Make a Unique Sponge Cake from Portugal by Way of 'Milk Street'

Daniel Hautzinger
Pão de Ló from 'Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Kitchen.' Photo: Enric Vives-Rubio
Pão de Ló is a classic Portuguese sponge cake with an unusual appearance and a hidden surprise. Photo: Enric Vives-Rubio

Season 5 of Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Television airs Saturdays at 3:00 pm beginning September 11.

As summer wanes and the weather cools, it's a great time to bake unadorned cakes like this pão de ló, a Portuguese sponge cake that is delicious in its simplicity and uniqueness, but also perfectly complemented by some late-summer fruits if you want to sweeten it up. Make it this week to celebrate the return of Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Television and settle in with a slice to watch the season 5 premiere Saturday at 3:00 pm.

Portuguese Sponge Cake (Pão de Ló)

Outside Lisbon, home cook Lourdes Varelia baked for us a classic Portuguese sponge cake called pão de ló. Its outward appearance was, to us, unusual—deeply browned, wrinkly and sunken, and the dessert was brought to the table in the parchment in which it was baked. And another surprise was in store: slicing revealed a layer of gooey, barely baked batter between the upper crust and the airy, golden-hued crumb. Sweet, eggy, and tender, the unadorned cake was simple yet supremely satisfying. When attempting to recreate pão de ló at Milk Street, we turned to a recipe from My Lisbon by Nuno Mendes, who, in an uncommon twist, adds olive oil, giving the cake subtle fruity notes along with a little more richness. We adjusted ingredient amounts and added some baking powder as insurance for a lofty rise; we also modified the mixing method and the baking time and temperature. The cake is delicious with Mendes’ suggested garnishes—a drizzle of additional olive oil and a sprinkle of flaky sea salt—but it also is excellent with fresh berries and lightly sweetened whipped cream. Leftovers will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.

Don’t over-bake the cake. The best way to test for doneness is to insert a toothpick 2 inches from the edge, not into the center of the cake; the toothpick should come out clean. The type of cake pan—dark-colored nonstick or conventional light-toned metal—affects how quickly the cake bakes, so the recipe includes two different baking times, one for dark pans and one for light. Don’t be alarmed if the cake sinks and shrinks dramatically and forms folds and creases as it cools; this is normal.


120 grams (1 cup) cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3⁄8 teaspoon table salt
4 large eggs, plus 4 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
214 grams (1 cup) white sugar
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil


1. Heat the oven to 375° with a rack in the middle position. Cut a 12- to 14-inch round of kitchen parchment. Mist a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray and line the pan with the parchment round, pushing the paper into the edge and against the sides of the pan, allowing it to form folds and pleats. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

2. In a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the whole eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla on medium until frothy, about 2 minutes. With the mixer running, gradually stream in the sugar. Increase to medium-high and beat until very thick, pale, and tripled in volume, about 6 minutes.

3. Reduce to medium-low and, with the mixer running, add the flour mixture 1 spoonful at a time, then slowly drizzle in the oil. Immediately stop the mixer (the oil will not be fully incorporated), detach the bowl and fold with a silicone spatula just until the batter is homogeneous; it will be light, airy and pourable.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the cake is domed and well-browned, the center jiggles slightly when the pan is gently shaken, and a toothpick inserted 2 inches in from the edge comes out clean, 22 to 25 minutes if using a dark-colored pan or 30 to 33 minutes if using a light-colored pan.

5. Cool in the pan on a wire rack until barely warm, about 1 hour; the cake will deflate as it cools. If areas of the cake’s circumference stick to the sides of the pan, run a knife around the inside of the pan to loosen. Lift the cake out of the pan using the edges of the parchment or remove the sides of the springform pan. When ready to serve, carefully pull the parchment away from the sides of the cake, then cut into wedges.