The Victoria Sponge is often viewed as a rather ‘simple’ cake these days, with so many incredible flavours and forms of cake now available. However, what may seem like a simple cake, has an incredible history and has had a huge influence globally on baking. Allow us to explore with you the history of The Victoria Sponge…
The cake's name should really be The Royal Victoria Sponge, as its name harks back to Queen Victoria herself, who was said to enjoy a slice of the delicious cake with her traditional English afternoon tea. It is on occasion also referred to The Victoria Sandwich, no doubt a reference to the filled nature of the two sponges.
Before we get into the history and the evolution of the Victoria sponge, firstly let’s go back to basics. The Victoria Sponge is a cake, created using a mix of sugar, butter, eggs and flour, sometimes with the addition of baking powder. The classic filling has come to be based around jam and cream or buttercream. The initial reason it was distinguished from a simple sponge was due to the invention of baking powder in 1843. The miracle powder allowed the cake to rise more and was invented by Alfred Bird, an Englishman involved in food manufacturing. The addition allowed for the cake to include more fat (in the form of butter), therefore creating a richer cake. Prior to this, cakes were made using equal measures of sugar, butter, flour and the addition of eggs to leaven sponge. However, the cakes without the additional baking powder were much thinner and not as ‘sponge’ like in consistency, making them more like a biscuit. The first reference found to these cakes in England dates all the way back to 1615. The cake itself actually originated in Spain (we have a lot to thank them for), and is dated back to the Renaissance era.
Whilst we now have the addition of the miraculous baking powder, making a delicious Victoria Sponge however is still a real talent. So much so that the WI (Women’s Institute) have special awards, where marks can be lost or gained based on texture and the type of jam used in the filling. This is not the only place where the baking of The Victoria Sponge has got competitive and it is a common occurrence at church fetes, as well as a challenge on the hugely popular television programme, ‘The Great British Bake Off.’
When it comes to ingredients, whilst the classic Victoria Sponge may seem like a simple cake, the ingredients are often debated by those aiming to create the perfect consistency, crumb and flavour. Herein lies a debate- to use self-rising flour, where baking powder is inbuilt, or plain flour and then add the baking powder? Some have even been known to use self-rising flour and baking powder, for a double whammy and extra light, risen sponge. Another optional ingredient is corn flour, giving the cake a lighter texture. The use of butter seems to be universally recognised, except when it comes to the baking Queen herself, Mary Berry, who instead opts, controversially, for margarine. Eggs too are a given, but in what quantities are again a source for debate. The Victoria Sponge purists will even go as far as to weigh their eggs, to ensure consistency and quality. Some have also been known to add an extra yolk with the purpose of creating a golden colour to the sponge. Some recipes add a splash of milk, with the intention of making the batter easier to spread in the pans, for a nice even cake. Another questionable addition is that of vanilla extract, which is often added in varying amounts to provide the gentle vanilla flavour to the sponge, although not always added by all.
Once you’ve finished debating the choice of ingredients, there is then the issue of the method. Modern recipes often call for throwing all the ingredients in and using an electric whisk/ food processor to create the cake batter. Arguably the most traditional method is to cream the butter and the sugar, before adding the eggs one by one (sometimes with a little of the flour), before folding in the dry ingredients. Variants on the hand beaten method include using melted butter and also first beating the butter and the flour together. The finished cake is hugely sensitive when it comes to oven temperature, so much so that some oven manufacturers actually use the cooking of a Victoria Sponge to test their oven's consistency.
As previously touched upon, even when you’ve finally decided on your choice of ingredients and method, you have the issue of how to fill and decorate the finished article. The traditional filling is jam (raspberry), however additional fillings have been added over time. One such debatable filling is the choice of butter cream or whipped cream, with some opting for freshly whipped cream, and others choosing a vanilla buttercream instead. The flavour of jam has moved over time, with some opting for strawberry rather than raspberry. Fresh berries too have often been added in more modern versions, in addition to the jam. The cake can then be dusted with caster sugar or some icing sugar, dependent on preference. The traditional version is only filled in the middle, however more modern versions have taken to decorating the top in addition (something we’re certainly guilty of, with our super jazzed up version of The Victoria Sponge Cake).
Moving beyond the traditional Victoria Sponge Cake, a number of ‘spin offs’ have occurred. These include the Cupcake version, as well as adding additional flavourings to the cake mixture in order to create different flavours. For example, the addition of cocoa powder has been used to create delicious chocolate sponges. The largest Victoria Sponge Cake was Guinness World Record breaking and made in Oxford, weighing in at an impressive 50 stone. The cake included in excess of 700 eggs and 30 lbs of jam! The impressively sized cake managed to feed over 100 people, as there was certainly plenty to go around. The sponge cake has also been credited with inspiring global creations, many of which still exclude the fat. In Latin America, the three-milk cake, or ‘tres leches’ cake as it is known, is a sponge (either with or without butter) which is then soaked in three milks, as the name suggests. These are condensed milk, cream and evaporated milk. Despite its name, the Spanish bread, is the Italian version of the sponge cake, referred to in Italian as ‘pan di Spagna’. Again, this sponge is made without butter, which makes it lighter, and is the basis for other deserts, such as tiramisu. This sponge is also known for its variants, sometimes flavoured with hazelnuts or lemon zest.
So, there we have it! What may seem like a ‘simple’ sponge cake, actually has a rich and rather royal history, having once been on the cutting edge of baking with its inclusion of baking powder and now constantly evolving with uses of different jams, creams and baking methods. The cake has gone on to inspire creations and variations around the world, forever winning a place in hearts globally.