When a product is made for a Queen, you would think that having the Royal Seal of approval makes it the best it can ever be – but controversy over how to make the glorious cake rages on.
It is nearly 200 years since the birth of Princess Alexandrina Victoria, who became Queen Victoria in 1837, but we still can’t agree the rights and wrongs of how to make the cake named after her.
According to Clarissa Dixon-Wright, when the young princess attended nursery, children were given fruit or seed cake. However, health and safety (yes, it even existed in those days) deemed it too dangerous for the children.
Queen Victoria was known for her sweet tooth and every day cake and pastries would be served. The quintessential afternoon tea. How very English.
The invention of baking powder by Chemist Alfred Bird, in 1843, revolutionised cake baking. Baking powder is a mix of baking soda and cream of tartar. This game changer took cakes from being flat and heavy, to high risers that are light and fluffy. It was like being knighted by the Queen – arise Sir Sponge!
Mary Berry, our baking queen, says you have to tame this wonder ingredient. Overuse may give you the rise but it will leave a bitter taste on the palette.
Baker Kane McDowell, owner of Sugardough Café in Brighton, and also featured in the Daily Telegraph’s Britain’s 20 Best Bakeries in Britain said: “I don’t use any rising agent, the eggs are what gives my cakes air. The flour is just natural plain flour with no rising agent.”
Victoria Sponge, or Victoria Sandwich, are both the same cake and you will find this English staple in many a good tea shop. I could say little has changed with this cake since its invention, but when I entered into the Victoria Sponge cake competition in my local village fete in Alconbury Weston, Cambridgeshire, last year it led me to do much research in order to get it right.
Who has the definitive say on what is a traditional Victoria Sponge? First port of call has to be the Women’s Institute. Well I never, according to them I have been making my cake wrong all this time. I didn’t know you should weigh the eggs first with their shells on. This then determines how much butter, sugar and flour you should use.
Butter or marg? Back in the day butter was all that was available as margarine is a modern-day product. Every chef you see on the TV seems to have an endless supply of butter and you never, ever, see any of them use margarine. “Margarine is disgusting,” said Mr McDowell, “and I would never ever use it. Butter is so much better tasting.”
Jill Arthur, Head Judge from the WI said: “Butter gives the best flavour and, as a traditional creamed method, the best texture. I also find that the cake has a better keeping quality.”
As young girls and boys, many of us would have spent time with mum in the kitchen making cakes. I’m sure every mum must have taught their children to make fairy cakes. Didn’t we all love licking the bowl out – yum! It tasted amazing before it even made it to the oven. Gently baking at 180°C it would be transformed into a pale-yellow sponge.
The whole house would smell of cake. I would spend the next 18 minutes sitting on the kitchen floor, looking through the glass oven door watching the transformation from batter to sponge. Mum said that you couldn’t open the door and, if you did, it had to be slowly. Opening it too quickly would make the heat come rushing out and cause a sharp intake of cold air, which in turn would make the sponge shrink back in response, causing it to be heavy and firm. You can see by looking at the cake that it is ready. Spongey to the touch with the edges coming away from the sides of the tins.
The sponge is gently removed from its metal jacket and laid on a wire rack to cool. Patience is all that is required whilst the sponge cools.
Next is the argument of cream. Traditional Victoria Sponge doesn’t have cream, it is just raspberry jam. Obviously, cake tastes amazing when you add cream into the mix. Ten seconds on the lips, lifetime on the hips!
At last the two layers are merged together. Jam meets cream, together forever until the clock strikes three and everything stops for tea! But stop. The topping is missing. The authentic Victoria Sponge topping (according to the WI) is caster sugar, and not its powdery sister, icing sugar.
Mixer’s at the ready, lets bake!
This recipe is my entry into the local village fete which got a 3rd place award.
My top tip – always use ingredients that are at room temperature.
3 medium eggs (these normally weigh around 175g)
175g caster sugar
175g self-raising flour
Cream the butter and sugar together until the mixture is really soft, and light in colour
Add eggs one at a time and really beat each one into the mixture
Sieve the flour and mix in slowly
Divide mixture into two greased and lined 7-inch tins
Bake in oven at 180℃ for 18-20 mins
Sponge should be well risen, light golden brown in colour, and coming away at the sides of the tin
For the filling:
Cream – either whipping or double
Sprinkle caster sugar on the top
Cut a slice and enjoy!