A slice of vanilla sponge cake with strawberry jam and fresh summer berries

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2020:  Because of big variations in self-raising flour performance, I have added a scant teaspoon of baking powder to this recipe. There is also now a companion video up on Youtube  which was great fun to make and I hope you like it. If you make this quick vanilla sponge cake, please tag me on social media and I will repost!

You wouldn’t think it would be necessary to have a cheat’s version of a Victoria sponge cake. After all, it’s such a simple cake to make … or is it? Everyone loves a good Vicky sponge – the simple buttery moistness, light crumb and vanilla scent preparing the way for a big hit of raspberry jam.
And on the face of it, a VS should be straightforward, with predictably good results: equal quantities of butter, sugar and flour, eggs and vanilla and you’re there … right? Wrong, it seems. Because when I teach baking classes, and I ask relatively confident cake makers what they most fear, they tell me it’s the VS. The mixture curdles; it won’t rise or it sinks in the middle; the crust separates and cracks; it’s as tough and chewy as an old brick.
One of my pupils astonished me by actually managing to turn out two flat pancakes when the rest of us – working with the same ingredients, measurements, tins and ovens – had done uniformly well. “You see,” she yelped. “I just can’t make a Victoria sponge!” Trying to help, I suggested she could always make two more and serve it as a multiple-layered confection. “In my household that’s called a disaster,” she sighed, clearly having tried that one already.
So where did we go wrong, and can we get the knack back?Or should we just move on to an easier, failsafe recipe? I think so.
This recipe is for a hot-milk vanilla sponge. It’s a family staple, tried and tested and tried again many times. It may feel counter-intuitive – and comes with an advisory that it’s a very liquid batter (scary for those used to a stiffer VS mix) but it gives a good rise and great results every time. It’s also versatile – see below for chocolate, lemon, orange and fruit variations.

You should also have a go at making my Quick Chocolate Loaf Cake – delicious for tea time, lunchboxes or as a dessert with toffee sauce and ice-cream!

Ingredients
30g unsalted butter
200ml milk
250g (2 cups) self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
340g (2 cups) caster sugar
Generous pinch of salt
4 large free-range eggs
1 tspn vanilla extract

Method 
Grease and flour two 23cm cake tins and preheat the oven to 180C/ gas mark 4.
Put the milk and butter in a jug and microwave for 1 minute on full power, until just simmering, then stir to melt the butter.
Using a stand mixer, hand mixer or whisk, beat the eggs and sugar together in a bowl until light, creamy and frothy, then add the vanilla. Mix in the salt with the flour, turn down the speed to minimum and slowly add the flour to the egg and sugar mixture, about two tablespoons at a time. Alternate adding the flour with tablespoons of the hot milk mixture, until just combined.
Divide the batter between the two cake tins and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes until the top is brown and firm to the touch. A toothpick inserted into the middle should come out clean. If not, turn the down oven to 160C and leave the cakes in for another 5 minutes.

Once out of the oven, leave to cool for 10 minutes in the tins before turning out.
Sandwich the cakes together with raspberry jam and fresh cream or, if you prefer, a buttercream filling:
125g unsalted butter
A few tablespoons of hot water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or paste
250g icing sugar
In a bowl, beat the butter until it’s the consistency of mashed potato, then gradually add the icing sugar, tablespoon at a time, adding a few drops of hot water to soften the mixture when it gets too tight. Add the vanilla essence and keep adding icing sugar until you have a spreading consistency.

Variations

Make an orange sponge cake by add the zest of an orange and substitute half the milk for fresh orange juice. For the icing, use orange juice instead of hot water.
Use lemon zest and juice for a lemon version, sandwich together with lemon curd and dust with icing sugar.
For a chocolate sponge, substitute half a cup of the flour for two heaped tablespoons of cocoa powder (not hot chocolate), and add two tablespoons of cocoa to the buttercream icing.
Fruit version: Grate four small dessert apples or pears (excluding the core and pips), add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and a teaspoon of mixed spice to the flour, and fold the fruit in to the mixture as the last step before baking. The mixture will be wetter and may take an extra 5-10 minutes to cook.