Historical Food Fortnightly #11 Foods Named After People: Victoria Sandwiches by Mrs. Beeton
Not, THOSE sandwiches, the sweet, cakey ones!
The Challenge: “Beef Wellington? Charlotte Russe? Choose a dish named after a person, either fictional or real, to create. Bonus points if you can tell us about the link between the person and the food.”
The Recipe: Victoria Sandwiches, from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
The Date/Year and Region: The book as such was published in 1861, but the content, or at least some of it, had already been published in parts. This dish is most definitely English.
How Did You Make It: Exactly as per the recipe, except for the modern equipment and slightly longer baking time.
Time to Complete: About 10 minutes of prep time for 30 minutes for baking, and a few minutes for torting and filling after it’s cool. In addition, there’s two or three hours, at least, of cooling time.
Total Cost: It’s difficult to calculate the cost as I had everything at hand.
How Successful Was It?: Even the kid liked it.
How Accurate Is It?: I’m confident saying it is almost 100% accurate.
This challenge actually came at a very opportune moment as I had been craving Victoria Sponge Cake for a while. I even made a comment about it a few weeks ago on Facebook. You see, I lived in England for a while and developed a taste for the great desserts and sweets there. On more than one occasion I may or may not have bought Victoria Sponge Cake from somewhere like Marks & Spencer or Sainsbury’s and eaten the whole thing myself. Along with iced Madeira Cake, Victoria Sponge is one of my favorite cakes ever. So, naturally, when the opportunity arose to stuff my face while working on content for this blog, I grabbed it. All in the name of history, of course.
The story of Victoria Sponge Cake, or Victoria Sandwich, is simple. Apparently Queen Victoria liked to have sponge cakes with her tea and so the cake was named Victoria Sponge. For a cake with obvious Victorian origins, the logical source was THE Victorian cookbook: Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In all fairness, and as the name says, it is not a cookbook, or at least not just a cookbook. It is a book about, well, household management. Aside from a vast number of recipes, there are instructions for everything from how equip your kitchen, set the table, and clean your glass to how to manage the staff. Mrs. Beeton was a thorough lady.
The recipe as it appears in the book:
1491 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 the 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
Time – 20 minutes. Average cost – 1s. 3d.
Seasonable – at any time. Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.1
Mrs. Beeton’s recipes show the transitional stage of recipes going from a few sentences with rough instructions to the format that we see today with a distinct ingredient list, a method and other information. The recipe, just like the other recipes, shows the extent to which Mrs. Beeton managed her household, giving us the cost of the cake down to the pence. In today’s British money, 1s. 3d, one shilling and three pence, is £2.70, or $4.31.2 Obviously, that is not the cost of making the cake today necessarily.
The pounded sugar in this recipe refers to the sugar that has been nipped from the loaf and pounded to turn it into granulated sugar. I cannot find a picture online of what a Victorian Yorkshire Pudding pan looks like, and Mrs. Beeton doesn’t seem to provide any on her book despite having images of other types of pans. However, I can make an educated guess as what they looked like considering how Yorkshire Pudding was made. The pudding was made using the drippings of roast meat that were collected in a pan placed under the meat as it roasted on the spit. Given this method of collecting drippings, we can eliminate the cute little Yorkshire Pudding pans we have today with all the wells and say they were just largish pans with high enough sides for the pudding to rise. But that is no matter here, the shape of the pan is inconsequential provided that it is the right size for the amount of batter.
As you can see, there is no leavening in this recipe, chemical or otherwise. As I explained in this Pound Cake post, chemical leavening like baking powder, although around in some form since the middle of the 19th century, wasn’t widely used by home cooks until the middle of the 20th century, so it is not surprising that it is absent from this cake. However, the other form of leavening that was used, creaming the sugar and the butter together, is also absent, making for a dense cake, although not unpleasantly so. In the spirit of accuracy, I followed Mrs. Beeton’s instructions anyway.
As always, modern equipment is a gift, especially when it comes to creaming butter
4 large eggs (about 2oz each)
8 oz (2 sticks) unsalted butter
8 oz granulated sugar
8 oz all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup strawberry or raspberry jam or preserves
powdered sugar (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line the bottom of an 8 inch cake pan with parchment paper, this makes it easier to get the cake out once baked. Spray the inside of the pan with cooking spray or butter it.
Whisk the eggs until well mixed, set aside.
With a mixer, cream the butter until light and fluffy. Combine the sugar, flour, and salt, and add to the butter in two batches; mix until thoroughly combined. Add the eggs and mix until the mixture is smooth and lump free, but don’t overmix.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Gently but firmly tap the pan on the counter to remove any air bubbles that may be trapped. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Allow the cake to cook in the pan for about 15 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
When the cake is completely cool, slice it in half horizontally and remove the top layer. Spread the jam or preserves on the bottom layer, the replace the top layer and gently press down. You may sprinkle the top of the cake with powder sugar if you wish.
Mrs. Beeton does not call for the powdered sugar, but it is traditional on Victorian Sponges, at least the modern ones. I will confess that I had never had Victorian Sponge that wasn’t store-bought, so I was expecting something like that. If you don’t know, Victorian Sponges tend to be light and airy, with a spongy open crumb. This cake is not like that, but it couldn’t be any other way considering the lack of leavening. It has more of a pound cake texture and it’s by no means unpleasant. The taste is the same as modern Victorian Sponges though, so nothing lost there. If you wish to make it more modern, you can always serve it with whipped cream. I didn’t bother with the cutting into rectangles or sandwiches, just eat it by the slice.
Now excuse me while I go stuff my face, I mean, do some research.
1. Isabella Beeton, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2006), 712.
2. The National Archives Currency Converter http://apps.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency