Vicky Sarnie. Taste the Difference

As my favourite cookery writer Nigel Slater says:

“I can’t sleep if there’s not a cake in the house”.

This evening there wasn’t but there was a healthy quantity of eggs, butter & sugar left over from my last project, Mabel’s christening cake (post pending!).

To quote Xanthe Clay:

“Producing an evenly risen, high Victoria sponge sandwich cake, moist and tender with a buttery flavour and airy lightness, is the ultimate proof of the traditional British cook”.

Read her article if you’re passionate about sponge, it makes perfect sense.

Nige made a sponge with a twist last night using lemon & thyme. The theme of the episode was to use up what was left over from the weekly shop. This inspired me. I have always followed recipes & rarely venture out of my comfort zone to wing it & improvise. I think I should start to try.

All day I wracked my brains for a new flavour combination with the ingredients I already had in my cupboards – pears, apples, Cornflakes??? But nothing inspired. Unlike Nigel, I don’t have a weekly veg basket delivered from Abel & Cole so my cupboard was rather less inspiring!

In the end I decided I would make a basic sponge cake. Then I realised I didn’t have white caster. But that was ok as Nigel used golden caster in his show, commenting how it gave the sponge a lovely colour & a richer, more butterscotch flavour than white sugar. So I would try that.

Next I realised my old faithful, trusty sponge recipe (I still don’t know it by heart, despite making it umpteen times) in my Nigella Lawson “How to be a Domestic Goddess” book, was still in a box under the bed.

Time to revert to Google. Mary Berry has inspired me recently thanks to the Great British Bake Off so I googled her name & “victoria sponge” & up popped this recipe, claiming to be “perfect”.

Well, who am I to argue with Mary?? I thought this recipe may trump my old Nigella method. But then whilst reading it I realised it was very different to Nigella’s version. There was no milk, no vanilla essence, no sifting of the flour, no cornflour. Mary’s recipe uses the “all-in-one method” where all the ingredients are added to the mixer & mixed at the same time. Mary also uses margarine as this gives a lighter sponge when using the all-in-one method. But if you’re adding the flour & eggs in stages it is fine to use butter & gives a much better flavour than marg. I was skeptical.

There are many variations in method & ingredients for this traditional classic. Women’s Institute purists say you should weigh your eggs then weigh out an identical quantity each of butter & flour. They also say to cream the butter by hand, then add eggs, flour, eggs, flour in that order, which will make for a more tender sponge. I humbly agree. So does sifting the flour which adds air to the mix & makes it lighter. If you mix by hand you incorporate enough air so that you don’t need to use an additional rising agent. I can’t remember if Nigella uses self raising or plain flour but Mary’s recipe uses plain.

Nigel added ground almonds to his batter to give it a more moist texture.

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Of course traditionally the sponge is filled with just raspberry jam but I used what I had, which was strawberry. I have done this with homemade raspberry jam before & I could definitely taste the difference. I also think it benefits from a little whipped cream (what doesn’t?).

From this basic recipe you can be adventurous & add all sorts of favours. Another favourite of mine I’ve made a few times for special occasions is Sophie Dahl’s orange & raspberry twist. The buttercream is very sweet & I prefer standard cream. I like to add a few tablespoons of icing sugar & some vanilla essence to sweeten it though.

Mary’s sponge was yummy. I liked the richness provided by the golden caster (not in Mary’s recipe). It was tender but lacked the extra depth without the vanilla essence.

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Making the perfect sponge means it must be light, moist & tender. To achieve this takes a little extra effort but it is well worth it. Here are my tips to attempt to achieve this:

• Ditch the Kitchenaid, beat by hand (don’t feel lazy if you do use the Kitchenaid, I usually do!)

• Cream the eggs & butter first then add flour, eggs, flour, eggs, flour in that order.

• Weigh the eggs then use equal amounts of butter & flour.

• Sift the flour before adding it to the mix. The higher you position the sieve the better.

• Replace 25g of the flour with cornflour.

• Use butter, not margarine.

• Add a dash of vanilla essence to the batter.

• Use room temperature eggs, butter & milk to stop the batter curdling (curdling takes away from the light texture).

• Don’t put the sponge in the fridge – it toughens it up. If you’re using fresh cream rather than buttercream you’ll have to eat it the same day!

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I will continue to think on different flavour combos to jazz up this traditional sponge. So far I love it best plain & simple, with the addition of fresh whipped cream, natch! Nigella’s recipe remains my tried & tested preference.

I’m going to try these super cute “can cakes” next.

Bex
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