The first thing I ever learned to cook was a Victoria sponge. Or possibly vanilla fairycakes. Either way we used the same recipe for both. Like a lot of children, baking with my mum was a normal and frequent activity and it was something that all of my sisters and I loved to do and something my nephews love to do now. The smell of vanilla-y sponge baking in the oven brings back really strong memories of my old childhood home, standing on a chair to peer into the oven, while annoyingly repeating on loop, "Is it nearly ready yet? What about... now?" Then there were the scrapes. The scrapes. In all their glorious, creamy, vanilla-scented, pale yellow deliciousness. I loved the scrapes and still think vanilla sponge makes the best scrapes by far. Fortunately, my mother never used a rubber spatula, so consequently there were always generous dollops of cake mixture left in the bowl after it had been poured in the tin. My sisters and I would have long negotiations about fair distribution (in each of our favour, obviously). Eating the scrapes was always the best bit about making cakes. That is until Edwina Currie ruined scrapes for children. Luckily for us, scrapes are back in fashion and Edwina Currie is, erm, a novelist? and making awkward telly appearances on Celebrity Come Dine With Me.
I've been thinking a lot about how evocative certain cakes are for me, and how firmly they are linked with particular times, places and people of my childhood. Chocolate swiss roll reminds me of watching the Saturday matinee on telly when it was raining outside. Angel cake reminds me of long car journeys to Devon, and rolling down the windows to shout "mint sauce" at fields of sheep. Chocolate mayonnaise cake (less weird than it sounds) reminds me of falling off the climbing frame and pretending it hurt much more than it did, so I'd get the biggest slice. And Battenberg reminds me of being sent home from school when I was 7 for writing all the words in a spelling test backwards. They were all spelled correctly, I hasten to add, they were just backwards, like mirror writing. Looking back, it seems a fairly histrionic decision on the part of Mrs Hayward to send me home, but at the time I thought it was a pretty good move. I don't like Battenberg at all anymore. Maybe because, the day after the backwards spelling test, I woke up with a terrible fever and was violently sick. Still now, it's the memory of that spelling test that comes back whenever I think of that horrible pink and yellow chequered square.
I feel privileged that I was trusted to cook as much as I was. It was not only brilliant to roll up my sleeves and get messy, but it was also an amazing feeling to have that sense of achievement from seeing how much my friends and family enjoyed eating something I had made. That fulfilling sense of "I did that". Learning to cook when I was very young really laid the foundations for my passion for baking now and, more significantly, my passion for creating new recipes and flavour combinations. Because I have known, off by heart, how to make a basic (Madeira) sponge since I was a small child, I now have the confidence to play. With almost all other types of cookery, people are happy to open the fridge, see what's inside and chuck a few things together until, half an hour later, hey presto, dinner is served. With baking, it's recipe books and worried scowls. Most people I know are at ease with making up a pasta sauce without an instruction manual, but will follow the recipe for a simple sponge so closely to the letter that the fire alarm will be going off and smoke billowing into the hallway, but still they'll be insisting that "the recipe says it should be in for another 10 minutes". People see it as a feat of alchemy and, granted, some cakes take skill and effort, but if you start with the basics the rest will come. It's largely about confidence. There are a lot of things in life to be scared of, but making a cake shouldn't be one of them. If you master the recipe for my basic sponge, you'll be able to make a hundred variations in no time. But for now, let's start at the very beginning. It's a very good place to start.
Basic Sponge/ Madeira Cake
Madeira cake was called Madeira cake originally because it was designed to be eaten alongside a glass of Madeira, so you could dunk the cake in your drink. The rules with Madeira cake are that the flour, sugar and butter are measured in equal weights. I always think in ounces for this recipe (and most others too, to be honest), because it makes so much more sense. 4 oz of flour, sugar and butter will require 2 eggs. 6 oz of flour, sugar and butter will need 3 eggs, 8 oz needs 4, and so on. As long as you remember that you need half the number of eggs to ounces, you've learned the rules. Add a dash of milk to loosen the mixture and it's done. Add vanilla extract and you've got the makings of a Victoria sponge in your mixing bowl. Once you've learned the rules you can play with them, and once you've played with them, you'll understand how to break them.
8 oz Caster sugar
8 oz Self-raising flour (plus 1 level tsp of baking powder if your flour isn't great quality)
8 oz unsalted butter, softened
A generous splash of milk
A dash of vanilla extract (not flavouring!)
Preheat the oven to 180 C or 160 for fan-assisted ovens. Grease and line 2 6" sandwich tins, or 1 deep 6", or a small loaf tin or just use the batter to make fairy cakes.
- Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy.
- Beat the eggs and add a little bit at a time to the butter and sugar mixture, whisking between each addition.
- Sift over the flour (and baking powder if you're using it) and mix in well. Don't overbeat the mixture or you'll overwork the gluten in the flour and your cake will turn out heavy and bready. Add the milk and vanilla and give the batter a final whisk. Taste it to make sure you've added enough vanilla extract and pour out into your tin/s or cupcake wrappers.
- Bake in the oven for 10 minutes for fairy cakes, 15 - 20 minutes for sandwich cakes or 25 for a deep single cake.
- Once cooked, an inserted skewer should come out clean.
- Place the cake/s (still in the tin/s) on a wire rack for 10 minutes before turning out.
- Ice and decorate as you wish.