Modern cake recipes go back as least as far as Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861). She includes a recipe for a sponge cake which uses eight eggs, the weight of eight eggs in pounded loaf sugar and the weight of five eggs in 'good, dry flour'. Since then, a wider range of ingredients has become available and more sophisticated kitchen equipment has made life a great deal easier for the cook. Nowadays cakes come in all sorts of shapes and colours, but many are based on classic sandwich and sponge cake recipes. It is therefore worth learning the techniques.
Classic sandwich cakes (layer cakes) are made by the creaming method, which traditionally involves beating fat and sugar together with a wooden spoon until the mixture is cream in colour and very light in texture. You can use a food processor or an electric mixer for this stage. They are lighter than fruit cakes, but don't keep as well. Sandwich cakes are distinguished from plainer cakes made using the creaming method by the high proportion of fat. Usually the same quantities (by weight) are used for fat, sugar and flour. This means that, although you can change the quantities given in a recipe, the proportions should be the same.
Caster sugar (superfine sugar) is usually used, but if you can't find it, granulated sugar would work. Margarine is more often used than butter and it can be softened by warming gently to make it easier to beat. Some recipes call for a little milk to be added with the flour, to give a 'dropping consistency' and it is possible to add flavourings, such as coffee or fruit juice at this stage. If you don't have self-raising flour, you can use plain (all-purpose) flour with the addition of a teaspoon of baking powder. To give a finer texture, some recipes substitute cornflour for some of the flour.
Basic Victoria Sandwich Cake
- 175g (3/4 cup) margarine, softened
- 175g (3/4 cup) caster sugar
- 3 medium eggs
- 175g (1 2/3 cups) self-raising flour
- Strawberry, raspberry or apricot jam
- A little caster sugar for dusting.
- Grease and flour two 20cm (8in) sandwich tins.
- Beat the margarine and sugar together until light and creamy.
- Add the eggs a little at a time, beating well after each addition. If too much egg is added at once, the mixture may separate or curdle. If this happens, sprinkle a little flour in the mixture before adding more egg.
- Fold in the flour gently using a metal spoon.
- Divide the mixture evenly between the two tins and smooth the surface.
- Bake in a pre-heated oven at 190°C (375°F) for 15 to 20 minutes (170°C or 350°F for fan ovens). The cakes should be well risen, golden, and slightly springy when pressed with a finger.
- Turn out and leave to cool, then sandwich the cakes together with jam and dust with caster sugar.
If you don't have time for all that beating and folding, some modern recipes suggest putting eggs, sugar, margarine and flour in a food processor and pressing the button. If you do this, you should only allow a couple of minutes of processing.
To be sure that the cake rises adequately if, for example, other ingredients such as nuts or dried fruit are to be added, some recipes suggest separating the eggs. The yolks are beaten with the margarine and sugar until the mixture is creamy. The whites are whisked until stiff and folded in carefully. The flour may be sifted into the mixture. The object of all this is to incorporate as much air as possible.
The basic sandwich cake can be varied by adding flavourings. Here are some favourites:
Lemon or orange sandwich cake - Add the grated zest of a lemon or orange to the flour. Lemon or orange flavoured butter icing can be used to sandwich the cakes together.
Coffee sandwich cake - Stir 10ml (2 teaspoons) of instant coffee powder into 15 ml (1 tablespoon) of hot water, allow to cool and add to the creamed mixture with the eggs. Sandwich the cakes together with coffee butter icing.
Chocolate sandwich cake - Replace 3 tablespoons of flour with cocoa powder. Sandwich the cakes together with vanilla or chocolate butter icing.
Cakes using ingredients in these proportions and the creaming method are also often baked in one tin, rather than two. For example, you could make a chocolate and orange or lemon marbled cake by making the mixture described above, then dividing it into two bowls. In one bowl put two tablespoons of cocoa powder and two of milk. To the other, add the zest and juice of a large orange or lemon. Spoon the mixture into a greased and lined loaf tin, or a ring cake (kugelhopf) tin and draw a fork through it once or twice to create a marbled effect. Bake for about 45 minutes.
The true whisked sponge cake contains little or no fat. They do not keep well, so it's best to eat them the same day. The first stage is to whisk together the eggs and caster sugar until they are greatly increased in volume and the mixture is thick and creamy. This can take up to 20 minutes, so it can be useful to warm the mixture, or use a food processor or electric mixer.
Basic Sponge Cake
- 3 large eggs
- 125g (2/3 cups) caster sugar
- 90g (1 cup) self-raising flour
- Strawberry, raspberry or apricot jam.
- A little caster sugar
- Grease two 20cm (8in) sandwich tins and dust with flour.
- Put eggs and sugar in a large heatproof bowl, stand this over a pan of hot water and whisk until light and creamy. The mixture should be stiff enough for the trail of the whisk to show. When cool, continue to whisk until thick. The hot water is not necessary if using an electric mixer or food processor.
- Sift half the flour into the mixture and fold in gently, using a metal spoon. Add remaining flour.
- Pour the mixture into tins and tilt the tins until the mixture spreads evenly.
- Bake in the oven at 190°C (375°F) for 9-10 minutes (170°C or 350°F may be sufficient for fan ovens)
- When well risen, golden, and springy when touched by a finger, turn out and allow to cool
- Sandwich together with jam and dust with caster sugar.
This mixture can be used to make a light Swiss Roll.