Victorian England: Age of War, Politics, and Cake

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To try a recipe for Britain's best-known cake, the Victoria Sandwich, click here.

There was an elaborate banquet for King William IV's last birthday party at which he famously brought Queen Victoria, then a teenage princess, to tears. In the film Young Victoria, released last year, this scene involves a tall pudding shaped like a spaceship that comes in and out of focus. It's the only sight of food in the whole movie, which focuses on the politics of the Bedchamber Crisis and Victoria's marriage to her first cousin, Prince Albert. There are no towers of jellies, no eponymous cakes. The idea being, maybe, that more important things were happening in Victorian England, that there's something frivolous about sitting down to cake while the grimy little engines of history are turning.

During Queen Victoria's very long sovereignty, the British Empire took colonies left and right. Mold destroyed the potato crops of Ireland. There was the whole issue of the Crimean War. But for Victoria, and coincidentally for food, 1861 was the most critical year. Prince Albert died and the Queen withdrew from public life, embarking on 40 years of wearing black, ruling half the earth in mourning. That same year, an enterprising young woman-journalist documented the Victorian kitchen and household in what would become England's most famous cookbook.

Isabella Mayson was born to a middle-class family, married publisher Samuel Beeton, and joined the workforce as a journalist. To the horror of her parents, she took the train to London, translated novels, and wrote a column for one of her husband's journals, The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. The columns were published as a single volume that sold 60,000 copies in its first year.

This guide to running a Victorian household had a fittingly Dickensian title: The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady's-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. Etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort. The book is still in print, though it's been edited and abridged many times. It's known as Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. The author gathered recipes from English home cooks, including one for the Victoria Sandwich, named for Victoria because one named things after one's Queen but also, simply, because Victoria was known to eat it.

Also known as the Victoria Sponge, it is made of layers of a suitably plain butter cake filled with jam and often served with tea. Compared to other more elaborately shaped, filled, and layered Victorian cakes and puddings, there's really nothing excessive about this one.

Beeton originally documented the recipe as a perfect 4:4 ratio of a baker's go-to ingredients: butter, eggs, sugar, and flour. Most English cooks still follow that guide, as do many non-English cooks, because the Victoria Sponge is England's most well-traveled cake, visiting her old colonies and never leaving. It still turns up at boarding schools in Kenya and home kitchens in India, and other places too. As a girl guide in England, I had to bake a Victoria Sponge for a stranger and serve it to him with a pot of tea to acquire my hostess badge—which they've since retired or renamed, I imagine.

Here's how to make it. Weigh four eggs. Then weigh out the same amount of sugar, butter, and flour. Cream the butter and sugar, gradually whisk in the eggs along with a pinch of salt, then fold in the flour a bit at a time. If the mixture starts to get too dry, add a few tablespoons of warm water, then continue folding. Divide between two pans lined with parchment paper and bake for 25 minutes at 325 F. When cool, sandwich with raspberry jam and dust with powdered sugar. Some people whip cream and add that between the layers too, which is fine. But that means you'll have to refrigerate the cake if you don't finish it in a single sitting.