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:
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.
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.