Victoria sponge is far and away the cake I bake most often: at least two a week, every week (not for personal consumption, I should add). The first wedding cake I ever made was a three tier Victoria sponge, big enough to feed 120 people. I could bake a Victoria sponge on muscle memory alone. It is the cake that, by rights, I should feel most authoritative on. But, I do not.
For an undisputed crown pleaser, the Victoria sponge is a controversial bake: there are strong opinions held on the this cake, steeped in an intimidating history. Light, fluffy sponge, fruity jam and pillowy, vanilla-scented buttercream. It sounds straightforward, the ingredients even more so: butter or margarine, sugar, eggs, flour – that’s it. How complicated can it be? Well, very, it turns out: the schools of thought on the ‘correct’ way to make this cake are myriad.
It wasn’t until the 1843 creation of baking powder (invented by Alfred Bird of Bird’s Custard) that the sponge could be the light, fluffy cake that we expect today. The original Victoria sponge was created, unsurprisingly, during Queen Victoria’s range. The story goes that a girlhood diet ruled over by her strict and prohibitive mother led to an unequaled sweet tooth in later life. Tea parties would take place with her ladies in waiting – one of whom, Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited by some with its introduction.
Mrs Beeton records the recipe as an unleavened pound cake, using equal quantities of flour, sugar, fat and eggs, sandwiched with a layer of jam or marmalade. No buttercream or whipped cream to be seen. Once assembled, the cake would be cut into long fingers, and piled up, ‘in cross bars;, the ‘sandwich’ of the title becoming more literal than simply the action of squishing the two halves of sponge together.
We’ve moved on a little since then, but to say that The Women’s Institute are prescriptive when it comes to the Victoria sponge is to put it mildly. So rigid are their rules on the components, method and presentation of the cake that not only are fiercely fought competitions held annually, but rosettes can be won and lost on wayward crumbs, a rogue extra egg, or – God forbid – the use of strawberry rather than raspberry jam. And don’t even think about adding buttercream.
And it’s not just the WI. During my research I find one recipe telling me it is ‘vital’ that I not use a fan oven to bake my Victoria sponge which is not only what I’ve been using since I could cook, but is the standard oven function for the overwhelming majority of British bakers.
After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with ingredients, ratios, and methods, this is by far my favourite recipe. I use margarine, which I know is wildly unfashionable, but it makes for a prouder, lighter sponge – and this seems to get the go-ahead from a number of sources more reputable than I: Mary Berry, a Great British Bake Off winner and even the WI all permit margarine. If you can’t stomach the prospect, feel free to use butter – the flavour will be richer, and the sponge slightly denser.
And when it comes to the filling, what can I say? The people love buttercream. And if you’re going to make a crowd pleaser, you might as well try to please the crowd. I use the requisite raspberry jam, but wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at strawberry – and would be more driven by what was in my cupboard than rules or tradition.
I confess I do rather like it dusted with caster sugar as the WI stipulate, I think the crunch makes it a little reminiscent of those shop-bought sponge fingers used for trifle, before they’re soaked in sherry or coffee, but I tend to sprinkle mine with icing sugar, as I think it’s prettier.
Makes: 1 8inch cake
Takes: 20 minutes
Bakes: 30 minutes
225g soft butter or margarine
225g caster sugar
225g self raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
150g raspberry jam
100g butter, very soft
200g icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tbsp whole milk
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C and line two 8 inch sandwich tins with baking paper.
2. Cream together the margarine and caster sugar until noticeably paler and fluffy.
3. Weigh out the flour and baking powder. Starting with the eggs, alternate eggs and flour, stirring them through the mixture until even.
4. Divide the mixture evenly between the two tins and smooth to the edges of each tin.
5. Place on the middle rack of the oven, and bake for 30 minutes – check at 25 minutes (but not before!). The sponges are ready if, when pressed gently with a finger, they spring back. Run a knife round the edge of the tin, and then leave for ten minutes, before removing from the tin and leaving to cool completely.
6. Make the buttercream by beating the soft butter and icing sugar until they come together: add the vanilla extract, then the milk, a little dribble at a time, stirring thoroughly, until the icing will reluctantly fall off the spoon.
7. Remove the baking paper from the base of the sponges. Spread the buttercream onto one of the layers of sponge. Spoon the raspberry jam on top of the buttercream, and place the second sponge on top. Dust the top sponge with icing sugar.