I was all prepared to title this blog post How not to bake a cake. Then something bizarre happened. I actually followed a recipe. Properly. To the letter. I organised all the ingredients in advance, took the butter and the eggs out of the fridge the night before, sifted the flour from a height, didn’t over-mix the batter. And guess what? My Victoria sponge was the lightest, fluffiest, most perfect cake I’ve ever eaten. Or at least, baked myself.
This amazing recipe comes from cake-maker extraordinaire Fiona Cairns, possibly best known as the creator of the royal wedding cake for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. So she knows what she’s doing. Fiona will be coming to Somerset to judge the cake baking competition at the Wells Food Festival on Sunday 20 October. I’m featuring a series of posts on the blog in the run up to the food festival and to help promote the cake competition, I thought it would be a nice idea to share some of Fiona’s cake baking tips.
Why I was surprised that by actually following these tips myself I could turn out a decent cake I’m not really sure, but I was. I think over the years I’d convinced myself that baking just doesn’t come naturally to me. I bake like I cook, you see. I take a recipe and play around with it, or cut corners. Now that’s fine if you’re cooking a casserole or a curry, but not a sponge cake, loaf of bread or batch of biscuits. Sometimes I get lucky but, more often than not, they’re a disaster. So my number one tip for baking the perfect cake has to be, first and foremost, stick to the recipe.
Now over to Fiona for her baking tips.*
Always read the recipe
Always read right to the end and only then assemble all the ingredients and equipment you need. This makes life easier, less stressful and more enjoyable.
Temperature of mixing bowls and ingredients
A warm kitchen, equipment and ingredients make a great cake. So, when baking a cake, stand your mixing bowl and beater or whisk in a bowl of warm water, then dry thoroughly before you start. Conversely, cooler ingredients and temperatures result in perfect biscuits. Hence, marble and cold hands are good for biscuit making. Is this why Scottish shortbreads are famous? Try to think ahead and remove eggs and butter from the refrigerator the night before. But, if the urge to bake suddenly strikes, stand the eggs in a bowl of warm water, and blitz the butter in the microwave.
Scales and measurements
Baking is an exact science. I’m afraid you can’t sling in an extra spoonful of this or that for good measure; you must weigh everything out precisely. A good set of digital scales is invaluable.
There is a huge variety on the market; buy the best you can. Really good-quality tins will last many years, conduct heat well and won’t warp. Non-stick, loose-bottomed or springform tins make baking so much easier. Try to use the size of tin specified. If you don’t have the correct size, err on the side of a slightly larger tin (the cake will be shallower) and reduce the baking time by 5-10 minutes.
Light as air
When sifting flour, lift the sieve up high; this allows air to coat the particles of flour as they float down.
Don’t hang around…
Once a cake’s in the tin, put it in the oven immediately as, when moist, the raising agents start to work. (A dense fruit cake batter isn’t so sensitive.)
…but be patient!
Don’t be tempted to open the oven door to peep at your cake too often. Leave this until the final 5-10 minutes. If you keep opening the door at the start, you will affect the rise and texture of the cake.
When is it ready?
Insert a thin skewer into the very centre of your cake. If it emerges clean, the cake is cooked. Long-baked fruit cakes may need extra attention: cut a piece of foil to fit the surface. Pierce a hole in the centre and open it up. This lets out steam while protecting the surface from drying out or scorching.
Baking a beautiful cake and serving it up to my family filled me with a deeply wonderful feeling of joy. I can really see why people become obsessed with baking as a way of bringing pleasure to others. The next cake I bake will probably be a complete disaster and my new-born confidence will disappear without a trace, but for the time being I’m wallowing in the feeling of having turned a corner on my way to becoming a domestic goddess.
Here is Fiona Cairns’ recipe for this classic teatime cake:
For the cake
175g unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the tin
175g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 eggs, lightly beaten
175g golden caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the filling
150ml double cream
4 tbsp raspberry or strawberry jam
icing sugar, to dust
Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.
Butter two 20cm sandwich tins, then line the bases with baking parchment.
For the batter, you can either use an electric mixer with a beater attachment or a food processor, or a bowl and an electric whisk.
Sift the flour and baking powder into the bowl, then add the butter (in knobs), the eggs, sugar and vanilla. Beat together until thoroughly blended. Take care not to over-mix so you will have a light sponge. Pour the batter into the tins and level the tops.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cake springs back to the touch or a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and leave for a couple of minutes, then run a knife around the rims to loosen the cakes from the tins and turn out onto a wire rack. Peel off the paper and leave until completely cold.
Lightly whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Fill with jam and cream and sandwich together, so the cream forms the uppermost layer. Be sure to sandwich the flat bases together. Dust the top with icing sugar.
Following my success with the Victoria sandwich, I might even be tempted to enter the cake-baking competition at the Wells Food Festival myself. There are two categories: best taste and best decoration. Entries in the best taste category must all follow Fiona Cairns’ recipe for coffee, cardamom and walnut cake, which sounds like my kind of cake. If you’re interested in entering, you’ll need to email firstname.lastname@example.org for the recipe and entry instructions. More details are on the Wells Food Festival website.
Judging by Fiona Cairns will take place during the morning of Sunday 20 October and she’ll announce the winners at Pickwicks cafe in Wells at 2pm. All entrants will get the chance to meet Fiona. The winner of each category will win a pair of tickets to the vintage tea party hosted by Pearl Lowe at the Fountain Inn and Fiona’s talk about the making of the royal wedding cake, as well as a copy of one of Fiona books.
As this Victoria sponge is ideal for a spot of weekend baking, when you can take a little more time over things in the kitchen, it’s a perfect recipe to enter into this month’s Family Foodies challenge for which the theme is Weekend Slowies. Family Foodies is a new monthly food blog challenge hosted by Lou at Eat Your Veg, and she has very kindly invited yours truly to co-host with her. Do pop over there to take a look at the other Weekend Slowies and perhaps you’ll be tempted to enter a dish yourself?