Wells Food Festival and how to bake the perfect Victoria sponge

Victoria Sandwich

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.

Victoria Sandwich

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.

* Tips taken from Fiona Cairns’ Bake & Decorate.

Victoria Sponge Collage

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:

Victoria sponge

Serves 8

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.

Victoria Sandwich

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 info@wellsfoodfestival.co.uk 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?


Jubilee party cake

I’m feeling strangely patriotic. I’m actually thinking of putting up some Union Jack bunting around the house. Now anyone who knows me will understand how out of character this would be. But I have to admit – I’m being swept along with this Jubilee fever. Or perhaps the sun this week has simply gone to my head?

Everywhere you go, the red, white and blue theme is all pervasive. Every shop window, every catalogue, every advertisement – it all makes you proud to be British, in a kind of embarrassed, rather British sort of way, when we’re not sure we should but we want to go along with it anyway.

I’m not sure how much my children understand what it’s all about. It’s something to do with the Queen. It’s not her birthday but it’s something similar. Whatever the reason, it’s a good excuse for a party and what kid is going to knock that?

Jessie’s bunting for her school Jubilee party

Most food blogs I’ve visited recently are getting into the full Jubilee spirit, sharing amazing and clever culinary creations for impressing the neighbours at the street party. So I began to think maybe I should be doing something too. In fact, it’s been the last thing I’ve been thinking about as I drop off to sleep for the last few nights now.

As you know, I’m not a particularly talented baker, so I’ve come up with a easy party cake to suit my limited baking skills, which still delivers the ‘wow’ factor for a juvenile audience. It’s not sophisticated, it’s not refined. It’s quite simply a big, white cake with red and blue running right through it. And it’s sweet and gooey and moreish with a tonne of Smarties on the top.

My daughter Jessie walked into the kitchen just as I finished decorating it, and her reaction was “Wow!” which was exactly the response I was after. From a child anyway. My husband on the other hand was rather less complimentary about my efforts. But I hadn’t made it for him so I didn’t care. Much.

It’s three tiers of simple Victoria sponge (based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe), smothered in red, white and blue buttercream, and embossed with red and blue Smarties in a crude Union Jack design. Great for Jubilee parties, especially the kind involving lots of young children.

Queen’s Jubilee Party Cake

For the Victoria sponge

330g soft butter
330g caster sugar
juice of half a lemon
6 eggs
300g self-raising flour
40g corn flour
1½ tsp baking powder
6 tbsp milk

For the buttercream icing

280g soft butter
560g icing sugar
3-4 tbsp milk
red and blue food colouring


Lots of red and blue Smarties to decorate (I needed three ‘share’ bags to get enough reds and blues)

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/gas mark 4.

This couldn’t be easier. Put all the Victoria sponge ingredients except for the milk into a food processor and whiz until you have a smooth mixture. Then add the milk a spoonful at a time, whizzing to combine each time, until you have a good dropping consistency.

Grab your three 20cm sandwich tins. If they’re not non-stick, grease and line them, but if they are, job done. Pour in the cake batter across the three tins equally. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until the cakes are golden and springy to the touch, and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Leave to cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then remove the cakes from the tins and leave on the rack to cool completely.

To make the buttercream icing: beat the butter until soft in a large bowl. Add 70g of icing sugar and beat until smooth. Add another 70g and beat again. And again add the remaining 140g of icing sugar and beat well until smooth.

Finally add the milk and beat again to loosen the mixture. Put half the mixture into a separate bowl and set aside.

Split the remaining buttercream into two more bowls. Add red food colouring a few drops at a time to one lot until you get a colour you’re happy with the tone. Repeat with the other bowl with the blue food colouring.

If you’re cakes are well-risen and peaked, you’ll need to use a sharp knife to shave them a little until they’re nice and flat. Enjoy the sponge shavings as a chef’s perk, as Nigella would say.

Put your first cake layer on a large plate, and carefully smother with the red icing almost to the edge but not quite. Place the next sponge layer on top and repeat again with the blue icing. Then add the next layer of cake and smother with a generous topping of the plain coloured buttercream icing.

Decorate the top of your cake with your red and blue Smarties. I attempted a Union Jack style motif but go with whatever takes your fancy – concentric circles, spirals, stripes, random patterns – go crazy!

And just in case you’re reading this, a very happy Diamond Jubilee your majesty!