This week saw Queen Elizabeth II become Britain’s longest-ruling monarch, beating her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 216 days. Various elements of their respective reigns have been compared, from family size and shape of economy, to the number of coins circulated under each and the number of streets named after them. In that last category, Queen Elizabeth II is well in the lead: 237 to Victoria’s 153!
With all this going on, the first thing that came to my mind (in true foodie fashion) was Victoria Sponge: the classic British teatime cake that gives mouthfuls of summery goodness with its combination of raspberry jam and cream. No, wait – that should read ‘anytime’ cake.
Sponge cakes were popular during the 18th century and grew more so with the development of ‘afternoon tea’. This hallowed British tradition supposedly came about in the 1840s thanks to Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford. Unable to face the long gap between lunch and dinner, she asked to be served a snack of tea, buttered bread, and cake in the middle of the afternoon. Her friends were later called on to enjoy this with her, and the practice spread.
An image of Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, from around 1820. Located via Wikimedia Commons.
Victoria Sponges were one type of cake served at teatime, said to have been a favourite of Queen Victoria; hence the name. They were then known as ‘Victoria Sandwiches’ – a name which is of course still common today. The first written record of the term can be found in the famed 1861 publication, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Note the lack of cream, which seems to have been a later addition:
- INGREDIENTS – 4 eggs; their weight in pounded sugar, butter, and flour; 1/4 saltspoonful 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 crossbars on a glass dish, and serve.
Average cost, 1s. 3d.
Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.
Seasonable at any time.
From Chapter 29 of Isabella Beeton’s Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
This recipe may not have been thought up by Isabella Beeton, as she plagiarized many of the pieces featured in her book. More importantly, note that even Mrs Beeton (or whoever thought up the original recipe) considered Victoria Sandwiches to be ‘seasonable at any time’. No arguments there!
The title page of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Located via Wikimedia Commons.
In the spirit of comparison, it should be known that one of Elizabeth II’s favourite afternoon tea cakes is honey and cream sponge, according to her former royal chef, Darren McGrady. Another is chocolate biscuit cake, which also appears to be a family favourite – so much so that the Duke of Cambridge had it prepared for his wedding reception. Here’s the full recipe, taken with permission from McGrady’s website:
Chocolate Biscuit Cake
Makes 1 cake – 10 portions
Her Majesty the Queen’s favourite afternoon tea cake by far. This cake is probably the only one that is sent into the Royal dining room again and again until it has all gone.
4 ounces dark chocolate (for the cake)
4 ounces granulated sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter (softened)
8 ounces Rich Tea biscuits
½ teaspoon butter for greasing
8 ounces dark chocolate (for coating)
1 ounce chocolate (for decoration)
- Lightly grease a 6 inch by 2 ½ inch cake ring and place on a tray on a sheet of parchment paper.
- Break each of the biscuits into almond size pieces by hand and set aside.
- Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until the mixture starts to lighten.
- Melt the 4 ounces of chocolate and add to the butter mixture whilst constantly stirring.
- Beat in the egg to the mixture.
- Fold in the biscuit pieces until they are all coated with the chocolate mixture.
- Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake ring. Try to fill all of the gaps on the bottom of the ring because this will be the top when it is un-molded.
- Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least three hours.
- Remove the cake from the refrigerator and let it stand while you melt the 8 ounces of chocolate.
- Slide the ring off the cake and turn it upside down onto a cake wire.
- Pour the melted chocolate over the cake and smooth the top and sides using a palette knife.
- Allow the chocolate to set at room temperature.
- Carefully run a knife around the bottom of the cake where the chocolate has stuck it to the cake wire and lift it onto a tea plate.
- Melt the remaining 1 ounce of chocolate and use to decorate the top of the cake.
Cakes fit for queens: Victoria Sponge and chocolate biscuit cake. Taken from the website of Darren McGrady, former royal chef to Queen Elizabeth II.
Which cake you prefer is a matter of opinion and impossible choice (I suspect ‘both’ is the answer running through your head). That said, one thing is for sure: excellent taste in cakes definitely runs in the Royal Family!