It’s the season finale. The Super Bowl. The night of the big show. We’ve reached the end of our experiment to go through an entire season of The Great British Bake Off and attempt to also make beautiful and delicious baked goods. For our final installment, we’re going with classic British cakes, and what could be more classic or more British than the Victoria Sponge? It’s a cake named for Queen Victoria, who was “known to enjoy a slice of the sponge cake with her afternoon tea.” I mean, don’t we all?
The bake: Victoria Sponge
Annemarie & Brooke
We had decided with fellow WWT-er Brit a month or more ago that we were going to do a full day of watching Christmas movies and baking. This past Saturday was that day, even though the temperatures were frigid and the roads were precarious. We started off with green Christmas wreaths made from marshmallows and cereal and buttered our hands to make them circular. Great fun! Then we had rum as we watched The Family Stone and Home Alone 2 and played some rounds of Overcooked. Hot buttered rum, to be exact. Obviously, the batter was homemade because we’re classy AF.
We went with The New York Times for our recipe because: classic. Also, the measurements were in American and we just can’t with the British conversions anymore. But by the time we got to reading the recipe for Victoria Sponge (Victoria Sandwich, if you’re nasty) we realized that while the butter was room temperature, the eggs were not. To speed the process, as it was getting dark, Annemarie decided to put the three eggs in her sweater and coddle them as we played a few levels of Overcooked. So far, so good.
All the ingredients were ready, Brooke was conveying information to Annemarie and we started with creaming butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. However, Annemarie got excited about the now-room temperature eggs and added them instead of the butter. Baking is a science, and we decided not to try to get clever and waste butter as well as sugar and eggs by just forging ahead, so we dumped out the bowl and started over. NOOOO THE CODDLED EGGS!
The dry ingredients also got off to a dubious start as Brooke’s measuring spoons said “TBS” instead of the expected “TBSP,” so Annemarie went ahead and added 3 tablespoons of baking powder instead of 3 teaspoons. Insert rolling eyes emoji. As they say, you get what you pay for, and those dollar store measuring devices were quite clearly A TRAP.
Despite starting over TWICE, which has never happened in this challenge or in real life (at least to Annemarie), and having to use 9″ pans (we clearly need 8″ for Christmas as they seem to be the cake standard), the cake went in the oven with not too much more fuss. It came out golden brown and crispy on top, as described by the recipe and Brooke’s extensive knowledge on the subject based on English experience this year.
It was getting darker, so we put the cakes in the freezer for 15 minutes to speed along the cooling process as we whipped cream with a bit of sugar and prepped the strawberry preserves. On went the preserves, with whipped cream on top of the “less cute” of the two cake halves, then the top went on. Powdered sugar makes everything look classy, and we dug in. We all haven’t had the privilege of trying the Highclere Castle version recently (Brooke did and she won’t shut up about it), but the not-too-sweet cake with a spongy inside and crisp top, jam and whipped cream were simply divine. So yeah, we’re officially calling this one the crowning achievement of this whole experiment — sorry, biscotti, you’ve been unseated.
Annemarie is making another Victoria Sponge this week for the celebration of Brooke’s birth, as is Kelsey, so we will see whose sponge reigns supreme…
The solo effort was much easier, plus I stuck with the NY Times recipe. No rum, no problems. I was lacking morning coffee until about halfway through, but even without caffeine, this cake is by far the easiest cake I’ve ever made. Very few ingredients, simple steps and no real altitude drama. Just a little sinking in the middle, which is easily combatted with jam.
Speaking of jam, I went with a raspberry preserve this time for the center, and slightly-sweetened fresh whipped cream. I added a bit of almond extract to the cream which, regardless of jam choice, bumps up the awesomeness factor by about 1,000. Since I know Brooke’s a fan of almond extract, I’m unashamedly pandering to my base for the win.
I don’t know how Kelsey’s tasted, and since it’s cake and you can’t just slice off a piece before you give it as a gift, mine goes untasted by yours truly as well. Since I know the previously made, rum-soaked version was crispy on top, loud with butter and creamy/jammy in the middle, I have little doubt that the second try will be just as delectable. All I know for sure is that next time I’m in England, I’m getting Victoria Sponge wherever I find it.
Now I’ll say when I started baking this cake, I thought I was only competing against the ghost of a British cake Brooke had tasted some three months ago. It is only as of this day, as I put down these words, that I realize not only was I competing against the formidable Annemarie, but also the power of a boozy Brooke and Annemarie as a unified front. However, given how I overthink things on a base-level day, it’s likely best I didn’t have the pressure of these foes weighing on me on bake day.
I sourced my recipe from foodgawker … because I guess I like the danger of trusting bloggers who may have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. But hell, they can take a pretty picture of it, so they’re dedicated in some form, right?
I started off following all instructions to the letter — I got the fancy sugar, I used European butter, I weighed everything out in grams, I sifted the flour. The process was all coming along very nicely (aside from when I almost forgot to add said fancy sugar to my flour and butter mixture. However, when it came time to bake, I disregarded the blogger’s instructions to divide the batter into two springform pans. Who has TWO springform pans? No one. Even she said she just poured all of her buttery mixture into one springform pan and then cut the cake in two once everything was cooled and lovely. So, I boldly followed.
What I happened to miss was how long she put cooked the darn thing. So around the 20-minute mark, when the divided-out cakes should have been done, I opened the oven and witnessed a beautiful, rising mound of golden batter. Beautiful, but nowhere near done. This is when I first started sensing trouble, but I shut the door and made a mental note to check on the cake in about 20 more minutes.
Note to everyone: Mental notes just don’t cut it when dealing with the science of baking . Also: Opening the oven door when baking a sponge does not cut it. Approximately 20 minutes later, I was finishing up with dinner, thinking about what I would do later that night and was struck with the sudden thought, “NOOOOO, MY CAKE.”
I rushed into the kitchen, opened the door and saw the double insult that was waiting for me. My cake had sunken tragically, and it was still undercooked. Dejected, I once again left my cake in its fiery home and let it cook for about 7 more minutes. At this point, we can skip over me sulking and asking my mom questions about cake she probably didn’t really care about. It’s cake. You eat it. It’s delicious. That should be the end.
Like a child miffed at a parent, I ignored my cake the rest of the night, letting it sit there on its cooling rack to think about what it had done (though I snuck down right before falling asleep and wrapped it in cling wrap and delicately placed it in the fridge). I would save major cake decisions for later.
The next morning I emerged ready to take on fillings. This was the first time I had used powdered sugar to sweeten whipped cream and I have to say I loved the effect—it seemed lighter and to hold shape better. But this recipe called for a hell of a lot. I heated up the jar of jam and realized it was also a hell of a lot.
Looking at my sunken cake, I decided the only way to deal with all this “hell of a lot” would be to slice open the cake and make a hefty layer out of the fillings rather than just pave in the valley that sat in the middle. Proud and determined, I attempted to wield my serrated knife with surgical precision. It didn’t work quite that well, but I emerged with one half of the cake in a cake shape, and another shaped like a wreath. Atop the cake shape, I applied about 3/4 of the jam, 2/3 of the whipped cream and then stepped back to admire my work. Thoroughly satisfied with a disaster transformed, I carefully placed my wreath cake atop the mountain of whipped cream, and watched as jam and cream alike slowly started to overflow the sides. After some quick clean-up work (which was delicious), as instructed by my blogger, I topped the whole thing with a dusting of powdered sugar. I placed the cake on a cake round, and then inside a baker’s box and I have to say, at this point it looked pretty darn good.
The next step was transporting a wobbly cake on public transportation for an hour, walking a few blocks and delivering the cake the Brooke and her lucky work associates. Here I sampled this little beauty and I’ll say this: It’s not a triumph, but it was pretty damn good. As a girl who doesn’t really care for traditional cake icings, I was in love with how much whipped cream there was. Though the cake was dense, the generous amount of jam had started to sink into the bottom layer and embeded it with a sweet raspberry flavor.
Now, the Victoria Sponge I sampled while over in the UK came from a rest-stop grocery store, so I can’t really say how it compares to the real thing. I know it was delicious and that a co-worker of Brooke’s, who is from England, declared it “pretty close” to the original. However if this one fails to pass, I’m happy to attempt to get closer to an authentic version as many times as it takes.
(Imagine a beautiful photo of a cake topped with another cake wreath here. Not knowing about the competition or documentation, I only took a goofy Snapchat photo.)
Since Brooke’s the only one to have tasted both cakes, she alone can render a victor! Brooke, what say you? Which sponge is the best of the best?
So here’s the thing about this task, I ate so much delicious sponge, I’m in quite a pickle now attempting to pick betwixt them. Both sponges were, at turns, innovative and classic.
Kelsey’s version had the most traditional taste to it, or at least, traditional in my limited experience. The flavors were highly reminiscent of the sponge at Highclere that set this whole thing into motion. However, Annemarie’s presentation was the twin of that sponge, while Kelsey’s sandwich featured heaps and heaps of cream on top as well as in the middle. A departure, but a tasty one.
And speaking of tasty departures, Annemarie infused her whipped cream with almond extract — a glorious flavor that changed the composition of the entire cake. As easily as that, the cake felt akin to the flavors of a breakfast pastry. Both sandwiches had the density that gives the sponge delightful hints of a cookie-like experience. Kelsey’s was moist and springy, while Annemarie’s had a closer texture that gave the sponge great chew and a crumbly nature.
What I’m getting at here is I had two quite different Victoria Sponge experiences. And I loved them both. In terms of the challenge of recreating the cake that knocked me so flat in England, Kelsey takes the crown. But, Annemarie’s innovative spirit means I got a second version that was loud with almond flavor, and I’m not even a little mad about it.
I daresay we’ll have to make this a yearly tradition, just so they both get to put their skills to use and stay sharp. I’ll step up and eat all of that sponge, because I am such a good friend.
We’re signing off on this series, but we’ll be back making things in 2017! They might be knitted or glued and only occasionally baked, but we’ll find some way of getting our make on.