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Most recipes for sponge cake use a quantity of yogurt which sometimes is replaced with milk, or even soja or almond drinks.

In those recipes (flour, sugar, eggs, butter/oil, yogurt/milk, some flavouring), what is the role of the dairy product? Is it about protein/fat/chs, about water, about flavour, about colour? Do the substitution for soja or almond drink make sense, or exist better ones?

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To add to Stephie's answer, sometimes dairy is incorporated for a variety of reasons. In some cases, like a coffee cake, sour cream or yogurt can account for a good amount of the moisture and fat in the batter. Rich dairy products like cream and sour cream usually lead to very tender baked goods, due to helping to incorporate more fat (the fact that it's already emulsified helps too).

Soured dairy, like yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk are frequently used so that their acidity will react with baking soda in the recipe for leavening.

Finally, yogurt and buttermilk often have stabilizers like guar gum, xanthan gum, and carrageenan. These will retain moisture after baking to help the finished product be more moist.

Whether a substitution will work would depend on which functions the dairy ingredient is filling, and which characteristics the substitute matches.

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    Thanks for the last two points. I had overlooked these because here in German baking powder is much more common than baking soda (= no need for additional acidity) and for stabilizers only carrageen may be used, at least that's the only I've ever seen on the labels. The organic dairy I use has none. – Stephie Apr 3 '15 at 7:54
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A basic sponge does not contain milk, yoghurt or other dairy, neither does his closely related cousin, the pound cake (except for butter, of course).

That said, obviously there are many recipes that use extra ingredients like dairy products. Usually the percentages of the recipes are a bit different from the "base" recipes. There are a few reasons to add dairy (or non-dairy):

  • Adjusting for fewer eggs
    If you get less liquid from the eggs, you need a substitute to prevent a "dry" cake. Keep in mind that the water content may be different when using e.g. apple sauce, sour cream, milk or juice.
  • Changing flavour
    The classic recipes can be a bit "eggy" or bland. Especially with non-dairy liquids like lemon juice or alcohols like rum or whiskey you can completely change the flavour profile. Dairy gently alters, e.g. yoghurt / sourcream gives a slight accidic tinge that cuts the sweetness of the sugar.
  • Reducing fat in pound cakes
    Especially less-watery ingredients like applesauce, mased banana and sourcream can replace part of the butter, cutting calories and adding flavour.

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