The Victoria sponge (or ‘Victoria sandwich’) that we know today was enabled by a single invention. Alfred Bird (1811–1878) was responsible for the invention of the egg-less Bird’s Custard still available in supermarkets today. Less well known is that the same clever little chemist also invented baking powder in 1843. Baking powder enables un-yeasted bakes to rise, and is the thing added to normal flour to make self-raising flour. Bird invented baking powder so he could bake for his yeast-intolerant wife, but the stuff was so successful at creating reliable cake results, that soon every baker in the land was using it.
Now, back around the same time, Queen Victoria was riding high as the figurehead of a colossal Empire that hoisted a Union Flag over the heads of a quarter of the population of the Earth. For trends and fashions, everyone looked to the Queen for inspiration, and everyone wanted to eat what she was having. Victoria’s favourite cake was the light sponge known as ‘pound cake.’ The basic principle of a pound cake is to weigh your eggs, and then add every other ingredient at the same weight (hence pound-for-pound). Note that Victoria was eating pound cake both before and after the invention of baking powder.
After Victoria’s much-loved husband Albert died, she retreated from public life and preferred to live in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and at the much smaller Glas-allt-Shiel hunting lodge on the shores of Loch Muick on her Balmoral estate. It was in that period that Victoria sponge got its name. Note that after her famous personal attendant John Brown died in 1883, Victoria could no longer bear to stay overnight at her beloved ‘Glassalt.’
Regardless of location, the cake preferred by Queen Victoria is not the common one with a jam and cream filling and an icing sugar dust. Instead it is the one set out by none other the indefatigable Women’s Institute. Fabled for its staunch traditionalism, Christian values, and near fanatical support of village fêtes, the WI has stabbed its gleaming battle sword into the green grass of England and preserved the Queen’s sponge cake for all eternity. It is filled with jam only, and dusted with caster sugar.
The recipe given here is of course that of the WI because to do anything else would be pure insanity.
- 3 medium eggs weighed in their shells (approx 170g), cracked and beaten
- The weight of the eggs in butter
- The weight of the eggs in caster sugar
- The weight of the eggs in self-raising flour, sieved
- Raspberry jam to fill
Set oven 160˚C fan or 180˚C convection. Grease and base line the bottom of two 20cm sandwich tins.
Cream the butter and sugar together with a whisk or fork. Add eggs gradually to the mixture beating well with each addition.
Add the flour and fold into the mixture with a metal spoon.
Divide the mixture equally between the two tins and bake for 25mins in the middle of the oven.
The cakes are ready when they are golden, shrunk from the sides of the tin and spring back when touched.
Remove the cakes from the tins and allow to cool fully. Spread one cake over with raspberry jam, and place the other on top. Dust over with caster sugar to finish.
It is worth knowing that while the recipe for Victoria sponge is very simple, it is notoriously sensitive to oven temperatures and timing. So much so that oven manufacturers use the Victoria sponge as a test piece to ensure that their ovens are operating correctly.