New range of problems
As you will undoubtedly have noticed if you’ve read my last few entries, we’ve spent the last month or so moving from our old home in York to a new place in Leeds. You’ve seen our decidedly mixed opinions about places to eat out in our new city, but now we’re settled in and have got everything up and running (by which I mean a decent internet connection), we can return to our usual business of longer monthly blog posts.
Moving to a new city, even one that’s only about 25 miles up the road, necessitated a process of house hunting that was far longer and more laborious than usual (as I mentioned in a previous post). But we eventually found somewhere that we both liked in this Headingley flat. For Professor Plum at least, the new kitchen was a big part of the appeal that sold her on this place above any other, in particular the black cupboards-red tiles decor you can see in the picture here. (And indeed in the new photo of me at the top left of your screen, having been told that the big knife in the old one was a bit sinister!) Nevertheless, a new kitchen is bound to come with its own problems and appliances whose idiosyncrasies need a little getting used to. In this kitchen these are mostly related to the oven.
In our previous flat, we had to take our time getting used to reading an oven where all the information on the dials had long since disappeared, leaving us to guess which dial attached to which hob and what the temperature of the oven was. At first, then, it was a blessed relief to find an oven whose temperature we could tell without an oven thermometer, but soon it revealed that the superficially stylish kitchen was concealing a really cheap appliance.
One Sunday we had to replace our Sunday roast with a takeaway when the oven tripped its circuit breaker and turned off the power in the flat. We came so close to actually buying a microwave, before discovering that the oven just does this if you splash water on it. You just have to wait for it to dry out before you can turn the power back on! It’s not fan assisted either, meaning it cooks from heating elements above and below (with plenty more heat coming from below than above). As I’m still adjusting to using the new oven, then, I decided to use this week to put it to the test with a classic bit of baking.
As this summer represents the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Institute, I decided that perfect way of testing my new oven was with the WI’s signature bake – the Victoria Sandwich. Far from the most fashionable kind of cake even in the cosily traditional world of The Great British Bakeoff, the Victoria Sandwich is nevertheless the reliable standard from which most modern sponge cakes have developed. Certainly the last time I made a sandwich cake on here the basic recipe from which I developed my own was really just a cake like this.
While sponge cake recipes have been around since at least the 1600s (they make an appearance in recipe book The English Huswife by Shakespeare’s contemporary poet-playwright Gervase Markham – remember him?), they would traditionally have been unleavened, meaning they would use no raising agent (which at the time was just yeast). Any amount of airiness to the mixture would have been achieved by a vigorous beating of the eggs. All this changed with the introduction of non-yeast based raising agents that used chemical reactions instead to achieve a rise, giving the Victorians a whole new kind of cake.
Modern baking powders were invented in 1843 by Alfred Bird (of Bird’s Custard fame) and pretty soon there were a number of commercial baking powder options on the market. Traditional afternoon tea had involved heavy fruit cakes and seed cakes, but now these chemical raising agents allowed for a much lighter kind of sponge and the Victoria sandwich was born. (The popular notion that it is so-called because of an endorsement from the queen herself is probably untrue, indeed the suggestion is that its origins lie in nursery teas for young children. It takes the name of Victoria more as an iconic feature of an age that too is named for her). By the time of Isabella Beeton’s compendium of Victorian cookery advice Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861 there was a variety of sponge cakes and associated baking options using commercial baking powders. (And a lot of suggestion that you use beef dripping instead of butter).
In 1845, Welsh baker Henry Jones had invented self raising flour by adding the new baking powders to flour. He intended the new flour to be taken up by the navy to allow for something better than hard tack biscuits on long voyages, but it would take until the Crimean War for the Admiralty to be interested. In the meantime, however, there was a popular take-up of the new flour in domestic baking, in particular to enable the new sponge cakes to be baked more easily. These days virtually every Victoria Sandwich recipe, including the WI’s very strict one, utilises self raising flour (although in America it remains a magical, mysterious sounding product that oddly is not widely popular).
The nature of a Victoria Sandwich is that it is a simple bake, but even so the WI recipe is perhaps a little simple. Using just five ingredients, it is based simply on the weight of three eggs, the same weight of self raising flour, butter and sugar, and simply some home-made raspberry jam as a filling. It’s a good starting point, but as The Guardian‘s comprehensive rundown of other recipes shows, it can probably be improved slightly while sticking to the core principles of the classic cake.
Following on from The Guardian‘s various sources, therefore, I began by following the WI recipe, matching the weight of all the main ingredients to the eggs, creaming the butter and sugar together, beating in the eggs and then adding the flour. After this, though, I also added a teaspoon of vanilla essence and an additional teaspoon of baking powder just to make sure the cake became as light and fluffy as possible. Then came the moment of truth and a proper test of how the oven would handle the cakes.
According to Wikipedia, Victoria Sandwiches are the perfect way to test an oven as they are simple but sensitive to cooking times and temperatures. I’d thought our oven was inadequately hot on previous attempts at using it, but actually when it came to baking this cake it took less than 25 minutes at 180˚C. It did take far longer than most ovens to heat up to this temperature, though, so perhaps I’ve just been impatiently putting things in too early. The main issue that really needed keeping an eye on was the oven’s inability to heat evenly. I had to turn the cakes round half way through cooking and, as you can see, they’re a little darker on one side even so. They also had more of a crusty outside than would make an ideal sponge.
All of this is useful to know for using the oven in future, but how about finishing off the cake? The WI states that jam and only jam, more specifically home-made raspberry jam, is the only appropriate filling. Fortunately, I’ve already done making my own raspberry jam here, so that offers no problems. However, that seems a little lacking. Most Victoria Sandwich recipes add something creamy to the middle of the cake as well, so I felt that that was a legitimate addition to make. Personally, I’m not a fan of whipped cream particularly, so I went with a buttercream made of butter, icing sugar and double cream. As for the topping, there’s really only one option to be a proper Victoria Sandwich. Nothing more than a dusting of icing sugar would be acceptable.
So, how did it turn out? Well, it’s a perfectly decent Victoria Sandwich, but it’s never going to win any WI prizes. Whether that’s down to me or whether that’s the oven is a question I’m probably not qualified to answer. Given my doubts about the new oven, though, it actually turned out a lot better than expected. I’ve gained a greater understanding of the hardware of my new kitchen and got a pretty decent cake out of it too! All in all not a bad afternoon’s baking. Just kind of looking forward to the time when we can buy a house of our own and our own oven.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: A couple of weeks ago I tried making a chocolate cake in our new oven from Mustard’s birthday. You could see immediately that our oven isn’t even; one side of the sponge rose and cooked faster than the other. I had to spin it around to get it close to even. The whole oven takes aaaages to heat up (hob too) which is frustrating. The Victoria sponge was crispier on the outside than is generally ideal, but it actually made quite a nice texture contrast and it definitely wasn’t burnt.. Just… differently cooked. I don’t think we’re going to do well with cakes in the oven, but we’re slowly getting better at roasts, which counts for something.