Victoria Sponge

Perfecting Victoria Sponge – The Creaming Variable

Creaming the butter and sugar is an important part of aerating cake batter. What is actually happening when you cream them together? Crafty Baking has a long, detailed discussion of this that I won’t repeat here, and as ever Joe Pastry has much wisdom to offer, but the basic principle I’ve gleaned from reading them is that you are trying to aerate the mix. The sugar crystals cut into the butter, forming small air cells or bubbles. When the batter is heated, these bubbles expand and lighten the cake. So naturally, for a light cake, you want more bubbles and ones that expand appropriately. It’s important to note that leaveners (such as baking powder) don’t create more bubbles when they release carbon dioxide nor does any steam produced when the cake batter heats up. Instead, the carbon dioxide and steam cause the existing bubbles to increase in size as they fill up the air cells (the bubbles). The cells expand until the batter sets and this determines the cake structure.

It seems logical that beating the butter and sugar until super fluffy would give you more bubbles, and that the more bubbles, the lighter and fluffier the cake. Not surprisingly, then, most recipes will tell you to aim for fluffy, pale-coloured butter/sugar mix, using softened butter and beating for at least 5 minutes. Many recipes and bakers subscribe to this view, for example here, here and here.

Crafty Baking disagrees on the need for huge amounts of beating, and even argues that butter shouldn’t be too soft as it tends to melt too much when beaten (due to the heat from the friction of beating). They suggest aiming for below room temperature, and after everything has been combined, the mix should be what they say is the optimum temperature for cake batter – 20 – 22C.

There is sense to the Crafty Baking view. Too few bubbles means a heavy dense cake or one with a coarse structure (as the small number of air cells will take up more of the carbon dioxide and steam), and just the right amount means a light, tender cake, but you can have too many. Paula Figoni explains in How Baking Works that too many of these ‘seed’ (ie initial) air cells mean that:

cell walls become overstretched, thin and weak. During baking, these thin cell walls stretch further and collapse… the baked goods will have poor volume.

That makes sense too, but did it make a difference in my experience? I made 8 batches, half where the butter was beaten until super-fluffy, pale and light. The other half, I followed Crafty Baking’s guidance, using my trusty Thermapen and checked the temperature along the way. Here’s some inept photographs of my efforts:

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So what was the result of my creaming experiment?… Well, let’s work out the comparison first. To see the effect of creaming method, I needed to compare Batches A and B (Mixes 1-4) with Batches C and D (Mixes 5-8). Specifically, the comparisons needed to be:

Mix 1 (Fluffy/Milk/Folded) versus Mix 7 (Creamy/Milk/Folded)

Mix 2 (Fluffy/Milk/Beaten) versus Mix 8 (Creamy/Milk/Beaten)

Mix 3 (Fluffy/NoMilk/Folded) versus Mix 5 (Creamy/NoMilk/Folded)

Mix 4 (Fluffy/NoMilk/Beaten) versus Mix 6 (Creamy/NoMilk/Beaten)

Here are the slices that resulted for comparison:

Mix 1 versus Mix 7

Mix 1 had quite an open crumb as did Mix 7. The latter was a little crumbly, but there wasn’t any appreciable difference between them.

Mix 2 versus Mix 8

Similarly, both had a close crumb (from the beating), but there was no significant difference between them. Mix 8 was better than Mix 7 as the crumb was a little less ‘clumsy’.

Mix 3 versus Mix 5

We couldn’t tell the difference…

Mix 4 versus Mix 6

And again, we couldn’t tell the difference…

After we’d done some direct comparisons, we tried for a global comparison, tasting all the fluffy ones then all the creamy ones. Again, we couldn’t discern much difference. If pressed, we agreed the fluffy ones had a slightly finer crumb texture but that was all.

Other Findings

It was rather difficult to add eggs to the creamy butter/sugar mix. The first batch curdled quite badly, but I was more on the ball for the second and avoided it. By contrast, it was pretty easy to add egg to the fluffy butter/sugar mix.

It was also quite a faff to follow the Crafty Baking instructions, so given that I couldn’t tell the difference, I wouldn’t bother again. I would avoid using really soft butter as they suggest, but that’s it. That’s not to say they’re wrong — they’re clearly vastly more experienced at baking than I am, but for me, when trying to follow what they suggest, it didn’t make an appreciable difference.

Verdict on Creaming

There might be a slight difference in crumb texture, but it was negligible in my experiment. So at least from my research, it doesn’t seem to matter too much if butter and sugar are creamed a lot or a little for Victoria Sponge. It needs to be at least creamy, but fluffy is at least as good (possibly better) or somewhere in between. Don’t sweat it too much on this one.

 

 

 

Perfecting Victoria Sponge – The Mixing Variable

I was always taught to fold in the flour (and milk if using) alternately once the butter and sugar had been creamed and the egg beaten in. This made sense to me, as you fold when you don’t want to break up the bubbles you’ve so carefully add to the mix. Also, stirring or beating flour in a liquid mix will develop the gluten, making the mixture more likely to be elastic or tough, which is exactly what no one wants in a cake. This is of course why one is always told not to overmix muffins and sponge cake. So I always avoided beating in the flour, even though many recipes and bakers I respect recommended doing it. This was, in fact, my prompt to do this experiment.

The results surprised me. But before we look at those, here’s the science (in short). As McGee puts it, a cake batter includes starch (from flour), egg proteins (which will coagulate upon heating), and gas bubbles (from the beating of the sugar and butter and any leavening agents), ‘all swimming in a syrup of water and sugar’. When this mix is heated, the gas bubbles expand and the mixture rises. This makes for a nice, light cake.

You want to capture these bubbles, so the cake needs to include something that will set it. In cakes, the structure comes mostly from starch. The starch granules absorb water, swell and gelatinise to set the structure of the cake. They form (according to McGee) ‘the rigid bulk of the walls that surround the bubbles of carbon dioxide’. This structure is set when the start granules have absorbed the water and gelated, and the proteins have coagulated (ie set). If the batter doesn’t set soon enough, the bubbles expand to be too large and the texture of the cake can be coarse. If it sets too soon, the texture will be close and the cake will be heavy. So you want bubbles, but not enormous ones. And you want lots of them. Many small, fine bubbles make for a tender cake.

Cake is nicest (I think) when it’s short – that is, it breaks rather than stretches. I want it to melt in my mouth. Cake is not for chewing on. Flour contains gluten as well as starch, and it is well-developed gluten that makes dough or batter elastic, and therefore stretchy and chewy. This is good in bread, bad in cake. As anyone who’s made bread knows, you knead the dough (mix it) to develop gluten to create a stretchy dough. An under-proved loaf will be more cake-like – not elastic and light, but ‘short’ and heavy. Therefore, by treating the batter gently and folding in the flour, the gluten remains undeveloped. And you would think this was best to get a nice, tender cake. Turns out, this was not the case…

The effect of folding versus beating in the flour can be seen by comparing Mixes 1, 3, 5 and 7 with Mixes 2, 4, 6 and 8. With each batch, I creamed butter and sugar, added eggs, then folded in the flour (and in some cases milk). I put half in one pan then beat the remaining mix for 30 seconds. And here are the pictures. The folded mix is always on the left.

Mix 1 (Fluffy/Milk/Folded) versus Mix 2 (Fluffy/Milk/Beaten)

What’s immediately apparent is that the beaten batter is smoother. It was much softer and easier to spread in the pan. The result was a much closer textured cake, but rather than being tough, it was in fact more tender! The crumb was finer, no tunneling (the big bubbles you can see in Mix 1), and less ‘crumby’. Mix 2 was shorter and melted in the mouth more, it was smoother to eat. Exactly the opposite of what I expected. We both chose Mix 2 over Mix 1.

Mix 3 (Fluffy/NoMilk/Folded) versus Mix 4 (Fluffy/NoMilk/Beaten)

Same result again with the Fluffy/NoMilk mix. Mix 3 had a ‘clumsy’ crumb, quite large and crumbly, whereas Mix 4 was still dry, but not as dry in the mouth as Mix 3. It was more tender to eat than Mix 3. Again, Mix 4 trumped Mix 3.

Mix 5 (Creamy/NoMilk/Folded) versus Mix 6 (Creamy/NoMilk/Beaten)

Very similar result, but interestingly with these mixes, where the butter and sugar were beaten less, there’s less difference between them. Far less tunneling in the folded mix here than in the Fluffy mixes, and fewer large bubbles in the folded mix. Mix 6 was the most like a sponge cake, quite dry and springy.

Mix 7 (Creamy/Milk/Folded) versus Mix 8 (Creamy/Milk/Beaten)

And the final comparison — same results again: beating the mixture after addition led to a much finer crumb but no loss of melt-in-the-mouth quality. Comparing the Fluffy and Creamy mixes, the distinction made by later beating was smaller because the folded batters had fewer large bubbles anyway as the butter/sugar hadn’t been beaten so much.

The overall comparison is unsurprising: beating after the flour has been added leads to a finer crumb, that’s more short. Folding, on the other hand, creates a coarser, more open crumb that feels a little more dry when you eat. Why? Large bubbles in cake make for coarse texture, whereas smaller bubbles lead to a finer texture. Folding creates a batter with large air bubbles in it. Beating once the flour is in breaks up any big bubbles and doesn’t introduce new ones, but it leaves the smaller ones, making the texture more even and fine. Beating too much would develop the gluten (making a tough cake), but beating just a little makes sure the air cells are small, so the texture is fine.

Finally, on dropping consistency — batters that were beaten after the flour was added were softer and dropped off the spoon more easily, so the milk wasn’t as necessary to achieve this consistency. Mystery solved.

Conclusion

For fine textured cake, beat in the flour but only until combined evenly. 30 seconds was enough with the paddle on my KitchenAid.

For more coarsely textured cake, fold in the flour.

I like the fine texture, my tasting partner liked it more coarse — so it’s a matter of preference.

Postscript – April 2016

I was reading the excellent The Cake Blog the other day, and came across a post where they undertake a similar experiment to mine, but they compared beating barely at all with 5 minutes and a whopping 15 minutes of beating! They have some great pictures of the results, and came to the very interesting conclusion that actually beating a lot doesn’t toughen up the cake. In fact, it leaves it extremely fragile and breakable! The cake with the strongest structure was in fact the one they beat for only a minimal time. Why? Well, as they rightly explain, the more you beat, the more the proteins become coated with the fat in the cake, and this prevents them forming the strong bonds that make the structure. Cake has far far more fat in it that most breads (except brioche), so lots of kneading/beating has a different impact on cake than it has on bread it seems. They also suggest that “extended mixing will allowa for more reaciton of leavening agents, reducing the expansion of air pockets, leading to a ‘shorter’ cake” AND more mixing, they explain, increases sugar dispersal, which in turn means more sugar interacts with the structure-forming proteins, again reducing their ability to bond and create a strong structure, and hence contributes to a shorter texture.

They conclude that 2 – 6 minutes is the perfect amount of time to beat the cake once everything is combined. Longer than my tentative 30 seconds. Armed with this fascinating new knowledge, I’ll give it try next time.

 

Perfecting Victoria Sponge – The Milk Variable

Victoria Sponge recipes (as with Pound Cake) generally don’t include milk. One is, however, told to get the mixture to a dropping consistency. I never really managed to achieve a dropping consistency without adding milk, so I always tended to add a few tablespoons (I can now achieve dropping consistency without milk but more on that next post).

What should milk do to a batter? Obviously, it adds moisture. According to McGee, in a batter, milk provides proteins, fats, emulsifiers and its acidity weaken the gluten network. The emulsifiers also stabilize bubbles and starch. This, he says, has a tenderising effect on the finished product, but I would guess also supports the structure of the cake because the milk stabilises the starch which provides much of the structural material in the cake.

So let’s see what happened in the comparison test. The effect of including milk can be seen by comparing Batches A and C with Batches B and D. Specifically, the comparisons are as follows (the first mix is the milky one):

Mix 1 (Fluffy/Milk/Folded) versus Mix 3 (Fluffy/NoMilk/Folded)

The crumb for Mix 1 was tender and close, Mix 3 was more open and dry.

Mix 2 (Fluffy/Milk/Beaten) versus Mix 4 (Fluffy/NoMilk/Beaten)

Mix 2 was also close and tender, quite like Madeira cake, whereas Mix 4 was much dryer (and in fact more dry than Mix 3). The crumb was more open than that of Mix 2.

Mix 7 (Creamy/Milk/Folded) versus Mix 5 (Creamy/NoMilk/Folded)

Again, milky Mix 7 had a close crumb that was moist, while Mix 5 was more open, elastic and had larger bubbles.

Mix 8 (Creamy/Milk/Beaten) versus Mix 6 (Creamy/NoMilk/Beaten)

And as might be guessed, Mix 8 was tender and moist with a closer crumb than Mix 6, which was springy and open, almost like a sponge cake.

Overall comparison of milky versus non-milky suggested that milk made the texture much more close and tender, more melt-in-the-mouth than elastic and spongy. Milky cakes rose less overall, with a larger rise in the middle while non-milky were flat topped. The crust on the milky cakes was a more golden colour. As the creamy/fluffy variable made no difference, it’s not surprising that those four slices were very similar. The beating/folding variable did make a difference (more on that next post) in general — the crumb was finer when the mix was beaten — and so a milky mix that was beaten instead of folded had the finest, most ‘short’ crumb. As a result, of all 8 mixes, Mix 2 was the most fine and short — Mix 2 was Fluffy/Milk/Beaten.

Conclusion

If you want a more moist, tender cake, add milk. About 2-3 tbs should get you to dropping consistency. If you like your cake more dry and spongy, leave out the milk. If I were planning to add syrup to soak the cake, I’d leave out the milk but otherwise I much preferred the texture of the milky ones. For a cake closest to a Madeira cake texture — close, short, tender — Mix 2 is the way to go (Fluffy/Milk/Beaten).

 

Perfecting Victoria Sponge – The Project Begins

In baking, one often comes across a recipe that says ‘you must do it this way’ but doesn’t really explain why. ‘Cooking out the flour’ when you make a creme patissiere is a good example of this (go here for the answers). It’s often not clear what difference changing the quantities or methods will have. Vice versa, it can be hard to know how to achieve the outcome you want. Recipes are geared towards achieving the writer’s view of ‘best’, but that might not be yours (and often isn’t mine).

So with these thoughts in mind, I’m embarking on a search for these answers. I want to find out what makes a difference and what doesn’t, how to achieve the endpoints I want and avoid those I don’t. I’m going to take a classic bake, determine the main variables and areas of disagreement and then test them to see what impact they have on the finished product.

I decided to start with Victoria Sponge, partly because I like eating it, and partly because it’s simple place to start. The recipe is pretty uncontentious — weigh the eggs, then use the same weight of SR flour, butter and sugar. There is debate about whether to add milk. So that’s only one variable to start with (call it ‘Milk variable’). There’s also some argument about how much raising agent to include, but Felicity Cloake has already explored this thoroughly and I’m sticking with her recipe:

Felicity Cloake’s Victoria Sponge

  • 3 large eggs, weighed in their shells
  • The same weight of soft lightly salted butter, caster sugar and self-raising flour
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • Generous pinch salt
  • 2 tbsp milk

There are three main schools of thought on how to make the sponge (and some outlier approaches as Cloake notes). There’s the Nigella/Mary Berry school, that advocates bunging everything into the mixer or food processor, whizzing it for a while and then boshing it into the pans (though I doubt Mary does much ‘boshing’). Then there’s what I think of as the traditional approach: cream butter and sugar until fluffy, then add the milk and flour by turns, folding in carefully (call it ‘the traditional school’). Finally, there’s the middle ground: cream butter and sugar, but beat in the flour with the mixer (the ‘middle school’). I’ll call this the ‘mixing variable’.

Finally, in my research, I came across a challenge to what I’d always considered a settled matter — creaming. Most recipes tell you to cream the butter and sugar, and they mean do this until it’s pale and fluffy. This can take 5 or even 10 minutes. But then I read Crafty Baking’s detailed exploration of creaming, in which they advocate far less beating and certainly the mix shouldn’t be fluffy and soft. Call this the ‘creaming variable’.

So now I have three variables that I think are worth testing, two options with two of them, three with the mixing variable. If I made all of them, that would be 12 batches. That’s a bit much even for me, so I settled on making 8 batches: two options for each variable, comparing only the traditional school of mixing with the middle school as this would isolate what I was most interested in — the effect of beating in flour. Also, Cloake had already noted Annie Bell’s comment on the all-in-one mix approach

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.

Given the time involved, I was prepared to take their word for it.

I approached things thusly:This translates as:

Creaming variable: Fluffy (Beat until fluffy method) or Creamy (Crafty Baking method)

Milk variable: Milk or No Milk

Mixing variable: Folded or Beaten

I gathered ingredients for four batches……and tested as follows:

Batch A: Fluffy / Milk –> divided in half–> folded flour into half (Mix 1), beat flour into other half (Mix 2)

Batch B: Fluffy / No Milk –> divided in half–> folded flour into half (Mix 3), beat flour into other half (Mix 2)

Batch C: Creamy / No Milk –> divided in half–> folded flour into half (Mix 5), beat flour into other half (Mix 6)

Batch D: Creamy / Milk –> divided in half–> folded flour into half (Mix 7), beat flour into other half (Mix 8).*

This produced a mountain of cake.And Mark (my testing buddy) and I were truly sick of tasting cake by the end, but we were committed to the project, so it just had to be eaten.

In the next three posts, I’ll go through each variable. For now, I need a cup of tea and a lie down.

* Not quite the most rational order – I plead the ‘I had a new baby’ defence.

Perfecting Victoria Sponge – Conclusion

I tested what I considered the three key variables that I felt I needed to understand to improve my Victoria Sponge: creaming method, whether to use milk, and whether to beat or fold in the dry ingredients. I concluded the following:

Creaming: There was only a slight difference in crumb texture whether I creamed a lot or a little. It needs to be at least creamy, but fluffy is at least as good (possibly better). I’d say cream until fluffy to be sure, but it will cope if it’s not massively creamy. Correct me if your experience differs.

Milk: Add milk if you want a more moist cake, but I would leave it out if you’re planning to add some syrup or something else that will also add moisture.

Mixing: Folding in the dry ingredients gave a more coarse, open-texture, while beating it in at the end produced a more close crumb. Both were nice, so it’s a matter of preference.

There are of course many other variables: what sort of flour (I’d use cake flour), European butter or not (I have no idea!), whether to let the mixture sit for a while before baking (I’ll test this some time…). Most of the variables ended up a matter of preference, really, so make the cake you want to eat and hopefully my little project will help you do so.

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