For me, a vanilla sponge cake evokes memories of baking with my mum, or my gran, or my great-auntie Elsie. It makes me think of licked whisks and scraped bowls, cosy warm kitchens, the smell of home baking and the taste of cream and jam sandwiched between two thick slabs of vanilla cake.
A good cake should taste like a proper cake – old fashioned, full of flavour and deliciously home made. Not for me mass produced sponge which is flat and tastes like it came from a factory, I want to evoke memories and stir taste buds! I want people to taste my cake and think “Mmm, that reminds me of the cake my gran used to make!”
There are many fancy versions on the internet or in expensive magazines for vanilla sponge cake, but in my opinion it doesn’t need to be difficult and you don’t need anything more exotic than a good quality vanilla paste for maximum flavour.
It shouldn’t be costly either, you should be able to make this with store-cupboard ingredients and if you do need to shop for ingredients you won’t need to spend more than a few pounds. You can use expensive branded ingredients, or you can use cheaper store’s-own-brand ingredients – you’ll still get a lovely cake! For things like flour, I haven’t noticed much difference between brands, so just pick whichever one your budget suits. Sugar – I prefer caster as it gives your cake a closer crumb and texture. Granulated is fine, it will give your cake a more open texture – it’s just personal preference, really. I use margarine, rather than butter – butter can give a greasy finish and I find it can restrict your cake a little with less of a rise during baking, although it does taste lovely! Margarine gives a lighter, less greasy finish but the taste is still delicious, and chances are unless you do one of each and taste-test it, you won’t notice any difference at all in taste. Again, use your preferred brand. The majority of my recipes are based on an extremely simple recipe, and I’ll share it with you here!
For my cakes I usually use buttercream to sandwich the cakes together, as it is much more stable for covering with fondant, but in this recipe I’ll use double cream, to keep things traditional. To finish, you can just use a teaspoon of icing sugar and a sieve or even a tea strainer to dust the top of the cake before serving. However, to give it a pretty, fresh and stylish finish I’ve used some edible flowers to top the cake – make sure you use blooms from a dedicated edible flower farm such as Maddocks Farm Organics, Fine Foods Specialists or Herbs Unlimited. This will ensure you only use organic edible flowers which haven’t had pesticides sprayed on them, and you won’t inadvertently use non-edible flowers!
So what equipment do you need? An electric whisk, stand mixer, or if you’re feeling strong, a wooden spoon will do (although bear in mind it will take longer to mix!), a mixing bowl, kitchen scales, an 8″ baking tin (mine is about 4″ deep, but if you’ve got two shallow tins, just split the mixture between them and adjust your cooking time) and an 8″ round of greaseproof paper. Rub a little margarine round the inside base of your tin and cover the circle of greaseproof paper. Set your oven to Gas mark 3/165 deg C/325 deg F before you begin measuring out your ingredients. Lay out a cooling rack for when your cake is ready to turn out. Ready? Let’s go!
12oz (340g) self raising flour
12oz (340g) margarine
12oz (340g) caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste
For the filling:
2-3 tbsp. Raspberry jam
250ml double cream
2tsp caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste
A few sprigs of fresh mint
1 tsp icing sugar to dust
Put all the measured cake mix ingredients into your mixing bowl (yes, all in one go, there’s no beating this and that together a bit at a time in order or anything like that, it’s literally a dump and mix recipe – dead easy!) Starting slowly with the electric whisk or stand mixer (use the whisk attachment) so you don’t send all your ingredients flying round the kitchen, give it a good whisking, gradually increasing the mixer speed until everything is smooth and delicious and there are no lumps of margarine left. Scrape the bowl down and mix for a little longer, just to ensure you don’t have any ingredients stuck to the bottom or sides. Mixing should only take a couple of minutes, but you can leave it going for a bit longer if necessary. If you’re beating by hand with a wooden spoon, you’ve got this! You can do it! Good luck!
Now to bake – pour your cake mix into the prepared tin or tins if you’re using two shallow ones and place on the middle shelf in the oven. I don’t clock watch when I’m baking, but about an hour to one hour thirty should do it for one deep tin, and about 40 to 60 minutes for two shallow tins.
I tend to do things by smell, sight, feel and sound – if you can teach yourself how to bake like this, you’ll never need to clock watch again. It takes a bit of practice, but here’s what to look out for:
1 – when your cake is nearing “done”, the first notice you’ll get is that you’ll suddenly get a whiff of baking from the kitchen! When this happens, it’s probably time to check – take a peep through the door, but don’t open it yet.
2 – is it browning? If not, walk away and leave it for a bit longer. If it is starting to look golden brown and risen, open the door carefully and give the tin a little nudge with your oven glove. Does it wobble in the middle? If yes, back out carefully and quickly and close the door gently, it isn’t done yet and is at risk of sinking if you mess with it or let all the heat out of the oven.
3 – if it’s golden brown and doesn’t wobble when you nudge it, then it’s nearly done. Lightly press the top with a finger, and if the sponge springs back then it’s done. If the cake keeps a dent where you’ve pressed it, it’s not done. Again, back out and leave it for a few minutes longer.
4 – if it’s passed the touch test and has sprung back when you press it, carefully lift it out and have a listen to it – if it’s completely done, it’ll be silent. If it’s still cooking it’ll be crackling and popping (“singing”). Pop it back for a few minutes longer.
5 – If it’s golden brown, not wobbling, springs back when you press it and isn’t “singing” then it’s time for the final test. Using a clean pointy knife or skewer and slide it into the middle of the cake. When you draw it out there should be no cake mix sticking to it. If there is, then pop it back in the oven for five minutes. If the knife or skewer comes out clean – it’s done!
Set aside your cake to cool. After about twenty minutes, run a sharp knife between the cake and the tin to loosen it and then turn it upside down onto a cooling rack. Leave it to cool completely.
Take your double cream, pop it into a mixing bowl and add the caster sugar and vanilla paste. Whisk until thick with soft peaks which hold shape. You can either pop everything in the stand mixer again, or get someone else to whisk it – fortunately Mr Cakes likes a challenge! Slice your cake in half or take your two shallow cakes, and place one half onto the plate you want to display it or serve it on. Spread the cream over the half on the plate. With a spoon, stir the jam well so it doesn’t have lumps in, and spread evenly over the cream. Top with the other half of cake.
Take the teaspoon of icing sugar and the tea strainer or sieve and gently shake over the cake to dust it with a fine, even layer of icing sugar. Top with the edible flowers, interspersed with the sprigs of mint.
Step back and admire, and then slice it up and enjoy it!
Keep practising the five points of “done-ness” because when you master them you’ll spend more time baking instinctively and less time clock watching. I have never over the years found that recipe timings match the heat of my oven – every oven is different, so learning to bake instinctively is a valuable skill.