Victoria Sponge Cake
Fit for a Queen
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Silver teapots, platters of cucumber sandwiches, and a tray of freshly baked scones topped with strawberry jam and clotted cream are the quintessential delicacies served at afternoon tea. It’s a lighter spread than the substantial high tea later in the evening that adds meat, fish, and egg dishes to the menu.
The custom of nibbling on sweets with a cup of freshly brewed tea originated during Queen Victoria’s reign in Great Britain and Ireland. It seems that Anna, Duchess of Bedford, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, suffered from a “sinking feeling” around four o’clock in the afternoon, especially knowing supper wouldn’t be served until late at night. At first, she had her servants sneak a pot of tea and a tin of biscuits (cookies) up to her room, but soon word spread throughout the castle and countryside, enticing others to partake in what would quickly become a favorite British tradition.
A delightful sponge cake graced the table: a light and airy two-layered confection filled with strawberry jam and whipped cream that’s cut into small “sandwiches.” It was originally meant to be served to the royal family’s children instead of rich cakes made with fruits and nuts. But, once Queen Victoria took a bite, she was smitten. She insisted on having one baked every afternoon just for herself, indulging in extra helpings long after the teapot was empty.
Because of her affection for “taking tea” each afternoon, Queen Victoria delighted in the array of sweets and sandwiches that her cooks created in the kitchen but always insisted on having her “sponge” as the main attraction. After her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, the queen spent time in retreat at the royal residence, Osborn House, on the Isle of Wight. It was there that the Victoria Sponge Cake was named in honor of Her Highness. One of the first written references was a recipe called “Victoria Sandwiches” in a cookbook published that same year: Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery and Household Management, an extensive guide to domiciliary in Victorian Britain by Isabella Mary Beeton, a journalist, writer, and editor.
How marvelous having one’s name associated with a popular cake, but more importunately, Victoria was intent on insisting it was on the menu at teatime. A queen has her priorities!
Innovation to the Rescue
Thanks to the invention of baking powder in 1843 by British food manufacturer Alfred Bird, homemakers and professional cooks were delighted with the results of light and airy cakes. Baking powder, a dry chemical leavening agent, is a mixture of carbonate of bicarbonate (baking soda) and cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate), an acid salt derived from tartaric acid, a byproduct of wine-making. During the fermenting process, the tartaric acid forms and lines the inside of wine barrels, leaving white sediment behind. The baking powder reaction with other ingredients in the batter releases carbon dioxide, which forms air bubbles to help the cake rise.
Eggs also add structure, leavening, color, and flavor to cakes and other baked goods. It’s the balance between eggs, flour, and baking powder that provides height and texture. Whipped egg whites help it rise, while the yolks add richness and thickening agent to the recipe. It’s the air beaten into the eggs and the evaporation of steam during baking that lift and lighten them. Combined with the other ingredients, eggs help produce an evenly baked batter that rises to the occasion.
There are three primary lighter-than-air cakes: angel food, chiffon, and sponge.
Angel food uses whipped egg whites, sugar, flour, and flavorings. Chiffon cakes include whipped egg whites and yolks and baking powder with a bit of vegetable oil in helping make it moist. Sponges incorporate whole eggs beaten to an airy foam, with the addition of butter.
Anyone who bakes knows there are many variations to a basic cake recipe. It takes time determining what combination of ingredients to use and then perfecting one’s skills in the kitchen. Some sponge cake recipes call for four eggs, while others use six, and often the addition of milk or water is added. It’s best to explore and try different recipes.
Victoria Sponge Cake
Basic cake recipe:
- 1 cup unsalted butter (two sticks) softened at room temperature
- 1 cup granulated or superfine sugar plus 2 teaspoons for dusting top layer
- 2 cups all-purpose or cake flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 to 3 teaspoons hot water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
- Coat two round cake pans with butter and line with a circle of parchment paper.
- Mix the butter and sugar at medium speed until fluffy (three to five minutes). Set aside
- Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
- Add the eggs and vanilla extract to the butter/sugar mixture. Gently whisk in the dry ingredients, adding the hot water as needed for a smooth consistency.
- Divide the batter into two cake pans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden, and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Allow to cool.
- Raspberry or strawberry jam — enough to lightly spread on top of the first layer.
- Fresh raspberries or sliced strawberries
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
A hint for perfect whipped cream: Chill the bowl and beaters in the freezer for an hour. It whips higher when everything is cold.
- Place one layer on a serving plate. Spread the jam evenly across the top.
- Place the raspberries or strawberries in any pattern on the jam.
- Gently spoon the whipped cream, covering the entire surface.
- Add the second layer.
- Dust top of the cake with caster (superfine) sugar.
- Garnish with a sprig of mint and fresh fruit.
- Be prepared for rave reviews!
Some individuals prefer a layer of whipped buttercream frosting instead of whipping cream.
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 2 to 3 cups powdered sugar (personal preference)
- Pinch of salt
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract (optional)
- Beat the butter until smooth.
- Add powdered sugar, mixing at low speed.
- Add the salt, heavy cream, and extracts, beating until velvety smooth.
- Add this to the layer of jam and fresh fruit!
Enjoying a slice of Victoria Sponge cake calls for celebration, whether it’s for afternoon tea or any occasion. There’s even a national holiday that falls on August 23, commemorating the light and airy creation that captivated a queen long ago. Here’s to a teatime tradition that lives on today!
Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.