I talked in my last post about the Pound Cake and its origins in eighteenth-century Europe. It’s odd, then, that we tend to think of Pound Cakes as being very American, while in Britain our cakey allegiance lies somewhere else: the Victoria Sandwich. In fact, the Victoria Sandwich is a close cousin of the Pound Cake, but a later development, popularised (though not invented) by Queen Victoria, who served it at the tea parties she was encouraged to hold at the Royal residence Osborne House after Prince Albert’s death.
Victoria Sandwich Cake (image from the bbc website)
Dainty, traditional, unostentatious – but perhaps a little status-conscious – the Victoria Sandwich Cake is a perfect reflection of many of Britain’s most well-loved national characteristics. It is, essentially, two light, round Pound Cakes filled with a layer of jam and softly whipped cream. The key differences between the Pound Cake and the Victoria Sandwich are the latter’s lighter texture, which is the result of the late eighteenth-century invention of chemical leavening agents like baking powder, and the slather of jam and cream running through it (Queen Victoria, apparently, took only a layer of jam in hers). Both are golden and rich with butter – quite different from a true Sponge Cake, which contains no fat, although the Victoria Sandwich is often mis-named a Sponge.
Its popularity goes further than its Royal patron, however. It is a comfortingly airy, yet daintily pretty cake, with its stripe of red and creamy white, which has held its head up high through the ups and downs of cake fashion. In the words of British food writer and cook Nigel Slater,
Put this sponge on a table with a yellowing, bone-handled knife alongside, and you have a picture of Britain as seen by our parents and grandparents.[i]
It is no wonder that the Victoria Sandwich has received a boost in popularity in our recent austerity-driven, nostalgic times.
This beloved British cake makes one of its first recorded appearances in perhaps the most iconically British of cookbooks: ‘Mrs’ Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was first published in 1861 but was subsequently expanded by other contributors until it was ‘nearly as thick as it was high’. It was still being used by nearly half of British housewives in the 1930s. There is a ‘Sponge Cake’ in her section on cakes, but, true to form, it contained no fat. However, lurking under the chapter heading ‘Creams, Jellies, Omelets, etc’ appears the Victoria Sandwich, requiring four eggs, their weight in pounded sugar (sugar at this time came in big blocks or ‘loaves’ which had to be broken up for home use), butter and flour, with a quarter ‘saltspoonful’ of salt, and some jam or marmalade. Here is her recipe:
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[something like a muffin tin, with larger and shallower indentations], 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 cross bars on a glass dish, and serve.
The ingredients in Mrs Beeton’s recipe are immediately recognizable to a modern baker (right down to the ‘nice preserve’), but the method is not. Today it is more usual to beat the butter with the sugar (the ‘creaming’ method), then add the beaten eggs, and finally, fold the flour in gently to avoid knocking out the air. This is neither here nor there, however, when we consider the curious fact that Mrs Beeton did not label her creation a cake at all. We can only assume that its cream and jam filling and elegant serving instruction designated it more as a dessert. More pragmatically, it might have been where she found it in another cookbook: we know that Mrs Beeton was a shameless plagiarizer. Nonetheless, it is clear that by 1861 the Victoria Sandwich had not only arrived, but was well established.
One of the reasons that the Victoria Sandwich is so beloved in Britain is that it is more than a cake: it is a symbol of nostalgic Britishness (one might even say Englishness, since the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots have their own national cakes). It is a mainstay of many iconic British social events: afternoon teas, village fetes and that other traditional national institution, the Women’s Institute – a society to promote rural crafts which was immortalized in the film Calendar Girls. The film, not coincidentally, features a scene where the un-traditional no-nonsense character played by Helen Mirren admits to having bought her prize-winning Victoria Sandwich at the upmarket supermarket Marks & Spencer (another British institution). Her friends are horrified and amused in equal measure, and you don’t need to know the finer details of either the Victoria Sandwich or the Women’s Institute to realise that this is just Not Done. Today, the WI website endorses tinkering like the addition of coffee or lemon flavoring, and the substitution of different flavors of jam or lemon curd. How times have changed.
[i] Nigel Slater, Eating for England (Harper Perennial, 2008 edn), p. 219.