Thursday, August 18, 2011

All hail the Victoria Sandwich

Roger Fry
 Still life with chocolate cake
The first cake I learnt to cook was a Victoria Sandwich. For many years it was the only cake I made and it remains the one I make regularly because the recipe is simple (I can remember it without reference to any book), its quick to prepare and pretty much foolproof. The result is a moist, light textured cake which is perfect for afternoon tea and belies its ease of preparation. A friend asked me for the recipe recently and when I explained what was involved she replied -'Oh you mean pound cake'. I was a little taken aback because 'Pound Cake' seems rather a coarse and common name for something dainty to serve for afternoon tea and for some reason I had always thought of 'Pound Cake' as an Americanism. 'Victoria Sandwich' on the other hand comes with connotations of very ladylike behaviour and is indeed, according to The Oxford Companion to Food, named after Queen Victoria but there is no mention of by whom and why. So I was inspired to go off in search of the Victoria Sandwich.

Mrs. Beeton seemed like a good source for a recipe with Victoria in the title but all I could find there (in my 1861 version of The Book of Household Management) was 'Pound Cake' (so named because it calls for a pound each of butter, sugar, flour and eggs) made with currants, candied peel, citron and almonds, a recipe lifted from dear old Eliza Acton. Acton suggests adding a glass of brandy, Mrs. B a glass of wine. A variation to the basic method involves beating the yolks and whites separately and adding separately so that the cake is lighter. Both women call for a round baking tin. This was not quite what I was looking for since this cake was neither a sandwich nor plain but my prejudice against 'Pound Cake' as un-British seemed unjustified.

James Beard's American Cookery claims that 'every homemaker in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century kept a loaf or two of [Pound] cake in the pantry to serve to unexpected guests'. Beard claims that it is customary to use several flavourings for example orange juice and vanilla or rum or brandy with vanilla and that some cooks 'insist that pound cake should also have 1 teaspoon of nutmeg or mace added, which was invariably true of New England pound cakes'. Beard goes on with elaborate instructions to aerate the flour and then beat the egg whites, stabilising them with lemon juice or cream of tartar and adding some of the sugar to them before folding them into the batter. The mixture is then baked in two 23cm loaf tins. Beard also gives a recipe for 'Fruit Cake with Pound Cake Base', very similar to the Acton/Beeton recipe, and this too is baked in a loaf pan.

In English Food Jane Grigson traces 'Pound Cake' back to Hannah Glasse. Her four egg version is also baked in a 23cm loaf tin. She also suggests a number of variations – adding caraway seeds (a Hannah Glasse innovation which Beard also mentions) or chopped nuts, adding walnuts and flavouring with coffee or rum, flavouring with orange rind and juice or a butterscotch version using brown sugar and rum.

The basic premise for the regal sandwich cake is the same as that of the metrically challenged version i.e. equal amounts of all the vital ingredients – eggs, sugar, butter and self-raising flour . In the case of the 'Pound Cake' a pound of each, hence the name. The difference between the substantial Pound Cake and the more sophisticated sandwich appears to lie both in the quantities of ingredients used and in the execution. In all post-Beeton recipes I could find in my collection the 'Pound Cake' is traditionally made in a loaf tin while the sandwich, perhaps not surprisingly, is made in a round tin and usually cut in half. The two halves are then sandwiched together with jam and/or cream. Why it is called 'Victoria' still remains a mystery.*

I only have two books with recipes specifically for 'Victoria Sandwich' both of them owned my mother and dating from 1948 when she was recently married, living in England and coping with rationing and food shortages. In Cooking with Elizabeth Craig the recipe is for a traditional four egg sponge – that is there is no fat in the mix at all. Ms Craig is indifferent as to the the shape or size of the baking tin. My mother's recipe came from the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book where there are two versions. The 'Economical Recipe' calls for only one egg – either fresh or reconstituted egg powder. We always used the 'Standard Recipe' which was more extravagant and required two eggs.

My mother always made two small cakes which were usually sandwiched together with either raspberry or strawberry jam and sometimes with home-made lemon curd. The top was always dusted with icing sugar. This is the recipe which I have always used – cake making doesn't get any easier than this.

Prepare two pans by lining with baking paper. (I use the pans I inherited which are 7" or around 16-17cm.)
Weigh 2 eggs (in the shell) and then weigh out an equal amount of butter, sugar and self raising flour. I don't remember that we ever added baking powder but the official recipe calls for ¼ teaspoon.
Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time (if the mixture starts to curdle add a spoonful of flour). Fold in the flour with the baking powder and add a little milk if the batter seems to be very thick (once you have made this a few times you will know when it is right – if unsure then don’t bother with the milk).
Bake at 190ºC for 25 – 30 minutes (longer if only baking in one tin).

Over time I have discovered that you probably don't need any other cake recipe. You can add all the flavourings already mentioned, flavour with spices (1teaspoon mixed spice), replace a tablespoon of the flour with coconut or cocoa, use the mixture as the cake part of an upside down cake (make a four egg version and bake in a 22 or 25cm tin) and even bake the mixture in patty cases (the two egg mixture makes around 16 small cupcakes). But what happens the day the battery in your electronic scales gives out and you are alone in the kitchen with four eggs of indeterminate weight?

I could have done the conversions myself but it is much easier to refer to Jane Grigson's 'Orange Syrup Cake' ('one of the best variations on the pound cake theme'!) in her Fruit Book. Not only has she done all the conversions (for four eggs use ¾ cup sugar, 1 cup butter, although because butter is sold by weight it shouldn't be too hard to at least estimate 250grams, and 2 cups of self raising flour with 1 teaspoon of baking powder) she also introduced me to another excellent idea. The cake is flavoured with orange rind and orange juice or liqueur and then the hot cake is drenched in a syrup made from orange juice and sugar. Using the same technique you can also produce a lemon syrup cake (which is fabulous iced with passion fruit frosting) and a lime version. What's more, emboldened by Ms Grigson, I found that, as she suggests, it isn't really necessary to do all the creaming of butter and sugar followed by carefully adding eggs one at a time. Although the resulting texture isn't quite as good you do get a perfectly acceptable result just bunging all the ingredients into the food processor and whizzing until you have a smooth batter. And I have subsequently discovered for myself that you can produce a reasonable result using plain flour with 1 teaspoon baking powder rather than self-raising flour but that was by accident rather than by necessity.

The most important lesson I've leaned is not to be intimidated by cake recipes. If you read them carefully many of them are just a variation on the 'Pound Cake' theme. So rather than keeping a file of different recipes all you really need is a bit of confidence, the 'Pound Cake' formula and a pinch of common sense.

* Whilst the 1861 Beeton does not include a recipe for 'Victoria Sandwich' the 1874 version does. This time frame neatly fits the period during which Queen Victoria reputedly becomes acquainted with the new vogue for afternoon tea and the custom becomes firmly entrenched amongst the middle classes. It is not difficult to imagine someone making a dainty version of the 'Pound Cake', prettied up with jam and cream, and serving it to Queen Victoria or at least using her name to suggest that it had the royal imprimatur. Nor is it difficult to imagine that this version of a basic cake, probably already known to many cooks, and now with royal connotations would become popular in the kitchens and salons of the nouveau riche.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alison
    I literally stumbled across your blog looking up a reference to a cake article by Gay Billson. Loved reading about your research into the history of cakes.
    Di from Life is Di-licious (