Let them eat cake! Empire Day, May 24

A black and white photograph of Queen Victoria.

Gelatin paper print photograph of Queen Victoria (detail), photographer unknown. Rouse Hill House & Farm Collection

May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday, later celebrated as Empire Day. To mark the occasion I’ve been looking for Victoria Sponge recipes in my nineteenth century cookbooks – to no avail. Perhaps, like many other traditions, it is not so traditional at all – at least not for its claimed origins. Isabella Beeton (Book of Household Management 1861) gives a recipe for Victoria Sandwiches which gets us half-way there – two layers of sponge cake with “any kind of jam or marmalade” sandwiched between. Beeton suggested the filled cake be cut into long finger-pieces and piled in crossbars on a glass dish to serve. It is popularly said that the Queen enjoyed these when she hosted afternoon teas in an effort to re-engage in social occasions after her beloved Albert died, but Albert was still alive when Isabella published her tome.

VICTORIA SANDWICHES.

1491. INGREDIENTS – 4 eggs; their weight in pounded sugar, butter, and flour; 1/4 saltspoonful of salt, a layer of any kind of jam or marmalade.

Mode.—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 crossbars on a glass dish, and serve.

Quintessentially English

There are various other recipes crowned with Victoria’s name – Victoria buns, Victoria cake, Victoria Pudding, but none that include the “classic” strawberry jam and cream that I associate with a classic celebratory sponge. So why has the jam and cream become synonymous with Victoria (and by default, England)? Well here’s my theory: think of the emblem colours of St George, patron saint of England – red and white; the north-south/east-west cross emblazoned on the Union Jack. A very light textured pale coloured cake filled with jam complements the red & white theme quite nicely… But then think about Devonshire Tea – scones with cream and jam (invariably raspberry or strawberry) and quintessentially English strawberries with cream at Wimbledon. Apart from calories and creamy deliciousness, whipped cream enhanced the contrasting red and white of England in a Victoria Sandwich – so very patriotic, and so very, very English.

An artfully timeless recipe

Mrs Beeton’s 1861 recipe needs no modern redaction, its ratios artfully timeless – no trouble with imperial-to-metric conversions. It is in fact a classic pound cake rather than the butter-free sponge my wonderful Tasmanian ‘granny’ Olwen Milbourne whips up for special occasions (beating the eggs for no less than 12 minutes in the mix-master and a whisper of cornflour to ensure it’s lightness). The key to a good sponge is creaming the butter until very pale, lightly adding sifted flour (Beeton says dredging) and whisking the eggs through very well. Today we have the advantage of  pre-pounded ‘caster’ sugar and electric beaters to save our wrists and elbows from the pain of ten minutes beating, though for authenticity’s sake you might like to try the traditional method (?). The Yorkshire-pudding tin produces a square edged, rectangular cake, suitable for cutting into dainty fingers.

Victoria sponge cake made by Jacqui Newling.

Victoria sponge. Photo Jacqui Newling © SLM

Confused classics?

The earliest recipe proclaimed ‘Victoria Sponge’ I can find on my bookcase is in an Australian text – Mrs Maclurcan’s Cookery Book (1905 edition but probably in earlier ones) requiring ‘a piece of butter the size of a walnut’ to 3 eggs & 3 tablespoons each flour and sugar, with a jam filling, but no cream. Perhaps you have another version? I’m intrigued to find when the cream crept in – to see how my theory stacks up against ‘tradition’? Or is it a fusion of the Wimbledon fresh strawberries and cream and the classic sponge cake?

Happy birthday Queen Vic!

  • Roz Hancock

    Yes, when I was teaching food tech to a group of home educated girls a couple of years ago we tried a few of Mrs Beeton’s recipes. The fruit cake was a major disappointment. Then we did Zoe research on this wise lady who we had imagined had many years of experience as a cook and discovered an entirely different woman.
    The girls decided that some things, including their Grandmother’s recipes can and have been improved on. I’m feeling like a Victoria sponge cake now… Mmm think I’ll use my reliable ” Commonsense Cookery Book”.

    • The Cook

      Hi Roz, Mrs Beeton’s personal story is extraordinary – rather than being an experienced ‘grandmotherly type’ she was a mere 22 years old when she wrote the book! (There’s a fabulous biography on her by Karen Hughes, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton). Mind you, she ‘borrowed’ heavily from previous authors, so can’t take full credit or blame for most recipes. And as with any old recipes, the ingredients and technology we use have changed – something as simple as the size of an egg will alter the result for a cake for example, so its always a bit of a mystery as to how something will turn out, and takes a lot of practice and revision to perfect some of them.

      Enjoy your cream sponge!

  • The Cook

    That’s a very good question Gary! I hadn’t noticed an aversion to pepper and chilli – she does throw a bit of cayenne around, but you’re right, she’s not an advocate for garlic. I do find she’s a bit obsessed with allspice – she seems to put it almost everything that calls for spices, dispensing with the more traditional cinnamon and nutmeg and clove.
    I think I would accept a dinner invitation, because I’d love to take a peek at her ‘test kitchen’ but the dinner conversation might be a bit too aspirational Victorian for me!