The Victoria Sandwich Cake: the classic sponge cake
There has been a resurgence of interest in this deceptively simple Victoria Sandwich sponge cake in recent years. It lacks the dazzle and photogenic qualities of the highly-decorated, richly-iced cup cakes. It is only when you taste a well-made sponge cake that we can understand the skill of the baker in
harmonising the basic ingredients of butter, sugar, flour and eggs to become something much, much more than the sum of the ingredients.
With the onus on the priority of saving time and effort in our lives, the desire to deploy our senses and gain baking skills has disappeared. We want to produce perfect results instantly without going through the process of repeated practice to build up the tacit knowledge of the cooks of yesteryear. There is almost a fear of trusting one’s own intuition.
Making and teaching many hundreds of people to make this cake by hand has honed my practice. As a consequence I continually build and improve my skills. The joy is imparting the key steps to making a good rich sponge cake, and understanding this skill can then underpin the baking of so many other, what I call quick-rise cakes, biscuits, breads and buns.
The likelihood is that the Victoria Sponge Cake evolved out of the recipe named as Victorian Sandwiches. The first edition of Mrs Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’ of 1861 lists a recipe for Victorian Sandwiches. Later editions of this invaluable household manual hold the same recipe with slight variations.
The original cake was baked in a rectangular tin, cut in half horizontally, filled with jam and then cut and served as rectangular fingers – the final outcome is a food ready to pick at with the fingers, like a bread sandwich. I have photographed the recipe in one edition I have dating from the early 1950s. The ingredients list remains similar to that of 1861. Confusingly, the image provided is that of the large round cake that we see today. It is an unsurprising editing error bearing in mind the size of the volume!
Pages copied from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management circa 1959. Note the image of the cake described does not match the recipe description of Victorian Sandwiches although the index links the two together.
The ratio of ingredients I use is more along the lines of a ‘rich’ Sponge Cake or Quatre Quart of France, sometimes known as a pound cake. The two cakes have almost identical ingredients however there is a different method of execution. Pound Cake is a heavier, denser sponge and perhaps its role is more akin to the role of bread. It was frequently used as an interchangeable substitute for bread at breakfast, toasted and served with butter. The present day Victoria sponge wants to be so light and moist that it is not necessary to have anything more than a thin layer of jam in the middle of the cake.
Reading a recipe for Victoria Sandwich Cake
Baking often creates anxiety because there is a perception that a precision or obscure knowledge is involved. The novice baker can follow a single recipe a few times, and when the cake comes out differently each time, they are left wondering why-and assumes there must be a skill that he or she lacks.
Perhaps the first step is to think about how we read a recipe. The recipe provides a list of ingredients. There is scant information on the processes that occur in the techniques of mixing and baking. In addition the words used in most old recipe books do not translate well into modern day language. There is little definition to the term a slack oven or how mixing lightly might be performed.
Remember that whichever recipe you read and want to replicate in your kitchen, the author has not written the recipe working in your kitchen. Your recipe for a Victoria Sandwich sponge cake does not know whether the conditions in which you are baking a cake is the same as that of the author, whether your flour is the same texture and quality as that specified in the recipe? You don’t know if your butter is churned to the same level of creaminess as mine. Does it have the same fat content? Are your eggs identical in size to the ones that I am using? Is your kitchen the same ambient temperature and atmosphere as mine, the same height above sea level? All these factors will influence your outcomes to a lesser and greater degree.
Having said that, there are things you can do in terms of measuring sponge cake ingredients that help with getting consistent results each time in your own kitchen. Rather than comparing your results with other people, compare your results with earlier and later outcomes to see if you can maintain a pattern of consistency.
With a recipe for Victoria Sandwich sponge cake that calls for identical quantities of ingredients (In this instance flour, sugar, butter and eggs), weigh the variable ingredient first – the eggs. This way your ratios will be identical every time. Most of the old recipe books would call for a certain number of eggs and then the same weight in flour or one and half times the weight in sugar etc. The eggs provide the base start point. The cook never assumed that chickens laid eggs of the same weight so why do we today? When making the same cake time after time, consistent measuring of the ingredients allows me an element of control. I know that the ingredient weighing is not the issue if I have a problematic outcome and can then look elsewhere for the source of the problem.
Temperature of ingredients
Ambient room temperature is another factor to consider in baking your Victoria Sandwich sponge cake. Ideally you want your ingredients at a similar temperature, especially the eggs and butter so they amalgamate properly. If they are, then it is another point to tick off as not being the issue if there is a problem.
When describing butter to be at room temperature this does not mean the temperature of the room on the day you decide to bake. It refers to the temperature in the kitchen in which a fire is burning all the time on which to cook or there is a range giving out constant heat. Perhaps an easier description is to ensure that you can cut through the block of butter with ease with the horizontal blade of a knife. This is very soft but not melted. Cold butter creates a hurdle before you even start.
To create a really light Victoria Sandwich sponge cake, it is very helpful to understand the words creaming and beating.
The purpose of creaming is to create a metamorphic change to the ingredients, butter and sugar, with the addition of one more ‘ingredient’ which is invisible and rarely-mentioned; air. The combination of power and a certain length of time will add the air and change the structure of the two separate ingredients to make them as one. You can test if this change has taken place by doing the following:
You need to beat long enough for the colour of the butter and sugar to change from yellow to white, the colour of whipped cream. You will see that the mixture will almost double in size. The mixture will stop looking like a combination of sticky and granular butter and sugar. It becomes a vision of whipped cream.
Once you have mixed the butter and sugar to become a sticky granular ball, scoop a quantity onto your spoon and drop it back into the bowl. It will feel heavy, dense and try to stick to the spoon. As you progress with your beating, keep testing. It gets lighter and lighter until the point, when you drop it back in the bowl it has no weight at all, like whipped cream.
Before you start the serious beating, take a small bit to taste. The sugar will come through as sweet and gritty with an oily aftertaste of the butter. By the time you have finished beating, the grittiness of the sugar will have almost disappeared. The sugar and butter will have homogenised into one, a true butter cream.
I would anticipate beating for at least ten minutes, obviously longer with a large cake. Both hand-mixing and the machine take about the same amount of time. The latter is less effort – obviously! It is quicker to execute on a warmer day.
The key here is to rely on your senses – you beat until you are confident that the change has occurred. This puts you in control.
When adding the eggs I recommend adding these in small quantities and beating each addition properly until fully amalgamated. If you put in a large quantity of egg you need to beat for a longer period of time. This allows the adequate ratio of speed and time to create a homogenous mousse like texture for these three ingredients.
Cutting and Folding in the Flour
When adding my final ingredient flour, I employ a different process. To maintain the lightness (airiness) of the mousse-like texture of the beaten butter, eggs and sugar, the flour needs to be added with care. This is vital to get a light Victoria sandwich sponge cake.
I always sift my flour, from as high a practical point as possible. As the flour lightly falls on to the mousse, air is trapped between the particles.
Taking a large metal spoon, I cut and fold my flour into the mousse. This is a different technique. We are combining not mixing the mousse with the flour, NOT mixing. We do not want to create something new as we did with the butter and sugar. If the flour is overworked, the gluten will become activated. This is to be avoided when working with a quick rise agent (bicarbonate of soda or baking powder). It will result in a heavy, dense sponge cake. Stop cutting and folding once you can no longer see loose flour particles. Your ‘dough’ will be slightly crumbly looking as opposed to smooth and creamy. Care is required here, not mindless brute force.
My magic ingredient for flavouring the sponge of the sandwich cake is a high quality vanilla paste.