Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Rachel Allen, Fairy Cakes and Me!

A single serving of light, buttery loveliness.  A simple yet elusive delight.

Sponge cakes were first detailed as a recipe in the 1615 book of The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman by English poet and author Gervase Markham.  Things have moved on a little since then!

Perhaps its best known incarnation is the Victoria Sponge named after Queen Victoria who was rather partial to a slice. 

It’s surprisingly tricky to get a sponge right.  Internet recipes and cookbooks reveal a plethora of differing ingredients, quantities and advice.  Quite confusing for the home chef eager to learn. 

I believe that if you can get a sponge right it helps with so many other cake recipes as there are some key techniques which are vital to a light tasty result.

The first thing I have learned is that baking really is a science.  Quality and quantity combined with the right techniques are essential.  You need to do your research here.  There are only four base ingredients to a sponge; butter, sugar, eggs and flour.

The essence of a good sponge lies in its light, airy quality.  How does that happen?

A sponge’s airy texture comes from air being beaten into the butter at the creaming stage which forms tiny little bubbles circled by the fat in the butter.  If we cooked this mixture it would collapse because fat melts in heat.

However, egg is then added to the mix which forms a rigid structure around the bubbles when cooked and therefore the sponge keeps its shape.

Finally, the flour forms a network around the bubbles to give the cake structure.  Also it contains a raising agent called baking powder (not baking soda – they are different).  For this recipe I’m using self raising flour but you can use plain flour with baking powder mixed through it.

Armed with this information I went off to find an expert to confirm what I believed about baking sponges. 

Rachel Allen has been writing and broadcasting about food for over a decade.  She has written several bestselling books on baking and is an established cookery teacher.  To say the least, she knows a thing or two about baking sponges.  She is also incredibly giving with her time and agreed to meet me to talk about everything ‘sponge’!

Firstly we discussed using quality ingredients.  If you have only four ingredients you must use good quality ones to get good results.  So use decent caster sugar, self raising flour, free range eggs with really yellow yolks and finally good quality unsalted butter.  Do not use margarine! 

N.B. All these ingredients should be at room temperature before you start.

Weigh your eggs in their shells and then weigh equal quantities of your butter, flour and sugar.  In many recipes you will see the number of eggs given to a quantity of the other ingredients.  Think about this for a moment, if you are using free range, organic eggs they may well come in very different sizes.  Don’t confuse them with the battery farmed ‘single size’ supermarket ones.  If we understand that baking is a science and ratios of ingredients are important then it makes sense to get equal weights. 

Secondly, regarding technique, you really need to cream your butter and sugar well to incorporate all those air bubbles.  This takes time so stick with it.  Use a large bowl to really get the butter beaten well.  The butter / sugar mix will go a much paler colour as the bubbles build up.     

Have your eggs beaten together in a bowl separately before adding to your mixture.  This will break the eggs up and help them incorporate into the butter.

At the next stage make sure you ‘fold’ the sieved flour into the mixture and don’t beat any more.  We need to keep the bubbles in there that we have taken so much effort to create.   Tip the bowl up at one side and slide the spoon under the mix and fold it over to mix the flour through.  I find it best to use a big metal spoon at this stage as it has a wider surface area and sharper edge than a wooden one which helps with the folding motion.  This is another reason why a big bowl is important as you can get a bigger ‘folding’ motion going.

How do you know if your sponge batter is right?  Lift up a spoonful and it should drop back off the spoon into the bowl with reasonable ease.  If it doesn’t, add a little milk until it does.  Bit by bit as you don’t want to over do it!

We discussed ovens.  As I have said before, ovens vary in their temperature and you may need to experiment.  Do not be afraid of failure.   Rachel reiterated this and said that practice is crucial.  Remember also that the size of your fairy cakes may vary depending on the size of cases you buy.  They are all quite different and the producers spend more time on making them look pretty than they do stating the size.

The cooking time is important when it comes to the rise of the sponge.  As the egg forms a rigid coating to the bubbles it must be given time for the proteins to set.  Think about how an egg toughens as you fry it.  Therefore, if the oven door is opened too early, the egg collapses around the bubble and the sponge deflates. 

I asked Rachel about my belief that we should initially learn how to bake without using electric beaters or mixers.  She agreed with this saying that we then understand what we are looking for at each stage a little better.  We are in closer contact with the ingredients and can spot changes during the process better. 

Bearing in mind all of Rachel’s advice let’s make fairycakes! 

This recipe should be about right for 12 fairy cakes. 


  • 3 eggs weighed in their shells
  • Equal quantities of caster sugar, butter and self raising flour.
  • A little whole milk


  • A big mixing bowl
  • 12 individual fairy cake cases
  • A 12 hole baking tray to snugly hold the cases.
  • A wooden spoon
  • A metal spoon
  • A skewer


Pre – heat your oven to 180 °C / Fan 160 °C

Have your cases in the tray ready to go.

With the wooden spoon, cream the butter and sugar together in the mixing bowl until pale and fluffy and lots of air has been incorporated.  This could take up to 10 minutes depending on how well you beat and how much your arm can take!

Whisk your eggs in a separate bowl and gradually start to add a little at a time to your butter / sugar mix.  Beat well between each addition and incorporate all the egg before adding more.  If it looks like it has split then you can add a teaspoon of flour to stabilize it.

Once all the egg had been added then sieve your flour into the bowl.  Sieving gets rid of lumps and incorporates more air.

Fold in the flour using the large metal spoon.  Check for dropping consistency.  Add milk a little at a time if the mixture is too thick.

Spoon equal amounts of the mix into each paper case to just under half full.  They will rise and you want space at the top to pipe icing and decorate your cakes.

Put them straight into the oven and bake for 15 – 20 minutes depending on your oven or the size of your cases.  Don’t open the oven for at least 15 minutes or they may collapse, although this is more important for the larger Victoria sponge.

Remove from the oven and insert a skewer into the cake.  If it comes out clean with no mixture sticking to it then it is ready. 

Put the cakes onto a cooling rack and leave until completely cool before applying your topping of choice. 


For the cakes pictured here I made a simple butter icing using double the quantity of icing sugar to really good softened French unsalted butter.

200 g Icing Sugar
100 g Butter

Simply beat the butter and the sieved icing sugar together until they form a lovely soft icing.  Put this into a piping bag and away you go.

I often make fairy cakes with my four year old daughter at the weekends.  I believe it’s important that children know where their food comes from and they have the ability to cook for themselves. 

Rachel agreed and went on to talk about the importance of skills like baking being passed on from one generation to the next.  If you teach someone to cook you are empowering them with an essential life skill.

Thank you Rachel, that’s something you do really well.

Thanks to Rachel Allen for all her time and advice and to Amy from for taking the photos of Rachel and me!

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