Afternoon tea, the cream tea or high tea has an incredibly grand history and an impeccable pedigree, the Duchess of Bedford is believed to have created with what we now think of as high tea. As tastes changed and the huge Georgian midday meal had become less important and perhaps more importantly smaller, the Duchess is said to have suffered from “a sinking feeling” at about four o’clock in the afternoon. To counter this Duchess had her servants sneak her a pot of tea and a few baked cakes, bread and pastries into her dressing room. She soon invited friends to join her for this additional afternoon meal at five o’clock in her rooms at Belvoir Castle which centered around small, dainty cakes, bread, and butter, later to become delicate sandwiches, assorted sweets, and, of course, tea.
This practice proved so popular, the Duchess continued it when she returned to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking the fields”. The practice of inviting friends to come for tea in the afternoon was soon adopted by other social hostesses up to and including her Majesty Queen Victoria. This was presumably the holy of holies, the highest of high teas. From this humble beginning came what is now a baking classic, a simple cake recipe which was said to be one of the queen’s favourites particularly at Osborn House, on the Isle of Wight. According to historians, it was here that the cakes were named after her.
In the classic 1874 cookery book ‘Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery and Household Management ‘, a recipe is included for Victoria Sandwiches,
Ingredients; 4 eggs; their weight in pounded sugar, butter and flour; 1/4 salt spoonful of salt, a layer of any kind of jam or marmalade.
Mode; Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour and pounded sugar; stir these ingredients well together, and add the eggs, which should be previously thoroughly whisked. When the mixture has been well beaten for about 10 minutes, butter a Yorkshire-pudding tin, pour in the batter, and bake it in a moderate oven for 20 minutes. Let it cool, spread one half of the cake with a layer of nice preserve, place over it the other half of the cake, press the pieces slightly together, and then cut it into long finger-pieces; pile them in cross bars on a glass dish, and serve.
Average cost, 1s 3d Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons. Seasonable at any time.
My Perfect Vanilla Victoria Sponge
A Victoria sponge is produced by creaming the ingredients together. Other sponges can be made by whisking up the ingredients or by making a smooth batter. The rise in this cake is provided by the incorporation of beaten eggs and the self-raising flour, I find the extra half a teaspoon of baking powder guarantees a perfect result every time. I love the flavour of vanilla in my sponge recipe and the vanilla infused sugar just adds that little extra.
4 fresh Free-range Eggs
200 gr soft Butter or a mix of Butter and Margarine plus a little extra to grease the tins
200 gr Vanilla Caster Sugar
200 gr Self-Raising Flour
½ teaspoon Baking Powder
½ teaspoon Vanilla Extract*
Two 8 inch ( 20 cm ) sandwich tins
Preheat your oven to 180C/ 350F/ Gas Mark 4 and prepare your sandwich tins by first rubbing a little butter around the inside of the tins until the sides and base are lightly coated. Line the sides and the bottom of the tin with baking paper.
Place a damp cloth onto your worktop to prevent your mixing bowl from slipping. Place a large mixing bowl on top of the cloth and add the butter and sugar. You are going to cream or beat the two ingredients together, the easiest way to do this is with an electric hand mixer, but you can use a wooden spoon. When the butter and sugar are thoroughly mixed, sift the flour and baking powder together into a container and beat the eggs and vanilla extract in a second container.
Add a spoon of the sieved flour to your creamed butter mixture and about one-fifth of the beaten eggs. Beat in to thoroughly incorporate the egg, the flour will prevent the mixture from curdling or splitting. Repeat the process until all of the egg is completely mixed with the creamed butter and sugar.
Now change your whisk or wooden spoon for a metal serving spoon and fold in the remaining flour cutting through the mixture with the edge of the spoon in a figure of eight motion. The finished mixture should be of a soft ‘dropping’ consistency – it should fall off a spoon easily.
Divide the mixture evenly between the two prepared sandwich tins gently smoothing down the surface of the cakes. Tap the tins gently on the work surface to knock out any air bubbles and place the cakes on the center shelf of your oven for twenty minutes. DO NOT BE TEMPTED TO OPEN THE DOOR while the cakes are cooking. After twenty minutes you can check them, they may need another five minutes. A small skewer inserted in the center of the cake will come out free from any wet dough or crumbs.
The cakes are done when they’re golden-brown and coming away from the edge of the tins. Press them gently to check – they should be springy to the touch. Remove them from the oven and set aside to cool in their tins for five minutes. Then run a palette or rounded butter knife around the inside edge of the tin and carefully turn the cakes out onto a cooling rack.
Set aside to cool completely. To assemble the cake, place one cake upside down onto a plate and spread it with plenty of jam. If you want to, you can spread over whipped cream too. Top with the second cake, top-side up. Sprinkle over the reserved icing sugar
* Vanilla extract is more expensive than flavouring or essence but a far superior product and a little goes a very long way.