Where It Began

September 23, 2010 § 2 Comments

Once upon a time, I had scarcely a clue which end of a whisk to hold. Growing up, food mostly came in boxes, tins and wrappers, often from the freezer. And then, one day somewhere about halfway between then and now, not only could I cook, but was a little bit known for being able to bake up a fine cake. I’m still unravelling precisely how this happened and you will undoubtedly hear more in due course, but what I know for sure is that this Victoria sponge cake played a lead part.

It can be all too easy to be intimidated by the feeling that those who write elegantly and passionately about food were mixing up flour and water on the kitchen floor as a toddler; that any kind of culinary authenticity or authority comes from a dusty box of recipes in florid script handed down from great-aunts; that a delicate palate was cultivated around the Sunday dinner table where red wine was an early-teenage-year treat. It’s a fear that prickles up each time I sit down to write this blog. But when I recently made this old-favourite sponge I was reminded that traditions can be started at any time and that new passions can run just as deep as old ones. And I instantly knew what would be the first cake I would blog here.

I decided to learn how to cook not long after Ollie and I moved in together. It makes sense: we were nesting, setting up our own small version of family, and home-cooked food forms a central part in such pastorals. Since Ollie was always better at cooking savory in any case and since I have always had a chronically sweet tooth I set about learning to bake as my role in the story we were writing. A good choice as it happened: the precision and rubric of baking suited my type A neuroses perfectly. Starting out with the Victoria sponge made a lot of sense since it is, certainly to many Brits, pretty much the Platonic cake. I made it repeatedly, learning in the process about beating sugar and butter until creamy, adding eggs gradually and not panicking if the mixture turned a scary curdled mess, working quickly and firmly to fold in the flour and not lose all the hard work of the beating process (back then I did it all with nothing but a bowl and a wooden spoon so I felt every air bubble in that cake), and feeling the satisfaction of serving up slices of something created with own hands. Principles that remain with me with every cake I have baked since and every cake I will bake in the future. As a suitable high point to our story, the batter was the one and same we used for the fairy cakes for our wedding.

I whipped up a Victoria sponge most recently for the Labor Day weekend. It felt like a strange choice to begin with – after all, this is a most British of all cakes, taking its name from a 19th Century monarch who embodies history and nation. But it is also a cake that can set one on the path to starting traditions of one’s own, indeed, to starting over, and what could be more American than that?

Victoria Sponge Cake

For those in the US, the sponge will seem very similar to a pound cake: equal proportions of flour, butter and sugar. What makes it a Victoria sponge is that you make it as a circular two layer cake and sandwich jam, fruit and cream (or variations on this combination) in the middle. Depending on the pans you have, and the crowd you have to feed, I offer two size options:

For 2 7-inch circular pans:

4 oz/110g cake flour (or all purpose if you can’t get cake flour)
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
4 oz/110g/1 stick butter, at room temperature
4 oz/110g sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1-2 tbsp milk

to finish: jam, cream and sifted confectioners’/icing sugar

For 2 8-inch* circular pans:

6 oz/175g cake flour
2 ¼ tsp baking powder
6oz/175g/1 ½ sticks butter, at room temperature
6oz/175g sugar
3 large eggs
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
2-3 tbsp milk

to finish: jam, cream and sifted confectioners’/icing sugar

* I know it’s more common to have 9-inch pans in the US. I’m pretty confident you could bake the 6oz version in 9-inch pans to good effect, keeping a close eye on the cooking time. I haven’t tried it so can’t say for sure: let me know if you experiment!

Heat the oven to 350F/180C.
Prepare the pans by rubbing them with butter and lining the bottoms with parchment paper, then greasing the parchment paper.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium sized bowl and set to one side.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Break the eggs into a separate small bowl and whisk lightly to combine. Gradually add the egg mix into the batter, beating well between each addition. The batter may curdle. If it does, add a tablespoon of flour but don’t worry: it will come together in due course. With all the eggs added pour in the vanilla extract and beat the mixture well, for about one minute.
Add the flour and use a large metal spoon or spatula to fold the flour gently but firmly into the batter. You want the batter to be at dropping consistency (i.e. it drops off the spoon easily): add milk, a tablespoon at a time if needed.
Divide between the two prepared pans and bake for around 20-28 minutes (on the lower end for the smaller cakes and higher for the larger version) in the middle of the oven or until the cakes are evenly golden, springy to the touch and a knife emerges clean from their centre.
Let cool in the pans for 5 minutes then unmold and cool on baking racks.
Sandwich the cakes together with jam, fruit and whipped cream, as per your preference.

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