With the celebration of Queen Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor’s Diamond Jubilee fast approaching, it seems only appropriate to look into the history of a delicacy that was created for the only British monarch who has reigned longer than she has: the Victoria sponge cake.
The Victoria sponge may well be Britain’s all-time favorite cake—though that position has been contested by such impudent upstarts as carrot cake and chocolate—and is certainly an English classic. It is composed of two fluffy sponge cakes sandwiched together with whipped cream and jam in between. Mmmmm….
In 1861, Queen Victoria had been on the throne for almost a quarter century, when she suffered the tragic death of her husband, Albert. She was famous for her devotion to him, and would remain in mourning for the rest of her life. In this same year a landmark cookbook was published, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and it included a recipe for “Victoria Sandwiches”:
Their weight in pounded sugar, butter and flour
1/4 saltspoonful of salt
A layer of any kind of jam or marmalade.
Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour and pounded sugar; stir these ingredients well together, and add the eggs, which should be previously thoroughly whisked. When the mixture has been well beaten for about 10 minutes, butter a Yorkshire-pudding tin, pour in the batter, and bake it in a moderate oven for 20 minutes. Let it cool, spread one half of the cake with a layer of nice preserve, place over it the other half of the cake, press the pieces slightly together, and then cut it into long finger-pieces; pile them in cross bars on a glass dish, and serve. Time.— 20 minutes. Average cost, 1s 3d. Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons. Seasonable at any time.
The Duchess of Bedford
This cake was presumably named after Queen Victoria because of her great affection for it. By 1885 it was showing up at the tea parties which she was encouraged to host to get her out of her seclusion. Anna Maria Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford and one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, is said to have invented afternoon tea.
She had a habit of getting a bit peckish between lunchtime and her very late dinner, and began requesting that a tray of tea with bread and butter be served to her around four o’ clock to ward off the hunger pangs. Once she started inviting her lady friends over during these times, the afternoon snack became quite an event; the menu got more creative, and a national tradition was born.
Victoria sandwiches, or sponges, were soon all the rage, and eventually became the measuring stick by which the home baker was judged. And this is no laughing matter! The Women’s Institute apparently has strict guidelines on the “correct” way to make this cake, and it involves raspberry preserves and caster (not icing) sugar, and no buttercream. There are brutal competitions amongst British bakers to see who can make the fluffiest sponge. If you haven’t seen the the movie Calendar Girls, you have to watch the first minute and forty seconds of this video where one of the characters wins best prize for a Victoria sponge cake at the local Woman’s Institute baking competition.
For all the hype and rivalry, this actually isn’t a very difficult recipe. There are some bits that can get a little tricky though, so here are my top 10 tips for serving the perfect Victoria sponge at your Diamond Jubilee celebrations:
Room Temperature: Cold eggs and butter do not make for a fluffy sponge. Remove all of your ingredients from the fridge and let them warm and soften before mixing together.
Work quickly:Don’t get frazzled, but this recipe doesn’t take kindly to dawdling!
Eggs:Use the freshest eggs available, and don’t beat them together all at once. Carefully separate the whites from the yolks, beat the whites with half of the sugar until stiff, then sprinkle in the rest of the sugar and whisk it in. Then add your yolks.
Beat in that Air:Beat the butter and sugar together very, very well. You need all the air bubbles you can get!
Light Flour: Use cake flour for a really fluffy Victoria sponge, and be sure to sift it. Some recipes even call for using a little corn flour, which makes it even lighter.
Metal Spoon:When folding in the flour, use a metal spoon; the sharp edge will cut through the mixture “with the minimum of air release.” More air!
Oven: Make sure that your oven’s temperature is accurate, preheat before sticking in your cake, and don’t you dare open the door until it’s finished baking!
Serving: Let the cakes cool before you sandwich them together and cut them with a sharp knife and delicate hand.
Make the Best of It:If the absolute worst should happen and you’re left with a sunken, pitted monstrosity, don’t pitch it in the dustbin just yet! Cut your sponges into cubes and layer them in a dish with the jam and cream to make a marvelous English trifle.
Have Fun: But most of all, enjoy the process! This is a wonderful British tradition which every Britophile should take part in. Get yourself a cup of tea and savor the experience.
The recipe below is slightly edited from one found on the Stone Soup blog. Only 5 ingredients!
I've had a passion for everything British my entire life, despite being raised as a small-town girl in the American Midwest, After years of dreaming, I got the chance to live and work in England for an entire year. Now I write about my favorite country, and hopefully inspire my fellow Britophiles to get over there and experience it for themselves.