My nan was an excellent cook - creative, enthusiastic and resourceful. She was the perfect hostess, ever eager to ascertain whether you'd had enough to eat, and plying you with more food at the slightest hint that you weren't anything other than completely full.
One of my favourite memories of her cooking was the traditional Sunday roast - her motto was 'better to have too much than too little' and subsequently there were always leftovers to be had. She would ask if we wanted anything more to eat, and if we said "no thanks, Nan" she'd proceed to run through a list of what was still available, just in case one of the items prompted a change of heart. "More potatoes?" "No thanks, Nan." "More chicken?" "No, thank you." "More carrots?" It still makes me smile.
But however good she was at the main courses, she really excelled with her baking, in particular the cakes: huge slabs of fluffy chocolate cake and gingerbread, lemon drizzle loaf, and the classic Victoria sponge. I must have been very young when she first taught me how to make Victoria sponge, because I can't remember a time when I didn't know the recipe and method by heart. My mum also makes this cake exactly how Nan taught her, as does my sister, whose 4-year-old daughter likes to help her.
I can't say for certain how far back in the family the recipe goes, as I haven't yet found a written record of it in my nan's vast collection of cookery scrapbooks - a mixture of handwritten notes, mail-order booklets and clippings from magazines - but it's definitely been made by three generations of women in my family, and my niece will make four (as soon as she can be trusted to be in the kitchen on her own).
This recipe is very simple, easy to follow and produces a well-aerated sponge that manages to be both moist and light. The cake itself is not too sweet and so is complemented nicely by the jam and icing sugar. It's extremely popular with friends and family, and the recipe can also be easily altered to incorporate other flavours.
Ingredients and equipment
strawberry or raspberry jam
icing sugar for dusting
2 x 7"/18cm round cake tins
wire rack (for cooling)
Preheat your oven to gas mark 4 / 180°C / 350°F.
First of all, you need to weigh the eggs (in their shells) - whatever their combined weight, that's how much you'll need of margarine, sugar and flour. (So, if your three eggs weigh seven ounces altogether, you need to measure out seven ounces of margarine, seven ounces of sugar and seven ounces of flour. Apologies for all the talk of ounces, I am using an old recipe!
Using an electric whisk (or a hand whisk if you've got the upper arm muscles), mix the margarine and sugar together until very pale (almost white) and fluffy.
Measure out the flour and keep this in a separate bowl.
Crack an egg into a mug (this is a safeguard against having to fish out bits of shell from your cake mix), pour it into the margarine/sugar mixture and sift a couple of tablespoonfuls of flour over it. (My Nan always told me to hold the sieve quite far above the bowl, as the flour falling from a greater height meant that more air would be incorporated into the cake mix. Not sure how accurate this is, but I still do it!).
Whisk until just blended, then repeat until you've added all the eggs. Fold in (do not whisk) the last few tablespoons of flour and stir gently until combined.
Put a bit of margarine into the cake tins and stick them in the oven for a couple of minutes to melt the fat, then take them out and use a piece of kitchen paper to spread the melted marg evenly around the tins.
Divide the cake mix equally between the two tins, smooth the tops and cook on the middle shelf for at least 20 minutes (up to 25 minutes, depending on your oven). Please resist the temptation to open the oven door before the 20 minutes are up, or your cakes will sink in the middle.
To test whether it's done, press a fingertip lightly on the thickest part (usually the middle) of the cake - if it springs back, it's done, but if it leaves a dent, it'll need a few more minutes in the oven (or you've just pressed too hard). The cakes should also be a light golden brown colour.
Turn the cakes out on to the wire rack and leave to cool completely. Then sandwich the two halves together with jam and sift a bit of icing sugar over the top. Done!