Ink on my Apron: A Victorious Sponge Affair
Whether you opt for a sprinkling of icing sugar instead of caster sugar or take a walk on the wild side and use a raspberry preserve instead of the traditional strawberry jam, a Victoria sponge done right is a regal cake tribute.
The world has a rather delightful way of opening up to you when you’re a broke student on a shoestring budget. I experienced a bit of a reading renaissance when I moved to Bath a few years ago – partly attributed to the fact that I was on a Creative Writing programme and partly influenced by the fact that it was impossible to remain oblivious to the charming British city’s rich literary history. Not only does Bath bear the distinction of having been the residence of Jane Austen but it also provided the backdrop for two of her most well-known novels – Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. It’s no coincidence then that my brush with independent bookshops in the city has forever changed the way I look at the book-buying experience.
My first ever book signing event and meet and greet session with an author, happened completely by chance at Topping & Company, a genuine treasure trove likely to spark a serious case of library envy with its floor-to-ceiling carefully curated bookshelves. I happened to be showing an out-of-town friend around and as we pressed our noses against the shopfront trying desperately to look past a “Shut for Private Event” sign, we were greeted by a smiley-faced man who came out and asked if we would like to join an author talk and live cooking demonstration with semi-finalist on The Great British Bake Off Chetna Makan who was on tour with her then just-launched book The Cardamom Trail. Apparently, there had been two last-minute dropouts and he wanted to offer us these spaces with his compliments.
I hadn’t, until that point, heard of Chetna, but she’s definitely one of those effervescent people you instantly take to. The Cardamom Trail is a baking nod to her Indian heritage and she’s conceived unique recipes for traditional Western favourites with a playful Indian twist. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating and my friend and I were impressed by how Chetna managed to produce some pretty darn good dishes from the book – such as a sponge cake with a cardamom and coffee filling, puff pastry bites filled with fenugreek paneer and a swirly bread rolled with citrusy coriander, mint and green mango chutney – in a makeshift kitchen setting.
I have to be honest and admit that while I haven’t, to date, bought any of her books I quite enjoy following her YouTube channel “Food with Chetna”, mostly because it’s refreshingly natural and candid – much like her own personality – and features lots of fuss-free dishes. A recent Mother’s Day Special featured three generations of Makan women helmed by Chetna’s young daughter making that all-English classic – a Victoria sponge. In true-to-form easy breezy Chetna style, the two-tiered cake seemed to come together effortlessly, inspiring me to give it a go.
The reluctant froster in me has always been more than ready to swap a cloying buttercream icing for a lick of fresh cream and I’m also happy to make a rare exception when it comes to a thin slathering of strawberry jam. On the whole, I love the almost naked look the finished cake bears with just a cloudy dusting of icing sugar.
While the components of a “true” Victoria sponge are hotly debated with purists maintaining that the original version savoured by Queen Victoria herself was sandwiched with jam alone, with the whipped cream layer being a 20th-century addition, others lie divided on the addition of extras such as vanilla. What, perhaps, has been the most controversial ingredient to be added to this mix is baking powder and the subsequent abuse of it in the competitive Victoria Sponge baking category of British fêtes with many cheeky contestants exploiting this substance to yield an impressive high rise.
The overall consensus, however, seems to be rather relaxed on the whole these days, with a somewhat laissez-faire approach and certain bakeries such as London’s popular Violet Cakes even showcasing cream-rich variations of Victoria sponges with different jams, depending on the turn of the seasons.
While in the case of cakes such as these, assembling always makes my heart flutter, Chetna’s recipe was so perfect that both layers were the right amount of flat and didn’t call for any covert paring action and that, in my books, is a real litmus test. After all, this is the cake so infamously sensitive to cooking times and temperatures that oven manufacturers often use a Victoria sponge recipe to test their ovens. So whether you opt for a sprinkling of icing sugar instead of caster sugar or take a walk on the wild side and use a raspberry preserve instead of the traditional strawberry jam, a Victoria sponge done right is a regal cake tribute.
Please find the video recipe here. Kindly note the video doesn’t specify what temperature the cakes need to be baked at and for how long but I clarified this with Chetna and the cakes need to be baked in a preheated oven at 180 degrees C for 20-25 minutes.
All photographs except the header courtesy of Jehan Nizar
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and a food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.