There was a wonderful drama series on the BBC, Call the Midwife, which reminded me how fortunate I was to have my children in the 1990s rather than the 1950s. At that time, with the National Health Service only a few years old, women were still birthing and dying at home, attended by midwives carrying bags full of scary looking contraptions. Fetching hot towels and boiling water was the order of the day, mainly as something for the men to do instead of pacing up and down and smoking.
As well as the highs and lows of life in the East End of London in the days before the artsy crowd took over, there’s also a brilliant cake-themed sub-plot. Set in a convent, one of the ageing nuns, Sister Monica Joan, is starting to lose her marbles and one of her foibles is prowling the corridors at all hours of day and night in search of sweet things. The young midwives invariably return after a long night shift in search of something to go with their cup of tea, only to find the battered old tins with “cake” stencilled on the side empty. They’ve tried hiding the cake tin in sock drawers and the outhouse but Joan is always one step ahead, and the corridors of Nonnatus House echo to the sound of young midwives wailing “Crivens! Sister Monica Joan’s been at the Victoria Sandwich again.”
Layered: It’s the cake which is part of British lore, and by which home bakers are judged. Photo: Divya Babu/Mint
In an ideal world, no one would ever be without a Victoria Sandwich, the cake that made Britain great—or at least launched a million of its village fêtes. It’s a cake we all learnt to make at school and in the Women’s Institute (WI), it’s the cake by which home bakers are judged. Yet in the fickle world of cake fashion, this glorious spongy, creamy, jammy confection has sadly been eclipsed by more glamorous, more delicate, more French fancies.
As well as being a perfect cake in its own right, once you’ve mastered the art of a perfect Victoria Sandwich, the recipe forms the basis of a whole world of cakey delights. The mixture can be used to make fairy cakes, butterfly cakes, coffee and walnut cakes, chocolate cakes and zesty lemon cakes. But first, let’s give the wonderful Victoria Sandwich another moment in the limelight.
175g caster sugar
175g soft (not melted) butter (unsalted French makes the nicest sponge)
3 large eggs, beaten with 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
175g plain flour (maida), sifted with 2 level tsp baking powder
2-3 tbsp milk
For the filling
200ml whipped cream
5-6 tbsp strawberry jam
Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Grease and line two 2x19cm cake tins with baking parchment.
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until pale and light. We were made to do this with a wooden spoon at school but you could use an electric mixer. Beat in the eggs a little at a time, along with a little flour to stop the mixture curdling.
Photo: Divya Babu/Mint
When all the eggs have been added, take a metal spoon and gently fold in the rest of the flour. To test if the mixture is the right consistency, take a spoonful, then bang it on the side of the bowl. If the mixture drops off easily (although it mustn’t be runny), it’s ready. If not, add a couple of tablespoons of milk and mix again.
Divide the mixture equally between the two tins and spread it out evenly. Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes. In my electric oven, I leave the top and bottom elements on for 10 minutes then switch off the top element for the rest of the time to avoid burning the tops of the cakes.
The sponges are ready when you touch the top and the cake springs back, or when a skewer placed in the centre of the cake comes out clean. Turn the cakes out on to a baking rack to cool completely.
When the sponges are cool, put one on a plate or cake stand, and spread with the jam and whipped cream. Place the other sponge on top, then dust with caster sugar. The Victoria Sandwich is best on the day it’s made but will keep for a day or two in the fridge.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com
Write to Pamela at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Pamela’s previous Lounge columns