When I was still “commuting” to England in my job as a scientist, a friend living in Gloucestershire introduced me to a fabulous opportunity. They knew someone who owned a local restaurant who was looking for an extra pair of hands to fill in for a missing-in-action cook. Would I be interested?
Either the restaurant owner was desperate or my friend over sold my skills, but they were eager to have me. At the time, neither culinary school or restaurant work was part of my experience base, so signing up for this task could have been categorized as brave or foolish — the former if you’re being kind and the latter if you’re being honest. Yet, I couldn’t resist. So, off I went.
When I arrived, the chef, rushed but friendly, give me a quick introduction to the staff, tossed an apron at me, said he needed a “Victoria sponge” and hurried off. Panic set in. What was I doing here? What in the world was a Victoria sponge?!? Something to clean the kitchen? A new variety of ocean-dwelling Porifera?
Sheepishly I got the chef’s attention and professed my ignorance.
Chef Response: Don’t they have Victoria Sponge Cakes in that great country of yours across the pond?
Me: Uh… maybe, but I don’t think they are very common as I’ve never heard of one. Yet, I’m happy to make one if you tell me how.
Chef Response: Fortunately for both of us, I can’t think of an easier cake to make. It is simply eight of everything – eight ounces each of butter, sugar, eggs and flour. Let me know if you need help getting things sorted.
As Chef rushed off again, I took a deep breath to try shake the knot in my stomach and went off to hunt for ingredients. This was, of course, another problem as how would I have known that the eggs and butter were not stored in the refrigerator? But somehow, the foolish rookie found her ingredients, got things “sorted”, and made her way to a serviceable Victoria Sponge Cake.
The restaurant experience was my first Victoria Sponge, but certainly not my last. Years later, while living in England, I tried many variations: traditional preserve filling with a dusting of sugar on top, lemon curd filling, strawberries with cream on top, chocolate filling — each one as good as the next. Victoria Sponge Cake not only offers a great template for assorted flavors, but it is truly easy to make — hence, its popularity. Many cakes later, I only now realize how bizarre it must have seemed to an English chef that anyone on the planet had not heard of Victoria Sponge Cake.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a Victoria Sponge Cake in the best context possible — at my friend Julie’s house for afternoon tea, which was the way Queen Victoria liked to indulge. It was a perfect English afternoon and I felt a bit like a queen myself. Tea was served in delicate Royal Worcester tea cups with home-made Victoria Sponge Cake and scones; there was a view of a Julie’s pretty English garden; Royal Ascot was on the telly and a group of close friends hunkered close by. Not only was the cake home-made, but it was carefully prepared by Julie’s grandson, Harry. I must say, Harry, you have the makings of a master chef! Either it was the best I’ve tasted or it had been too long since my last piece – perhaps a bit of both?
Since Harry didn’t divulge his recipe, I had to go with the following, which is my own. Or perhaps I should say the recipe belongs to the patient chef who kindly coached me along during my first night working in a professional kitchen….
Victoria Sponge Cake
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC
8 ounces butter, room temperature
8 ounces sugar, caster or granulated
8 ounces eggs, or about 4 eggs at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 ounces flour, self-raising
6 ounces preserves, strawberry or rasberry, for filling
3 ounces sugar, confectioners, for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Butter two 7-inch cake pans. Cut 7 inch circles out of parchment paper and place on buttered pan bottoms. Grease top of parchment paper with a bit more butter.
If using a Demarle 7 inch small round mold, no butter or parchment is necessary.
2. Cream the butter and sugar until light, pale and fluffy.
3. One at a time, beat in the eggs. Add the vanilla. Add in flour, folding carefully with a spatula just until blended and flour is not visible.
4. Divide evenly between two 7 inch pans. Bake for about 25 minutes. Cake should be golden and firm to the touch. A toothpick inserted in the center should be clean when removed.
Cool cake for about 10 minutes. Remove from pans to cool completely.
5. Place one cake on a flat plate. Top with jam or alternate filling (see note). Place second cake on top. Dust with powdered sugar.
FILLINGS: Cakes may also be filled with lemon curd, whipped cream, buttercream or other filling. Top cakes with sugar, whipped cream or buttercream.
SELF-RISING FLOUR: If you do not have self-rising flour, you may use the following substitute: 1 cup all-purpose flour (English plain flour) minus 1 1/2 t flour plus 1 1/2 t baking powder and 1/4 t salt.
WEIGHT VS. VOLUME CULINARY SCIENCE NOTE: Typically, American home cooks use volume for measurement. This works adequately for some types of cooking. However, weight measures are more accurate than volumes and should always be used for baking. Professional kitchens almost always use weights rather than volume — particularly for cake and pastry baking measures.
Volume measures will vary by density of the ingredient. For example, 1 cup of flour sifted will weigh less than 1 cup unsifted because sifted flour is less dense; however, 8 ounces sifted flour weighs exactly the same as 8 ounces unsifted flour. So, why not take the variability out of your baking measures and use weights rather than volumes?
Water has a density of one, so one ounce volume is equivalent to one ounce of weight. But water is the exception. Most ingredients do not have a density of one so volumes and weights are not the same.
For this recipe, if you do NOT have a scale for weights, use the following conversions as a second option:
8 ounces (weight) of butter = 2 sticks.
8 ounces (weight) of sugar is approximately 1 cup + 2 T
8 ounces (weight) of eggs is approximately 1 cup or 8 liquid ounces.
8 ounces of self-rising flour is approximately 2 cups (unsifted) by volume.