Victoria sandwich – History & science of a cake

The Victoria sandwich is one of those bakes with a very rich history to it. It is believed to have been (one of) Queen Victoria’s favorite cake(s). It is a round cake of two layers with jam in the middle.

As is the case with every food with a rich history to it, the Victoria sandwich has changed and morphed over time. It’s hard to find  the ‘original’, if there is even a need to do so. We’ll go on a journey through Victoria sandwich land, ending with a modern day variety.

Queen Victoria’s reign, a time of change

Queen Victoria reigned over the UK in the 19th century, from 1837 until her death in 1901. During her reign the country went through a lot of changes. She was the first British monarch to take a train for  instance. More importantly for this story though, she was probably also the first monarch to have enjoyed cakes made with the modern leavening agents baking powder and baking soda!

Invention of baking powder & baking soda

Baking powder and baking soda (here‘s how they work) were only invented in the first half of the 19th century. The first products for consumers started coming on the market in the 2nd half of that century. Around the turn of the century, a wide variety of brands has been started, all selling baking powder & soda. When baking powder & baking soda arrived on the British market isn’t easy to find, but it’s likely to have found its way into the Royal palace before the end of Victoria’s reign.

two slices of victoria sandwich

The importance of baking powder for cakes

So why is this invention of importance for the cakes Queen Victoria (and others at the time for that matter) ate? Before the invention of baking powder & baking soda it was a lot harder to make a light and airy fluffy cake. You could use yeast, but that takes a lot more time, or eggs, but that takes a tremendous amount of whipping (especially without an electric mixer). Baking powder made it a lot easier to create an airy cake.

Baking powder in a Victorian sandwich?

This is where recipes and opinions start to divert. Some claim that the addition of baking powder is what makes the cake so delicious. In other words, it’s what made it unique at the time. Others don’t use any and whisk the batter a lot more to create those desired air bubbles.

The recipe we made (at the bottom of this post) does include baking powder.

The type of cake: sponge vs. pound?

In the world of cake baking there are a lot of different cakes, with a lot of different names that aren’t always used consistently (as we also discovered when researching Genoise cakes). A sponge cake tends to involve whisking up egg whites to create air. A pound cake, which is equal quantities of eggs, butter, flour and sugar, on the other hand does not, modern versions often contain baking powder. Which style you use, thus depends at least partially on whether you use baking powder or not.

The 2 (or 3?) components of a Victoria sandwich

Everybody seems to agree that a Victorian sandwich consists of two layers of cake with jam in between. The classical jam to use would be raspberry, but most recipe writers give the cooks the freedom to choose whichever they want.

There is some disagreement though as to whether a Victorian sandwich also contains sweetened whipped cream. Most classical recipes don’t, but if you like it, why not?

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Victoria sandwich with cranberry jam and icing sugar

Victoria sandwich – with cranberry jam

  • Author: Scienchef
  • Prep Time: 20 min
  • Cook Time: 30 min
  • Total Time: 50 minutes
  • Yield: 6-8 portions

Description

A British classic: two layers of cake with a layer of jam (some include cream) in the middle. This recipe uses a home made jam but you can easily swap it out for store bought. Raspberry jam is commonly used, a slightly sour/tart jam works particularly well to cut through the sweetness of the sponge.

Most recipes will ask you to bake two separate cakes and put these on top of one another. However, since they both won’t be flat at the top, it’s hard to stack them. Also, if you don’t have to cake pans of the same size, it’s going to take a lot more time. So, we’re just baking one cake and cutting it in half.

The cake of this recipe is inspired by Mary Barry’s cookbook the Baking Bible.


Ingredients

For the cake:

  • 115g butter
  • 115g granulated sugar
  • 115g regular flour
  • 2 eggs (which is a little over 100g)
  • 2 tsp baking powder

For the cranberry jam (this makes about twice the amount you need for the cake*):

  • 250g fresh cranberries
  • 200g sugar
  • zest of one orange
  • juice of one orange
  • 200ml water
  • 1 small (or 1/2) cinnamon stick and two cloves (optional for an extra punch)

Instructions

Cake:

  1. For the sponge cake you can simply add ingredients into a bowl and use an electric mixer to mix hem all together. Take care to use softened butter so it mixes well through. The cake isn’t as delicate as you might expect so it’s somewhat harder to overmix than most other cake batters.
  2. Take a 15/16 cm diameter spring from and cover the bottom with parchment paper. Fill the pan with cake batter, keep in mind that the cake will rise considerably during baking and almost double in height.
  3. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C until a tester comes out clean, approx. 30 minutes.
  4. Leave the cake to cool and wait with the assembly until just before you’ll be eating it, that way it stays best longest.

Jam

  1. Add all the ingredients to a small pan and bring to the boil. Once it’s boiling turn down the heat to a low. The mixture should be simmering slowly so it doesn’t overflow. The cranberries will soften and break down over time. The cinnamon & clove will slowly give off their flavour, once you find the flavour strong enough, take them from the jam.
  2. You should cook the jam mixture until it is slightly thick and will not pour down when cooled. You can use a thermometer (cook until about 105C, here‘s more on how that works) or simply take a small bit of jam out of the pan and leave it to cool down to room temperature on a spoon. Once cooled down, which should go quite quickly, judge the consistency and see if you’re happy with it.
  3. It takes about 1-1,5 hours to cook the jam.

Assembly

  1. Once the cake has cooled down to body temperature or lower, take a bread knife and cut the cake horizontally in two similarly sized slices.
  2. Spread a nice thick layer of jam on the bottom cake and put the top half back on top. Sprinkle with some icing sugar (some add sweetened whipping cream) and enjoy!

Notes

* Since this recipe makes too much jam for the cake feel free to only make half if you have suitable pots and pans. Otherwise, you can store this jam in the fridge in a close of jar for several days/week. Use your own instinct and knowledge in determining whether it is still suitable for use. The cleaner you work, the drier and more acidic your jam, the longer it keeps for.

Further reading

Looking for an analysis of a bunch of Victoria sandwich recipes? The Guardian did a nice and extensive analysis on ingredients, steps and methods used.

There are a lot of articles on the history of a Victoria sandwich. Knowing Bee Wilson as an author of some great books (e.g. First Bite) I trust her article.

Learn more about Queen Victoria on the royal.uk website.

The British Women’s Institute is of the opinion that a Victoria sandwich is not made with baking powder.

The BBC makes a Victorian sandwich using a pound cake recipe (so equal weight quantities eggs, sugar, butter, flour) and they add both jam and cream. TheKtchn does so too, but since they use volumetric quantities, it’s hard to see.

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