I set out to bake a cake that would make Mrs. Patmore proud, and one to enjoy while watching the end of the epic Downton Abbey. My variation on the classic Victoria Sponge cake, also known as a Victoria Sandwich, marries a seasonal citrus with cardamom, a spice at the heart of many Indian sweets. It’s a tropical twist on a British classic.
Skip ahead, if you like, to my recipe for the cake and curd, both below. But first, some history of this cake, its Downton Abbey connections and a few cooking notes.
The British tradition of afternoon tea was invented by a close friend and lady-in-waiting of Queen Victoria. Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, created afternoon tea to fill the midday hunger gap between lunch and dinner — brilliant! Her tea times were filled with small sandwiches and finger foods like the Victoria Sponge. Yes, Queen Victoria loved having these with her afternoon cuppa.
Victoria Sponge wasn't always the same as we know it today. An early version of a non-yeast cake, it was first made without leavening, and later changed with the invention and mass production of baking powder. The cakes were also served differently when their namesake Queen would have enjoyed them: Victoria's sandwiches were rectangular, spread with a layer of jam and cut into thin, finger-like slices. The now-common filling, whipped double cream with jam, showed up in later versions.
The very first printed recipe for a Victoria Sandwich appeared in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management
, in 1861. Lisa Heathcote
, Downton Abbey
’s esteemed food stylist, has used Mrs. Beeton's Book
as one of her food inspirations and as a recipe guide for the show. I wonder how many Victoria Sandwiches Lisa's team has made in the course of Downton Abbey
’s six seasons, because there is hardly an afternoon tea at the Dower House or at Downton Abbey without a Victoria Sponge. It plays a reassuring role in many scenes and is often caught in behind-the-scenes photos on set, too. Mrs. Beeton's Victoria Sandwich measures all ingredients in the weight of eggs, and many bakers still use that method. The first recipe was more like a pound cake. With no baking powder, the batter was lightened with creamed butter, sugar and eggs; hence it was called a sponge.
Later versions of Victoria Sandwiches use baking powder and more recently self-rising flour, which makes the whole job even quicker. Baking powder was invented in the 1840s and was widely available a few years later. With baking powder, it was much faster and easier to make lighter cakes. People beyond the upper and middle classes started enjoying afternoon tea, and thanks to the contemporary temperance movement, coffeehouses and tearooms were a popular place to gather and have cake with tea and coffee.
The Victoria Sponge is a simple cake, but you do have to pay attention to the temperature while baking. Its sensitivity is the reason why many oven manufacturers use a Victoria Sponge to test the consistency of their ovens. Don't open the oven door until your cake is almost done, else it may deflate. I have tested and proven that myself; a bit of cold air and I deflated an otherwise perfect cake. You can go completely Mrs. Beeton and beat everything slowly by hand, or with a mixer, or you can simply dump it all in a food processor. The latter leaves you time to make better than a whipped cream filling.
I used self-rising flour and found that you can use little or no baking powder, as I like a bit of texture in my tea cakes. If you can't find self-rising flour, use all-purpose flour and 2 teaspoons of baking powder. Mary Berry from The Great British Baking Show recommends margarine for a lighter texture, but I think butter tastes better.
Along with the curd, you could also fold in some whipped cream if you like a fluffier filling. For my citrus, I used the best organic navel oranges I could find, but any good citrus — blood orange, lemon, Meyer lemon — will work. Adjust the sugar accordingly.
Cardamom Cake Recipe
1 3/4 cup self-rising flour (sifted)
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup caster sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing cake pans (room temperature and very soft)
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
2 tablespoons organic orange zest
2-4 tablespoons milk (at room temperature)
4 large eggs (at room temperature)
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
2. Grease the bottoms and sides of two 8” cake pans with butter and line the bottoms with parchment.
3. Mix butter and sugar in the food processor.
4. Add eggs and citrus zest and pulse to combine.
5. Add sifted flour, baking powder, and cardamom, and pulse till just combined. Don't over mix.
6. Add 2-4 tablespoons of milk to get a droppable consistency.
7. Divide batter into the two prepared pans, and level it out with a spatula.
8. Bake for 25-30 minutes in the 350F oven, with both pans on the same level. Keep an eye on them, but don't open the oven till around the 20-minute mark.
9. Remove from the oven when the cakes are golden brown and start to come away from the edges. You can also insert a skewer in the middle of the cakes to see if it comes out clean.
10. Let the cakes cool, in the pans and on a cooling rack, for 10-15 minutes.
11. Turn them out on cooling racks to cool completely before then adding the curd filling.
12. The cakes will keep nicely for a day if covered and in a cool place, or in a refrigerator for a few days if in an air-tight container or plastic wrap. If refrigerated, bring cakes back to room temperature before assembling with the curd filling.
Orange Curd Recipe
1/2 cup caster sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup freshly squeezed organic orange juice (unstrained)
1 tablespoon organic orange zest
1. In a heavy bottom sauce pan, lightly beat the eggs.
2. Add sugar, zest, and juice, and mix using a whisk.
3. Keep a heat-proof bowl ready with a mesh sieve on it, sitting on the side.
4. Put the sauce pan on medium heat, whisking constantly.
5. Slowly add the cubes of unsalted butter and keep stirring till all are melted.
6. Keep stirring on medium-low heat until the mixture thickens. Be careful not to scramble the eggs; don't stop stirring, and make sure the heat is not too high.
7. You will feel the whisk get heavy and the mixture thicken at about 180F. Lower the heat to the lowest setting, and keep stirring till you achieve a custard-like consistency. It will set more after it cools. You want the hot mixture to be at a point where it doesn't feel runny, else you'll have a messy cake; you can keep it a thinner consistency if not using as a cake filling.
8. Turn off the heat, pour and press through the sieve and into a clean glass bowl.
9. Put a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the curd, to cover the bowl with minimal air contacting the curd. The plastic wrap will keep a skin from forming on the surface. If you are worried about plastic touching warm food, you can also use wax paper or strain it into jars with air tight lids.
10. Let the curd cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate to set, preferably overnight. Store in clean, sterile jars if you are not using the curd immediately.
Once the curd is completely chilled and the cakes are at room temperature, your Victoria Sandwich can be assembled. Spread the orange curd on one layer of cardamom cake, top it with another layer of cake, and dust with confectioner's sugar. Serve with freshly segmented citrus and tea, of course!
If kept covered in the refrigerator, this Cardamom Victoria Sandwich with Orange Curd tastes even better the next day, as the curd’s citrus flavors infuse into the cardamom cake.