An afternoon in the beginning of summer, Ela, my next-door neighbor, brought us a piece of airy, bright yellow cake. The cake, she said, was a traditional south Albanian recipe she got from her mother, who in her turn had gotten it from her own mother. She called it pendespan and I immediately recognized the word as a variation of what we call pandespani, the rich cake my aunt Katina occasionally would make.
The basic cake recipe in our family was the one called Tou Giaourtiou (meaning ‘made with yogurt’), a much heavier and filling dessert, with batter that, besides yogurt, also included olive oil, and margarine or butter. Apparently, both the Albanian pendespan and the Greek pandespani originate from the very old Italian Pan di Spagna (Spanish Bread) and the French Pain de Gênes (Genoa Bread or Cake). In modern patisserie that old name was lost, and these cakes evolved into the various common Sponge and Pound Cakes, with the addition of butter.
Ela does have a mixer, but she didn’t think that she could use it: following her mother’s instructions, she painstakingly beat both the egg yolks and the whites by hand; only when she saw me making the batter in minutes, was she convinced that the machine actually did a better job…
Pandespani is used as a base for many Italian desserts and cakes. Usually, it is sprinkled or brushed with liqueur-spiked syrup before the addition of a cream filling. Starting from Ela’s recipe and inspired by Claudia Roden’s Orange Cake, I added a boiled lemon as well as some of my lemon marmalade to lighten the flavor and make the cake wonderfully fragrant.
As for the eggs, of which this cake needs a lot, our neighbors’ hens roam around the property all-day-long and their eggs have dark-yellow yolks and a strong, almost meaty flavor. These eggs are a bit too overpowering for a delicate cake and the almost flavorless artificial vanilla powder that is available at our supermarkets did not help cut the strong eggy smell in Ela’s cake.
I am not crazy about the usual vanilla-scented sponge cakes. I know that the eggs most people will use are quite bland; nevertheless, I think a lemony pandespani is far better than a vanilla-scented one, even if real vanilla is used; at least in my humble opinion!