It took the invention of baking powder to make such rich, buttery cakes possible. Since then the British have had plenty of time to perfect it.
It may not be fancy or fashionable, but I would be hard pressed to think of a cake I liked better than the simple Victoria sandwich. Coffee and walnut, or a damp, whisky-sodden fruited number might come close, but johnny-come-latelys such as the cheesecake or "death by chocolate" could never hope to compete with the quiet charms of this fete favourite. The Victoria sponge* didn't always keep such a low profile, however: once upon a time, old faithful sat proudly at the culinary cutting edge, because it took the invention of baking powder in the 1840s to make such rich, buttery cakes even possible, let alone popular. The sweet-toothed British celebrated this truly world-changing moment with a gloriously patriotic recipe (although anyone who attempted to follow Mrs Beeton's first version would have been left rather underwhelmed by its royal seal of approval, because the original domestic goddess/canny plagiarist left out the eggs).
No matter, because in the subsequent century and a half, we've had plenty of time to perfect it. Indeed, the Women's Institute (WI) has elevated Victoria sandwich-making to an art form: a rosette can be won or lost with a wantonly loose crumb, or the application of the wrong sort of jam. To be honest, though, I'm not too bothered about winning any prizes - a truly great cake is reward enough as far as I'm concerned.
* Strictly speaking, panino pedants, this popular name is a misnomer, because a true sponge, of the kind used in swiss rolls, is made from a whisked mixture of eggs, sugar and flour.
Flour and baking powderAs the miracle without which there would be no Victoria sandwich, it stands to reason that baking powder must be the most important ingredient. Indeed, so vital is it in this recipe that almost everyone opts for self-raising flour, which comes ready fortified with baking powder, apart from east London baker Lily Vanilli, who compensates by adding a whopping 1.5tbsp of baking powder to her plain flour instead.
Joanne Wheatley, past winner of the Great British Bake Off, and author of Home Baking, even tops up her self-raising flour with extra baking powder, as do the twin deities of Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson. I'd hardly dare argue with that lot, so fortunately, though such supplements are not sanctioned by the official WI version, I reckon they know whereof they speak: it makes the cakes even fluffier.
Lawson also uses a small proportion of cornflour along with her self-raising, which reduces the overall levels of gluten, and thus, in theory at least, makes for a softer result. To be honest, though her cake is lovely and light, I prefer a little more of a robust texture in my Victoria sponge: it shouldn't quite melt in the mouth; after all, that's what tea was invented for.
FatAlthough the Telegraph claims that Mary Berry believes margarine gives a lighter texture to cakes, she's certainly not admitting it in the Great British Bake Off book: indeed, everyone except Wheatley opts for butter instead. Although she adds an extra egg yolk for colour and richness, I miss the flavour of butter: with careful beating, and a little baking powder, heaviness shouldn't be a problem. That said, a little milk, as used by Lawson, helps bring the mixture to just the right dropping consistency - I find the WI's batter thick and difficult to spread evenly in the tins.
MethodIn one of two recipes for a Victoria sponge in her book, English Food, Jane Grigson melts the butter with water before adding it to the mixture, to create a "delicate, foolproof cake of the Genoise type" that she credits to the West Sussex Women's Institute. Foolproof it may be, but mine's oddly flat and, though undeniably light, rather chewy, like a boudoir biscuit.
Vanilli's method is yet more unusual: she mixes the butter and flour first, coating the flour with fat, "which inhibits the development of gluten and produces a very soft crumb" - hence, presumably, the amount of baking powder. Her cake is indeed pillowy, but, though light it seems off-puttingly dense and moist, more like an American cake or even a muffin than a Victoria sponge.
Smith and Wheatley both go for the gratifyingly quick all-in-one method, where the ingredients are simply beaten together and baked, rather than the traditional sequence of beating together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, and then gradually introducing the eggs, and finally folding in the flour.
Annie Bell admits in her Baking Bible that she was once a fan of the easy version, but, after testing both it "unanimously came back that the whisked sponge was much lighter ... the all-in-one was denser and chewier". Although, as Bell observes, I would scarcely have noticed the difference separately, when tasted side by side, the traditional method produces a distinctly less coarse, more delicate texture.
Rather than giving exact amounts, the WI weighs the eggs in their shells, then calculates the weight of the flour, butter and sugar accordingly. This seems an eminently sensible idea, given the remarkable variation even within boxes graded by size.
Flavourings and toppingsVanilla extract is near ubiquitous here, with Vanilli in particular adding a huge amount, but I find it overpowering and sickly, so I'm going to side with the WI. I'm also with them on their caster sugar topping, which, unlike Lawson or Smith's prettier icing sugar, adds a satisfactory crunch to proceedings.
Though I love the seedy texture of raspberry jam ("homemade/good quality") I can't agree with the WI's spartan prohibition of any other filling. Like food writer Xanthe Clay, I think adding something creamy "rounds out the flavours". Though the poshest of cakes seem to use fresh whipped stuff (Jane Grigson in particular is very snooty about buttercream) and Smith goes for a highly suspect continental mixture of mascarpone and fromage frais, I've fallen in love with Vanilli's decadent buttercream. This I'll allow to have the merest nod of vanilla.
Smith and Lawson stuff the cakes with fresh berries, and Vanilli makes a fresh berry compote to replace the jam, but all that fanciness is a step too far. We are in Britain, after all.
The perfect Victoria sponge3 large eggs, weighed in their shells
The same weight of soft lightly salted butter, caster sugar and self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
5tbsp raspberry jam
Caster sugar, to top
For the buttercream:
100g butter, softened
200g icing sugar
50ml double cream
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F/gas mark 4) and grease and base-line 2 x 21cm sandwich tins. Put the butter and sugar into a food mixer, or use a hand mixer to combine until light and really fluffy - this should take a good couple of minutes.
Scrape down the sides, beat the eggs together, then add them to the mixture a little at a time. Scrape the sides of the bowl down to make sure everything is mixed in properly.
Fold in the flour, baking powder and 1/2tsp salt, then add enough milk so that the mixture drops easily off a spoon, but does not run off. Divide evenly between the tins, smooth the top and put in the oven for 25-30 minutes until golden and well risen: a skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean.
Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then put, flat-side down, on a wire rack to cool completely. Meanwhile, make the buttercream by beating the butter until light and fluffy, then adding the sugar and cream and a pinch of salt. Beat together well, then set aside until the cake is cool.
To assemble the cake, put the least favoured cake, whichever it is, on to a plate or stand, and spread generously with jam. Top with a layer of buttercream, then add the second cake, flat-side down. Dust the top with caster sugar, and devour.
Is the Victoria sandwich the unsung hero of our teatime repertoire, or does it deserve its dull reputation? Have you ever won a prize for yours, and which other old-fashioned cakes would you revive given half the chance? (My vote's for seed cake: it always sounded so very jolly in Enid Blyton's fabulous midnight feasts.)
Felicity Cloake's perfect Victoria sponge cake. Photographs: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian