The Art and Science of the Perfect Victoria Sponge

victoria-sponge-cake


A Victoria Sponge is a British classic loved by young and old. Many a competent cook began his or her learning by helping mother or grandmother bake a golden, high-rise cake, just oozing with home made jam, for tea. Like all baking, there is some serious science behind the deliciousness, so this article first offers a simple-to-follow recipe, and then goes on to look at the reasons why it works.

The Recipe

Ingredients

225g (8oz) unsalted butter or margarine

225g (8oz) castor sugar4 large eggs

225g (8oz) self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

2 tblsp of milk or water to add if necessary

For the filling:

425ml (3/4 pint) whipped cream (optional) strawberry jam

You will also need: 2 x 20cm (8 inch) sandwich tins

Method

1  Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C/360 degrees F/Gas mark 4.

2  Prepare two 20cm (8inch) sandwich tins by greasing them thoroughly and lining the base with non stick parchment. All the ingredients should be at room temperature.

3  Beat the butter in a mixing bowl until it is soft and pale.Add the sugar and continue beating. It will soon become light and fluffy.

4  Sift the flour and baking powder together.

5  Break the eggs into a separate bowl and beat them lightly.

6  Add the eggs a spoonful at a time to the batter mix, beating in a tablespoonful of the flour to every two or three spoonfuls of egg.Using a large metal spoon, fold in the sieved flour to the egg and butter mixture.

7  The mix is ready if it falls gently off the spoon.  If not, add a tablespoonful of water to loosen it very slightly.

8  Divide the mixture equally between the two prepared tins.

9  Tap the tins down gently to expel any large air pockets and level the cakes.

10 Place into the pre-heated oven for 25-30 minutes.

11 When ready, a cocktail stick or bamboo skewer inserted into the middle of the cake will come out clean, and the top will be gently browned. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tins for 5-10 minutes, then turn out to cool on a wire rack and remove the baking parchment.

12 When completely cool, prepare the filling with the strawberry jam and cream if using and sandwich the two sponges together.

13 Dust the cake with icing or caster sugar.

TV Chef Jamie Oliver has a step-by-step photo guide to producing a Victoria Sponge here

The Science

The Ingredients

The difference between self-raising and plain flour, is the amount of gluten it contains.  Gluten is the stretchy stuff which is developed by kneading when making bread.  We don’t want that here, because it will make our sponge tough, so always use sieved self-raising flour for sponges, and plain for breads.

Butter needs to be softened before using, but soft margarine will work straight from the fridge.  Margarine gives a finer texture, and butter a better flavour, so you can use half and half if you like.

The Method

The reason for beating the sugar and butter together is to incorporate as much air into the mixture as possible.  The mix becomes quite light and fluffy from all the little trapped air bubbles.  We continue to beat the mixture after adding the eggs to trap even more air. But once the flour is introduced we need to treat the mixture gently, because we do not want to activate the gluten.  At this stage we simply fold in the flour gently with the edge of a metal spoon.

The reason for adding the spoonful of flour with the eggs, is to prevent the mixture from separating.  This happens when the balance between the liquid and the solids breaks down, and it causes air to be lost, so a heavier cake.

The rest of the flour is sieved into the bowl and folded gently in with a metal spoon to preserve as much as possible of the trapped air.

The Cooking Process

During the cooking process, there are three ways the cake is made to rise. The chemical raising agents in self-raising flour and baking powder combine to produce carbon dioxide, and the air particles expand, then moisture in the mix turns to steam and expands. The egg in the mixture begins to coagulate and form the structure of the cake by trapping the expanded gases.

Once all the proteins have set, and the outside has browned nicely, the cake can be tested with a cocktail stick or skewer.  When that returns clean from the centre of the cake, it is ready to be turned out.  The sponge will shrink slightly from the edges of the pan as it cools, and be easier to remove from the pan, thus reducing the need for handling the hot cake.

So now you can follow the simple recipe, and you know the science behind why it has to be done the way it is.  But one thing science can’t explain is why licking the uncooked batter from the mixing bowl is such a treat!