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.