Show champion reveals secrets to the perfect sponge

Living Well | Blanche Clarke | Posted on 28 September 2020

Get into the spirit of the Royal Melbourne Show with these baking tips from last year’s winner of the best sponge cake competition.

Zowie Crump’s obsession with baking sponge cakes was inspired in part by her late grandfather’s love of the traditional treat. After claiming first prize in 11 local competitions around the Riverina region, she decided to enter three categories in the Royal Melbourne Show last year. To add to the challenge, Zowie had a newborn baby and a two-year-old, and had to drive three hours from her home in Mathoura to Melbourne to deliver the cakes.

Sponge cake with berries and cream.

“Two weeks later I got the email at about 10.30pm and I ran in and woke up my partner and said, ‘I’ve won, I’ve won’,” she says. Her chocolate sponge won the show’s coveted open sponge section and her ginger fluff sponge came second in its category. 

Although the Royal Melbourne Show, which would have opened this week, has been cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic (with some events moving online), Zowie is still busy baking and giving away cakes to charity.

So what is the secret to the perfect sponge? After countless hours perfecting her technique, Zowie is reluctant to relinquish her recipe, but she does have a few expert tips to share.

Five secrets for baking the perfect sponge 

Practise makes perfect

The secret for sponge-cake perfection, she says, is knowing your oven and “practice, practice, practice”. “I’ve given my old recipe to people and they’ve said, ‘It doesn’t work’. But you can’t make just one sponge and expect it to be perfect. It takes practice,” she says.

Triple sift your flour

Zowie uses wheaten cornflour and says it’s true that the flour must be sifted three times. The eggs should be at room temperature and the egg whites must be beaten until frothy and thick, a consistency that a cook develops “a feel for” over time. “People often don’t beat the egg whites for long enough,” she says.

Get to know your oven

The best temperature for cooking a sponge depends on your oven. Zowie sets her gas oven at 160 degrees fan-forced, but other recipes say 190 degrees. “It’s trial and error,” Zowie says. “I’ve read Liz Harfull’s Australian Blue Ribbon Cookbook – she’s interviewed show cooks – and I tried their recipes and I couldn’t get them to work.”

Watch it like a hawk

Zowie says even a minute of under or overcooking can ruin a sponge. “You have to watch it and make sure it looks good and has risen,” she says. “Sometimes you take it out of the oven and it looks amazing and then you tip it out of the tin and it shrivels into a pancake.”

Keep it seasonal

Zowie usually puts her plain sponges together with raspberry jam and cream, plus strawberries when they’re in season, and passionfruit icing is popular with friends. “Milo cream is good in the middle of the chocolate sponge and I usually put golden syrup in the cream for the ginger fluff one,” she says.

Sponge cake with raspberries and cream
Baker cutting chocolate sponge with string

While her award-winning recipe is a closely guarded secret, Zowie happily gives away her sponges, in the process helping local charities raise about $2000, including $200 for the NSW Rural Fire Service. “I’ve spent way too much time perfecting this recipe to give it away, although I might when I’m older,” she says. (And get the CWA's classic sponge recipe here).

The Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria (RASV) says the Art, Craft and Cookery Competition in the Royal Melbourne Show usually receives more than 4000 entries each year. 

RASV CEO Brad Jenkins says although this year’s Show has been cancelled because of the pandemic Victorians of all ages can keep honing their skills for next year’s art, craft and cookery competition.

“We are looking forward to Victorians coming together when the Royal Melbourne Show returns bigger and better in 2021.” 

In the meantime, if you’re missing your annual trip to the showgrounds, you can still enjoy some good old fashioned country-comes-to-the-city fun with these virtual Royal Melbourne Show activities, running until 29 September. Check updates on the show’s Facebook page.

How to get in the spirit of the Royal Melbourne Show from home

Bag a favourite

It’s just not the Royal Melbourne Show without show bags and this year you can get them home-delivered. There’s 150 to choose from, including the bargain $5 Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate crowd-pleaser and a new $30 AFL showbags. The bestsellers include Harry Potter, Barbie, LOL Surprise, Friends and Bluey.

Humans of agriculture podcast

Beyond showbags, rides and fairy floss, the beating heart of the show lies in the prize-worthy livestock, and the farmers who raise them. Tune into the show’s own podcast featuring personalities, including agriculture youth leader Aimee Bolton and dairy industry research scientist Dr Jo Newton, talking about their lives and commitment to agriculture.

Animal nursery

Who doesn’t love an animal nursery? Log on to the show’s farm-cam every day at noon as farmer Darryl Sheridan leads a tour of his animal nursery with baby goats, lambs, alpacas and chickens.

Dog dress-ups

Love a dog show? Dress up your own four-legged friend and share on the show’s Facebook page for a chance to win a share of $1200 of prizes.

Coffee fix

Get in before the show’s last day on 29 September to go in the draw to win a home espresso machine and eight kilograms of coffee.

Photo finish

Speaking of prizes, share your pictorial memories of previous Shows with the “flashback memory and photo” competition for a chance to win a boots-and-clothing pack worth $515.

Where to buy show bags online

Forget Uber eats, try getting your favourite show bags home-delivered. There’s 150 to choose from including the bargain $5 crowd pleaser Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate show bag to the new $30 AFL showbags. The bestsellers include Harry Potter, Barbie, LOL Surprise, Friends and Bluey.

You’re never too old to love a showbags. This supplier (I love showbags) has magazine, lifestyle and beauty showbags, including cosmetics, cleaning product boxes, DIY home improvement kits and dental care, as well as magazine bags like Better Homes & Gardens, Marie Claire, Men's Health and Girlfriend.

If you don’t have a sweet tooth, has novelty showbags from your child’s favourite movies, like Frozen II, Moana, Star Wars and Scooby-Doo. Other bags include Marvel Avenger, Baby Shark, Batman and a Los Angeles basketball showbag.

For those must-have Bertie Beetle showbags, the has it all. For a real indulgence, try the monster bag with 250 Bertie Beetle chocolates and a limited-edition Bertie Beetle cap for $79 or if you’re on a budget or diet, there’s a $5 bag with 12 of the iconic choccies. If you love the beetles but not the centimetres they can add to a waistline, there are beetle socks, cups and mugs.

If you have a budding Cosentino in your family, the Gag Magic Showbag has the magic levitating wand, snake in a can and don’t forget the family favourite, the whoopie cushion for $16. You even get a magician’s top hat to wear when you perform the disappearing scarf trick. Other novelty bags are a police action squad bag, fairy girls bag, and farm world bag. There’s a range of full head masks like werewolf, unicorn, fox and a chicken.

Basic sponge cake

And, if you're keen to get your bake on, we asked the Country Women's Association for their tried-and-true classic sponge recipe.

CWA's classic sponge cake recipe

  •  4 eggs, separated
  • ¾ cup cornflour
  • ¾ cup castor sugar
  • 1 heaped tablespoon custard powder
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • ½ teaspoon bicarb soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Preheat oven to 175C.
  2. Beat egg whites with a small pinch of salt, until soft peaks form and then gradually beat in castor sugar.
  3. Beat well until stiff peaks form and very thick, then gently fold in egg yolks and vanilla.
  4. Add sifted dry ingredients and gently fold through egg mixture until combined.
  5. Turn into well-greased sandwich tins.
  6. Bake in the middle of the oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until sides have shrunk a little from the side of the tin.
  7. Turn out to cool.
  8. Top with icing sugar or your favourite fruits.
For the filling

Choose your adventure. Perennial favourites include whipped cream, fresh berries, jam or lemon curd. Or, if you're baking a chocolate sponge, milo cream.

Top it off

The CWA suggests a simple passionfruit icing. Whip this up using (approximately) two cups icing sugar, one tablespoon of melted butter and a little water to mix, plus 1-2 passionfruit depending on personal taste. Mix all together to form a nice, creamy mixture and spread on top of the cake. Leave to set.

Whipped cream and fresh raspberries, strawberries or blueberries is always a winner, or keep it simple and classic with a dusting of icing sugar. 

Save on ingredients 

RACV Members can save on ingredients by purchasing gift cards from a range of Woolworths’ brands. Go to the Woolworths RACV Member Offer website, enter your membership details, then redeem your gift card at thousands of participating stores across Australia.