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A 'Simple Sponge'

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

As with much in life, the simple pleasures are quite often the best. A cup of coffee to savour late on a Saturday morning rather than chugging it first thing during the week, an ice cold beer at the end of a hot summers day or the glorious salty, earthy vegetable smell of the sea that envelops you approaching the coast. Whatever your pleasure there is little that can beat a simple Victoria Sponge cake filled with lashings of raspberry jam and fresh whipped cream then topped off with a dusting of caster sugar. The light as air spring of the sponge eventually giving way to a sweet, tart and creamy centre takes a lot of beating!

Of course, simple perfection is hard to achieve, there is nowhere to hide any mistakes! Nothing can be rushed as any cut corners will be staring you in the face, bold as brass by the end. There is no room for complacency or a blasé attitude! Every element that goes into simplicity has its place and gives a unique quality to the finished article. The flavour of a good sponge is born from the butter, that wonderfully basic ingredient very much overlooked. Layers upon layers of flavour arise from this fat and give rise to the texture too, quite literally for its part. Not far behind butter are the eggs, good farm eggs take a lot of beating in the flavour stakes. The rich yolks melding with golden butter don't just provide the fat that emulsifies the cake batter together, but give the rich colour to a sponge as well. The egg whites provide a web to catch the steam providing that all important rise and dome to the cake. The flavour and texture is dependent on far more than just these core ingredients. Every aspect has a part to play from the oven to the cake tins. I choose to bake with simply aluminium loose bottomed tins because of their heat qualities, but my Granny's old tins you can actually taste in the finished cake, a flavour that takes me right back to childhood. Those old black sandwich tins with a 'loosener' that is so rarely seen these days, have been so well seasoned there is no need to line them. Decades of baking have given them their own unique non-stick quality..... just delightful!

Perhaps the attraction to a simple sponge cake is in the basic ratios and balance between fat and sugar, a well known addictive combination. Or perhaps something less scientific and complicated... how about that for many of us this is the first cake we remember eating or baking with our grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles or possibly at school. Whether a fairy cake, cup cake or a sponge tray bake with white icing and 'hundred & thousands' to decorate from the school dinner trollies, more often than not these are the first forays into baking many of us are exposed to one way or another. Certainly for me this was true. Memories of my Granny's Victoria Sponge are so well imprinted on my soul that I am instantly transported back to any number of memories, from a time long since passed, with only a mere whiff of a sponge in the oven.

As with so much in baking, the recipe is simply about the ratios of each ingredient. Fat, flour, sugar and eggs when combined can create unlimited differences in texture and flavour depending on their ratio. Changing the type of fat or sugar also alters the final product, but keep the ratios between them inline and the result shouldn't stray too far. These simply building blocks can go on indefinitely when combined with any number of ingredients, luxurious, indulgent, wholesome, hearty... whatever takes your fancy, the list can go on...

The Basic Sponge

For every egg combine with 55g of butter, caster sugar and self-raising flour

... thats it ...

beautiful simplicity!

How to combine these ingredients is a slightly more complicated matter but again a very simple process. The essence of a good sponge cake is the light and airy texture with a bit of a spring back. The science is great but it’s a cake so let’s skip it, for the most part ...

The cake batter is in essence an emulsion, stabilised then frozen with flour and protein, but an emulsion none the less. As with most emulsions they are a fickle creature, prone to splitting at the drop of a hat. Although a split cake mixture will rise and bake, the end result is not quite right. To give yourself a bit of an edge get all your ingredients to room temperature before you begin. This makes the emulsion process slightly more stable and quicker to achieve.

To begin ... preparation ... cake tins... get them sorted before going any further! Parchment, butter and sugar, which ever takes your fancy as long as it doesn't stick. I love the crunchy sugary coating achieved with butter and sugar on the inside of a cake tin, this just adds another dimension to me. Size of tin... well how much cake are you making? Generally speaking a moderate 12 slice cake will come from a 4 egg quantity and two classic Victoria Sandwich Tins. Play about with it... round, square, individual sizes, whatever your pleasure. Get the oven on with shelves in the correct place.

Material... Aluminium gives a great bake due to the uniform and quick dispersal of heat, but the modern rubber moulds are very easy to use also, what ever you fancy, but think about the heat and non-stick qualities to decide on how to treat the mould.

Let the fun begin... whisk together the butter and sugar to give an unctuous and light cream. From this base everything stems. The air within this combination will give rise to the final sponge so treat it with care and respect. Then slowly whisk in the beaten egg taking care to keep the emulsion. A dusting of flour can help here I the mix starts to split. Then finally fold in the flour. 'Fold in' is one of those words in cooking that has a certain amount of artistic licence about it. In this case imagine all those time air bubbles bade with the butter and sugar cream being taken a stage further with the addition of the fat from an egg yolk and the albumin from the egg white. This is a delicate balance, prone to collapse. Now dump a load of flour into the mix and try to keep as many of those tiny bubbles intact without leaving any pockets of unmixed flour... yeah right! So let's say 'fold in' here to give the illusion that a delicate and gentle teasing of a thin and smooth metal device used with skill will make everything just about perfect. No, not really. The action and implement involved with 'folding in' certainly increases the chances of reaching perfection, however the intensity that using this kind of language evokes can give rise to over working to achieve the perfect mix, which of course is counter productive. I would say to give just enough controlled and thoughtful mixing to achieve a uniform batter then STOP TOUCHING IT!

Now for the best bit, the bake... the smell that envelopes a kitchen, then drifts throughout the house is sublime. Taste buds begin to tingle and tummies start rumbling at the prospect! Ease the cake mix into your chosen tin/mould and bake in a moderate oven until there is a slight but definite spring back to the top, and the sides are ever so slightly starting to shrink away from the edges. That’s it, simple... a carefully poked skewer when removed from the cake should come out clean to give that extra bit of confidence that its cooked.

Let it cool, fill and enjoy!

Getting creative with flavour is the next step, whether playing about with different fillings, giving the sponge a little something or perhaps both?

Fillings are perhaps the easiest to experiment with, almost any combination of flavours and textures will work. Be a wary of anything too runny or too hard, just make sure the end result is still easy to cut and eat.

Fresh cream and strawberries Buttercream and Jam

Chocolate Ganache and fresh raspberries Lemon curd

Cinnamon mascarpone and Blueberry conserve

Where creativity can really be let out is in the sponge. This is a tricky area to tamper with as the ratios need to be maintained and respected to keep the light and airy texture in the finished bake. Add too much liquid, such as an essence, alcohol or juice, gives a dense texture as the batter is not strong enough to hold on during baking. Including too many dry ingredients, coco powder for instance, leaves the sponge dry and heavy from the ratio of fat being altered. So play with caution, but play none the less!

What could have gone wrong? Simplicity leaves nowhere to hide but if you can read the signs simplicity also clearly shows you the way. The ratios of this classic combination of ingredients dictates so much. Not enough of the right type of fat, or just not enough fat, and the cake with be dry and starting to feel like a biscuit or worse, pastry or if there really isn't enough then a scone. Fat can come in a number of ways, from the egg yolks or milk (as in a scone) to the butter or shortening. The biggest contributor is butter so make sure its soft and in the right ratio to aid that emulsification. Too much fat and you are heading towards disaster! Perhaps worse than collapsing the light and airy soft texture will just be greasy and claggy! Too much sugar will give a light crust and dense base, appearing as a streak or layer at the bottom. Adding dry ingredients like coco powder has a similar effect to increasing the flour ratio (or conversely decreasing the others). Drying the cake out and not giving that fluffy rise so crucial to a great sponge. Counteract this with a little milk or, in the case of coco powder try mixing it into a paste with some boiling water first. Whatever dry ingredients you add just think for a moment if there is enough to alter those all important ratios. A huge temptation with cake is to add your favourite tipple or a liquor to give some depth of flavour. Too much and the batter or emulsion will destabilise, either throwing out the excess at the bottom or buckling under the increased weight giving a sunken middle, wobbly sides or dense gooey texture. Egg whites usually give the liquid element to a sponge providing steam to be caught by a web of protein during baking so there is some wiggle room to squeeze in your favourite tipple but to be honest leave alcohol to a hearty rich fruit cake!

However, with sufficient forethought, adding flavour to the batter gives delightful results. The finished cake is elevated beyond the simple 'tea party' Victoria Sandwich, to a cake that will wow... so get ready for some mmmmmmmm's

One of my favourite combinations for Spring time is elderflower and lemon, the heady floral sweetness balanced with the fragrant citrus buzz is magical. So why not use an elderflower cordial to flavour the cream and use some lemon curd in place of the jam... Taking this to the next level is where the experimentation and fun begins, not least because there simply must be testers which of course cannot go to waste! Take the flavours and imagine as many different ways to get them into the finished cake as possible. Lemon zest in the sponge batter paired with an elderflower and ricotta filling works really well... Replacing vanilla essence with a homemade elderflower essence is also bliss, then pair with a good lemon mascarpone filling.

Dry spices and citrus zests are a fabulous way to start experimenting. Little about the essential ratios are changed while a great intensity of flavour can be added with small quantities. Mixing and matching flavours in the sponges and fillings has wondrous results. Orange & cardamom ... cinnamon & almond ... mixed spice & currant ... lemon & poppyseed ...

DO experiment with the flavours, DO respect the simplicity and above all else DO enjoy finding new ways to eat the failures with a big smile on your face!

... but most of all enjoy the simple things in life, a cup of tea with a really good slice of cake...


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