The art and science of making a Victoria sponge and the violent secret to success
“The survey of 2,000 people by Protein World found that the average Brit enjoys three slices of cake per week and 3pm is the most popular time of day to indulge in the dessert.
Unsurprisingly, 77% of people agreed that “there’s not much that can’t be sorted with a cup of tea and slice of cake.”
The poll revealed that our favourite cake-eating location is in a coffee shop with friends.
Brits also love baking, with seven in 10 people saying they enjoy making cakes themselves.”Roshina Jowaheer, in Country Life Magazine, September 2018
I am a bit sceptical about the above statistic… it doesn’t seem to square mathematically with the other statistic i read recently which declared that seven out of ten Brits can’t or won’t cook. But there is no doubt that sponge cakes of one kind or another are a fundamental part of British life. Perhaps making a successful Victoria sponge should form part of the citizenship test the immigration authorities use.
It would be a test not just of cultural knowledge, but also of culinary expertise. The Victoria sandwich cake is notoriously temperamental. Because the temperature is critical, its baking is used by oven manufacturers as a good test of temperature control. And last year the making of a Victoria sponge cake was included in the Young National Chef of the Year competition.
Two of the contestants, George Harding and Josh Ambridge, approached the challenge in very different ways – you can read about at the bottom of this post.
Why are Victoria sandwich cakes (also known a Victoria sponge) so tricky to make?
Essentially, it’s all a matter of science.
What is the scientific process which forms the sponge?
The whole point of a sponge cake is the texture which gives it its name – like a sponge, the cake should not be rock-hard, and it achieves this by containing small bubbles of air contained within ‘elastic’ walls. The OED defines ‘elastic’ as being ‘(of an object or material) able to resume its normal shape spontaneously after being stretched or compressed.’
These elastic walls need to be sufficiently strong to enable them to support a filling.
Finally, there should be a ‘melt in the mouth’ moment when the elastic walls which give the cake its structure, dissolve on the tongue.
How are the bubbles of air formed?
The bubbles of air result from a chemical reaction. The cake contains a raising agent (the baking powder) which reacts with liquid to form CO2 (carbon dioxide) – the bubbles. When you then up the temperature, yet more CO2 results.
The consistency of the cake batter is key to the perfect formation of the bubbles.
If the consistency is too stiff it’s hard for the bubbles to form, and the cake won’t rise well.
If the consistency is too sloppy it will rise, but the bubbles will escape too fast and the cake will collapse.
You broadly, then, want a consistency which will, just, stay on the spoon when you take it out of the batter. Just to complicate things even further – and to further demonstrate the challenges of producing the perfect cake – the age of the eggs and the type of flour will affect the ideal consistency. A high protein flour will need a runnier texture.
What about the raising agent – what is it exactly?
The existence of the Victoria sandwich cake was made possible by the invention of baking powder in 1843 (see ‘history’ below).
Baking powder is essentially a mix of sodium bicarbonate and salts (with some starch to keep the mixture dry). Usually there is a cocktail (well, two) of salts, for example Cream of Tartar and aluminium sodium sulphate. When they dissolve, the salts become acidic and react with the sodium bicarbonate to form a sodium salt and the CO2 bubbles you’re aiming for. The reason for using different salts is that they react at different temperatures to enable the CO2 bubbles to be produced throughout the baking process.
The tartaric acid, for example, which forms from the Cream of Tartar begins to react with the sodium bicarbonate at room temperature – which is why, once mixed, your cake batter needs to go straight into the oven. Aluminium sodium sulphate needs higher temperatures before it will react – it starts to produce its bubbles later in the process.
The recipe for the basic Victoria sponge can be flavoured (frequently, for example, with chocolate). But additional acid (eg lemon juice) will upset the chemical balance of the cake, and therefore, lemon cakes should contain the lemon flavouring in the icing rather than in the sponge.
What about the walls of the bubbles – what are they made of?
The walls of the bubbles are made from the starch and proteins in the flour, and finally from the protein in the egg. As you beat the flour into the batter gluten is formed. Gluten is a mix of two proteins, prolamins and glutelins, found in wheat, and it’s what gives the walls of the bubbles their elastic quality – they can grow to accommodate more CO2 just like a balloon does as you blow it up.
What role does the butter play in all this?
The butter’s role is two-fold. It helps to prevent the cake from getting stale too quickly. But it also helps to keep the starch grains in the flour separate, so that, when liquid is added they don’t form into clumps. This is the same process as that which occurs when making a béchamel sauce (see this post on making a béchamel sauce – go to the paragraph on the science of making the sauce).
If you use a food processor (rather than your brute strength, or even an electric whisk) it separates the starch out more efficiently, and coats them with a thinner coating of fat, so you actually need less (about four-fifths of the normal amount). But the result is that more gluten is formed later, during baking, so the initial consistency of the batter will need to be runnier.
What about the eggs?
The eggs provide liquid (for the salts to react to), and protein which coagulates with temperature giving the cake its final strength and structure.
…and the sugar…?
Is essentially just there for flavouring, although it does contribute to the viscosity, and thence the consistency, of the batter – which is important – see ‘how are the bubbles of air formed?’ above.
How to ensure that your cake doesn’t collapse – the violent secret to success!
When you take the cake out of the oven the steam in the cake will condense (change from a gas to a liquid) and the bubbles will reduce in size. Around the sides of the cake there is support from the cake tin, so the outside of the cake will hold up, but the centre will sink – literally, it will deflate.
If you drop the cake from a foot (about 30 cm) height, the shock will break the walls of some of the bubbles in the centre of the cake, and thus allow air to enter.
Recipe for a successful Victoria sandwich cake
- 200g/1½ cup of plain flour
- 2 tsp/10 ml baking powder
- 200g/6 oz butter
- 4 eggs
- 200g/1 cup golden caster sugar
- up to 30 ml/2 tbsp milk or water
- strawberry jam and whipped double cream to fill; icing sugar to dust
- Preheat the oven to 180°C.
- In a large mixing bowl, mix the sugar, flour, baking powder and butter together using an electric whisk (you can do this in a food processor as mentioned above, in which case you only need 160g of butter, but a runnier consistency once the liquid is added). The resultant texture should be like fine breadcrumbs.
- Beat the eggs, and add slowly to the mixture, whisking all the time. When the mixture becomes stiff and a bit stretchy, stop. Beat for a minute or two longer.
- Add any remaining beaten egg slowly until the mix reaches the ‘right’ consistency – it, just, stays on a spoon. If it is too stiff still, slowly add a little milk or water. Don’t leave the mixture hanging about – use it straight away.
- Pour the mixture into two non-stick, removeable bottomed cake tins (about 20 cm/8” diameter).
- Bake in the oven (if using a four-door Aga, use the top of the baking oven) for 25 minutes. Test with a knife – it should come out clean. If it doesn’t, return it to the oven for another few minutes, and test again.
- When they’re done, take them out and drop each onto a hard surface from a height of about a foot (30cm). Turn out, leave to cool on a rack.
- Cover one sponge with strawberry jam, and whipped cream. Put the second cake on top. Dust with icing sugar.
The history of the Victoria sandwich cake
In 1843 Alfred Bird, a pharmacist, invented baking powder because his wife was allergic to yeast and eggs.
Cakes had been evolving from the original heavy-type fruit cake, to the pound cake – traditionally made with a pound each of flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. But in spite of the some lightness introduced by the eggs, it was still pretty heavy.
The introduction of the baking powder made the cake ‘rise higher’, and the cake made with it was named the Victoria sandwich cake as a patriotic wave of support for Queen Victoria and the empire she stood for. ‘Sandwich’ was because two layers of cake were sandwiched together, originally with just jam.
Alfred Bird’s invention originally only contained one salt – Cream of Tartar – which converted to tartaric acid. Where a bicarbonate of soda has only one salt, it is known as ‘single action’; where two, it becomes ‘double-action’… reactions will begin at two different temperatures.
The basic batter for a Victoria sandwich cake can be used for other types of cake – fairy cakes, chocolate cake….but not a Genoese sponge which is made by a different method. For more on cup cakes and fairy cakes, follow this link.
What were the different approaches of the two Young National Chef of the Year contestants?
Josh Ambridge, the traditional approach, with a creative twist
Josh Ambridge is chef de partie at the Lords of the Manor hotel in Gloucestershire. His solution was inspired by his granny. He tells us:
“For the sponge I did not end up doing a layered sponge, because, at the last minute, just a couple of days before the competition to make it simpler.
So I concentrated on just making a perfect sponge – light and fluffy – using just the best ingredients and keeping the garnish really simple. I used Cacklebean eggs and Madagascar vanilla for the sponge.
For the filling, there was a fresh raspberry and chambord jam, with buttercream.
I thought hard about a garnish for the sponge. I thought about what you have with a cake and I remember sitting at my nan’s and having a cup of earl grey and a homemade sponge, and so I added a simple side of earl grey cream.”
George Harding’s daring solution – not for the risk averse, more of a soufflé than a Victoria sandwich cake…
George Harding is senior chef de partie, at the Atlantic Hotel, in Jersey. In response to his description, I told him, “I am super impressed – it sounds wonderful but pretty nail-bitingly high-risk!”. This is what he did:
“The idea for the soufflé came from brainstorming and working out how best to replicate the flavours and texture you get off a Victoria sponge which was part of the brief. So me and my head chef Will Holland had the idea of a soufflé because it’s light like a sponge. We thought of a vanilla crème patisserie as the base to the soufflé which tasted like a Victoria sponge. We then also put Jersey raspberry jam in the bottom of the soufflé to replicate the filling of the sponge.
Then I made a crumb from the Victoria sponge I cooked during the competition. I placed the sponge crumb on top of the soufflé so as it cooked and rose the crumb turned crispy like the top of a Victoria sponge giving the soufflé the appearance, once dusted with icing sugar, of a mini Victoria sponge. This was accompanied by a mini jersey clotted cream and raspberry ripple ice cream.
The main thing for me when choosing which dish to make for the dessert was to be different and take a risk, I think it’s safe to say I accomplished both of those. Cooking a soufflé in an oven you’ve never practiced on or used before under competition pressure is a pretty nerve racking thing. I think from the judges’ comments and feedback I received on the day they were very happy with the flavours and textures of my dessert and how I executed it.”
Could cake be our downfall?
“During the Brexit campaign, the actress [Emma Thompson] branded the UK ‘a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled misery-laden grey old island’, adding: ‘I feel European'”Craig Simpson and Bill Gardner in The Daily Telegraph
You might also be interested in
- All sorts of other cakes
Music to bake to
Katia Buniatishvili plays Phillip Glass’s I’m Going To Bake A Cake (from The Hours soundtrack)