blended ingredients in an iSi canister with three gas chargers, and puts the mixture into disposable pint containers that go in the microwave on high for 46 seconds. The result is a fluffy sponge with a subtle green tea flavor.
Inspired by the variety of flavors in Natura, Paprocki took to playing with flavor as well as texture. He was looking for the ideal flavor to accompany his Raspberry Creme Cinnamon Sablée, and thought the green tea would be able to cut through the sweetness of the dish and offset the cinnamon, but also play along with the tartness of the raspberry. In one bite the dish delivers crunch from the sable, and creamy luxury from the combination of the cremue and the sponge. Paprocki has played around with other combinations like pistachio sponge with olive oil gelato and ground pistachios, as well as a brown butter sponge with fruit puree and toasted coconut chips.
While living and working in Japan, Pastry Chef Daniel Skurnick hand-whipped kasutera, a traditional distinctly flavored Japanese sponge cake common at tea ceremonies. A savory kasutera custard omlette is served at the sushi bar at Morimoto in New York City, where Skurnick is now pastry chef. He thought, “Well, if we make it on the savory line, I want to serve it sweet as well.” And the idea was born for his White Chocolate Semifreddo with Matcha Castella (Castella is the Portuguese translation of kasutera.)
Just as they do in Japan, Skurnick hand-whips his mixture of eggs, sugar, and simple syrup over a double boiler for about 15 minutes, which he considers essential to the development of his sponge’s springy texture. After baking the mixture Skurnick wraps the cake and refrigerates it while still warm to create a texture he deems “super light and moist.”
The final presentation is evocative of a Zen rock garden with mossy stones. Skurnik likes how the slightly bitter green tea matcha castella envelops the sweet creamy white chocolate semifreddo as the customer cuts through the layers of cake to reach the firm semifreddo inside. He says, “The sponge isn’t weighed down by anything and can remain soft and springy on the exterior of the dessert. It’s a great counterpoint to the sweet, dense, frozen semifreddo.”
Having noticed sponges on the rise in pastry kitchens, Chef Curtis Duffy of Avenues in Chicago, IL sought to adapt the concept to the savory side of the kitchen. To create a black sesame sponge for his Asian-inspired Wagyu Beef Cheek, with Black Sesame, Sudachi, Shiso, and Blooms Duffy follows the traditional pastry method but replaces the sugar with isomalt, a sugar substitute. The light bouncy texture and properties of a pastry sponge remain, but without the sweetness.
There is sweetness though from other ingredients in the dish, as Duffy has carefully constructed a riff on Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Encased in a crispy cannelloni, his Wagyu beef is braised in coconut milk, along with classic Asian flavors of kaffir lime, Thai spices, and white sesame. More than being an obvious flavor complement, the addition of black sesame sponge provides a fun textural substitute for a starch with a chewy mouthfeel like braised potato. In the same way, it is the ideal vessel for sopping up the luscious sesame milk pudding on the plate.
Versatile in flavor and function and innovative in texture, the sponge adds playfulness and gusto to dishes. Its flexible nature also makes it a suitable candidate for experimenting with different flavor profiles, cooking methods, and plating styles. Whether you are looking to excite your diners with a new visual or introduce them to a refined rendition of an old idea, the sponge will be a sensation both in the mouth and on the plate.