Tag Archives: The English Housewife

A Slice Of Victoria Sponge

A nation of cake lovers, the British spend over £1.3 billion on them a year and, in 2018/19, consumed on average 151 grams of cakes, buns, and pastries per person per week. The enforced changes to our daily routines over the last two years are likely to have seen these figures rise. Such is our obsession with the soft, sweet foodstuff that it has spawned an unlikely televisual hit in The Great British Bake Off (GBBO), now in its twelfth season, after initially airing August 17, 2010.

Firmly established amongst the nation’s favourites is the Victoria sponge, or the Victoria sandwich cake, a two-layer, sponge-like, airy cake with a layer of jam and, for the indulgent, cream in the middle and a dusting of icing sugar on the top. The lodestone of the recipe is the weight of the eggs in their shells which determines the proportions of the butter, sugar, and flour to be used.

Deceptively simple as the recipe may be, it is a real art to make the perfect Victoria sponge, so much so that it is seen as the yardstick for judging a baker’s acumen. The Women’s Institute have elevated it to an art form, where marks can be gained or lost depending upon the texture of the cake and the type of jam. Following suit, the GBBO has made one of its supreme challenges the production of the perfect Victoria sponge, where contestants seek to avoid such faux pas as a soggy bottom.

The origins of the sponge cake, so called because its texture is akin to that of the sea-dwelling sponge, can be traced back to at least the 15th century. At the court of the Duchy of Savoy, a confection like a sponge finger, a low-density, dry, egg-based, sweet sponge cake biscuit shaped like a large digit, known as a Savoiardi, was produced to mark the visit of the French king. So tasty was it that it was adopted as the court’s official biscuit.

The earliest British recipe appeared in Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife (1615), although he called it biscuit bread. The ingredients included a pound of fine flour, a pound of sugar, eight eggs, four yolks, as well as half an ounce of aniseeds and a similar quantity of coriander seeds. Making it was not for the faint-hearted as Markham warned that “will take very near an hour’s beating”, to perfect the mixture.

There is some controversy as to what the result looked like when it had been baked. Some commentators suggested that it would be very dense in texture, while others thought it would be more akin to a biscuit. One enterprising blogger went to the trouble of following the recipe and found that in texture it was slightly denser than a pound cake but with a similar sort of flavour. Perhaps that settles the argument.

Custard has a long culinary history, popular in the Middle Ages when baked in pastry, although, according to the 14th century collection of English recipes, The Forme of Cury, it was also used as a binding for meat and fish. Elizabeth Bird was very partial to it, but one of its principal ingredients, eggs, upset her delicate digestive system. Fortunately, she was married to Alfred, a chemist who in 1837 had set up a shop underneath the old Market Hall in Birmingham’s Bull Street.

A dutiful husband, Alfred challenged himself to develop an egg-free custard, so that his wife could indulge her passion. He found, after many failed attempts, that adding cornflour to the milky mixture when warmed would thicken it sufficiently to give it a custard-like texture. This new form of custard was tried out at a dinner party and pronounced a success. Delighted with the feedback, Alfred set up a company in 1843, Alfred Bird and Sons, to produce his custard powder on a commercial basis. To this day his name is synonymous the world over with custard.

Next time we will look at how another of Elizabeth’s allergies gave rise to the Victoria sponge. If you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions, available now.