Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Winning sponge cake

First published Canberra Times 21 September 2011. Moving house is never much fun, particularly when many of our goods and chattels have been lounging in a storage shed for the past 5 years collecting dust. We finally decide to upsize to accommodate two houses worth of furniture into one, and to end the two-step we’ve been doing around each other in our Lilliput sized bathroom and kitchen for the last year and a half.  

Tucked up in the back of our nine square metre house- in-a-storage-shed are a few boxes of my old cook books that have sat unopened since 2005. In one of the boxes is my old school-issue Commonsense Cookery Book and another early favourite, my book of home-made recipes that I had painstakingly two-finger typed on our manual typewriter and stapled together.  Sneezing, and reaching to put the dusty books back in the box ready for the move, I notice that my first and second place certificates from the 1974 Newcastle Show cake competition have slipped out of the back. I hadn’t thought of these in years.

This book contains many old family recipes and others learnt in Home Science classes while at high school.  Armed with our cook books and our regulation blue aprons, we learnt the ABCs of food and the science of its chemical reactions. Our teacher ran the class with army precision, carrying out food service and table setting inspections. She balanced this with a spattering of creativity that inspired those of us who were interested enough.

I would often arrive home from school, hauling a pot of food under my arm to feed the only one who would eat it, my long-suffering father. He good-naturedly endured my intense scrutiny as I sought any hint of a reaction, good or bad.  He uncomplainingly ate his way through the baby, convalescent, offal, and cake sections of my Commonsense Cookery Book.

During these formative years of cooking classes, my teacher must have detected a spark,   and actively encouraged me to enter the Newcastle Show cake competition. Grittily determined to rise to the challenge, I declared war on that mainstay of the CWA, the Victoria Sponge, along with an entry in the Novelty Cake section. The result surprised everyone, especially me, when I won the novelty section and took out second place in the Sponge cake wars. 

There’s no arguing the significance of the sponge in iconic Australian gastronomy, especially when it’s dressed up as that mainstay of tuck-shop cuisine, the lamington. The lamington is said to have been created accidentally by a maid who worked for Lord Lamington, the very British eighth Governor of Queensland in 1896. While making the Governors favourite sponge, she dropped the cake into some melted chocolate, and covered it up by dipping it in coconut. This error was proclaimed a magnificent success and was Lord Lamington’s contribution to the culinary delights of the Australian nation.  Hansard even quotes committed republican, Cr. Paul Tully, at the Australian Constitutional Convention in Canberra in 1998 as saying  in reference to the lamington "one, single, solitary, positive achievement of any Governor since the First Fleet arrived in 1788".

Sponge cakes became widespread in Europe during the Renaissance era, first as little spongy biscuits much like modern day ladyfinger sponge cakes, and then as light, airy cakes that were often served with fruit sauces, jam or pudding. It is recognized as one of the first cakes to be made without the use of yeast and they became especially popular in England, becoming almost an icon of sorts. The Victoria Sponge Cake was created for Queen Victoria, and became fashionable to be served as a tea-time treat in the 1850s.
This winner sponge cake recipe is a special birthday favourite, easy to make and great for short notice celebrations. Our girls love this cake decorated in an old- fashioned, twee kind of way, filled with a mixture of roughly crushed sugared strawberries and cream, topped with fluffy whipped vanilla bean cream and passionfruit.

When properly cooked, the cake should be firm in the middle, slightly shrunk away from the sides and should spring back when you touch it. I usually cook this cake in one large tin and then slice it in half when cold. If you prefer, it can be easily cooked as two smaller cakes in 20cm tins, joined with jam or strawberries and cream.

125g corn flour
5 tspn custard powder
½ tspn bicarb soda
1 tspn cream of tartar
¾ cup castor sugar
5 eggs, at room temperature (separated)

600ml fresh cream
vanilla bean
1 punnet of strawberries
4 tbsp castor sugar
1 passionfruit
½ cup of good quality strawberry jam

Preheat the oven to 170C. Grease and line a 20 to 25cm deep sided cake tin. Sift all the dry ingredients, except the sugar. Do this twice. Beat the egg whites and sugar in an electric mixer until a meringue like consistency, till soft peaks without being too stiff. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Remove beaters and gently but thoroughly with a metal spoon, fold the dry ingredients through the meringue mixture, without breaking down the whipped egg whites.

Spoon mixture into the greased tin and bake in the middle of the oven for 25-30 minutes or until cake springs back when touched in the middle. If you are using two cake tins, reduce the cooking time by 7 minutes. When cooked, remove the cake from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before turning out to cool on a wire rack in a draught free place. Slice through the middle of the cake with some plain (unminted) dental floss or a serrated knife.

Wash and hull the strawberries. Place ¾ of the punnet of strawberries on a plate and mash roughly with a potato masher so you still have a very lumpy consistency and add one tablespoon of the sugar. Place the mashed strawberries into a medium sized mixing bowl and leave to macerate for 5 minutes. Whip the cream in an electric mixer, adding the vanilla bean seeds and remaining sugar and whip until stiff. Warm the jam in the microwave on medium to make it spreadable.

Spread a layer of the warmed jam on each side of the cut cake. Spread a medium layer of cream over the jam on both the bottom half and top cut sides of the cake. Sprinkle the bottom layer of cream with the mashed and sugared strawberries. Slice the remaining strawberries into 4 slices each. Place the top cake sponge onto the bottom sponge. Spread a thick layer of the remaining cream over the top of the cake, decorating with the sliced strawberries and drizzled passionfruit. Photos by Steve Shanahan

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