With a new 8-part series currently on BBC2 and the accompanying book: The Great British Bake Off: How to bake the perfect Victoria sponge and other baking secrets (BBC Books), out now, priced £20.
Our traditional afternoon tea cake, named after Queen Victoria, remains a classic – two layers of light sponge, tasting of butter and vanilla, sandwiched with plenty of fruity jam. It looks so simple, so unadorned yet most appealing.
The sponge is made by the 'creaming' method – that is, the butter is creamed or beaten with the sugar, after which the eggs are gradually beaten in and finally the flour is carefully folded into the mixture. Good beating is the key to a good sponge.
• For a creamed sponge, the butter should be soft, rather than cold and hard, or warm and oily, so take it out of the fridge an hour or so in advance. Unsalted butter will give the best flavour to the cake.
• The best sugar to use for a sponge is caster. Granulated sugar is too coarse and takes a long time to dissolve as the mixture is being beaten, which results in a crust speckled with tiny particles after baking. Muscovado sugars are too strong in flavour and colour and their moist texture would make the crumb a bit sticky (just what is needed for other types of cakes, particularly rich fruit ones).
• Make sure the eggs are at room temperature. If they are too cold it will be harder for air to be whisked in, which makes it more likely that the mixture might curdle or separate, giving a heavy sponge.
• Self-raising flour is used because the chemical raising agents added to it give the sponge its lift and light texture. As an alternative you could use 225g plain flour plus 4 teaspoons baking powder. Flour for breadmaking is too strong for sponges – it has too much gluten, which will give a tough result. Sift the flour onto a sheet of greaseproof paper – sifting helps to add air as well as removing any lumps.
• To prepare the sponge tins, brush them with melted butter, then fit a disc of greaseproof or non-stick baking paper into the base of each.
Makes 1 large cake
For the sponge:
225g unsalted butter, softened
225g caster sugar
4 large free-range eggs, at room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
225g self-raising flour
1 tablespoon milk, at room temperature
For the filling:
6 rounded tablespoons good raspberry jam
Caster or icing sugar, for dusting
2 x 20.5cm sandwich tins, greased and base-lined
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4. Put the soft butter into a mixing bowl and beat with a wooden spoon, an electric mixer or your hand for a minute until very smooth and creamy.
2. Gradually beat in the sugar, then keep on beating for 3 to 4 minutes or until the mixture turns almost white and becomes very fluffy in texture; scrape down the bowl from time to time. Break the eggs into a small bowl, add the vanilla and beat lightly with a fork just to break them up. Slowly add to the creamed mixture, a tablespoon at a time, giving the mixture a good beating after each addition and frequently scraping down the bowl. This will take about 5 minutes. If the mixture looks as if it is about to curdle add a tablespoon of the sifted flour and then continue adding the last portions of egg.
4. Stop folding when there are no streaks of flour visible in the mixture.
5. Spoon the mixture into the 2 tins so they are equally filled – you can do this by eye or by weighing the tins as you fill them.
6. Spread the mixture evenly in the tins, right to the edges.
7. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a good golden brown and the sponges are springy when gently pressed with your fingertip. They should almost double in size during baking.
8. Remove the tins from the oven and leave for a minute – the sponges will contract slightly. Run a round-bladed knife around the inside of each tin to loosen the sponge, then turn out onto a wire rack and leave to cool.
9. Set one sponge upside down on a serving platter and spread over the jam. Gently set the other sponge, golden crust up, on top. Dust with sugar. Store in an airtight container and eat within 5 days.
TIP: To avoid the wire rack marking the top of the sponges, invert them, one at a time, onto a board lined with a sheet of greaseproof paper, then remove the tin and the lining paper. Set the upturned wire rack on the sponge underside, turn it over together and remove the paper and board.