Crumb of comfort

Strawberry sponge for cake addicts
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When my grandmother baked a cake, she never measured anything, just guessed - a relaxed approach which worried me. But I still hold a nostalgic fondness for Granny's Victoria sponges. Memories come flooding back at the thought of the two thick layers of cake sandwiched together with strawberry jam and a dusting of caster sugar on top.

But what I have in mind are two layers of feathery light sponge, wet and sticky with a Grand Marnier syrup, and a deep bank of strawberries and cream in between.

Contrary to what you might expect, light sponges preceded heavy ones. It was a Victorian trade-off - they added butter to the original sponge to produce a cake that kept well. The method was to whip the butter and sugar together until they were moussey and light before adding eggs.

This coincided with the arrival of baking powder - a chemical agent that has the same effect in a heavy batter as fuel in a hot-air balloon. The combination of an alkali and an acid, usually baking soda and cream of tartar, react together when they come into contact with moisture to produce bubbles of carbon dioxide gas that are trapped by the structure of the cake as it cooks.

It is a useful white powder, though not without its disadvantages. I think too little is said of the taste that results from a hefty dose and the toughening of the crumb. I reckon the methods that rely on natural leavening are actually easier, although most books will disagree. But be warned: there is a risk of the cake collapsing unless there is some precision in the method - which is why granny's laissez-faire attitude isn't apt for such creations.

Serious patisseries tend to rely on "whisked sponges" or "genoises", a sophisticated name for the classic foundation of just about all French fancy cakes. First, eggs and sugar are beaten together into a frothy sabayon that is pale and "spongy", and this is what makes the cake rise.

When lightly sifted flour is added to melted butter, you get a "genoise", which, as well as having a nice buttery crumb, is a cake that keeps well. The patissier Michael Nadell, who supplies many of London's hotels, shops and restaurants, recalls how, during his days in Soho's Maison Bertaux, they used to make genoises twice a week and store them in wooden drawers.

The lightest sponge cakes are fatless and, accordingly, short-lived. If that's what takes your fancy, then leave out the butter in the recipe below and sandwich it together with whipped cream and fresh fruit for tea. Just don't ask granny to make it.

Strawberries and cream sponge cake, serves 6

You could also serve this as a dessert with a strawberry puree.

Sponge:

4 medium eggs

125g/412 oz caster sugar

50g/134 oz unsalted butter, melted and cooled

125g/412 oz plain flour

Syrup:

150ml/5 fl oz water

125 g/412 oz caster sugar

4 tbsp strawberry or raspberry eau-de-vie, or Grand Marnier

Filling:

12 sachet of gelatine

425 ml/34 pint whipping cream

1 heaped tbsp vanilla sugar

300 g/1012 oz strawberries, hulled and sliced

To decorate:

2 tbsp flaked almonds, toasted

3 strawberry halves

icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C (fan oven)/190C (electric oven) /375F/Gas 5, and butter a deep 23cm/9" cake tin with a removable base. Heat some water in a saucepan. Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a bowl, place over the simmering water and continue whisking until they have doubled in volume, are very pale and leave a ribbon or noticeable trail. Remove the bowl and continue whisking until they are cool when you dip your finger in.

Drizzle the melted butter over the sabayon all at once, and quickly whisk it in. Sift the flour over the top of the mixture and fold it in with a metal spoon, again work quickly and gently, this is the crucial stage where the cake can collapse, you should still have a frothy sabayon at the end.

Pour it into the prepared tin. Give it a couple of taps on the work surface to eliminate large air bubbles and bake for 20-25 minutes until the surface feels springy to the touch. Turn it out onto a rack to cool.

While the cake is baking, make the syrup by simmering the water and sugar together for 5 minutes; half cover the pan with a lid. Allow to cool, then add the eau-de-vie.

To make the filling, sprinkle the gelatine over a little boiling water and leave it to dissolve. If necessary, place the bowl inside another bowl with some boiling water in to speed the process.

It is important that the melted gelatine solution and the cream are at more or less the same temperature when they are combined, so let it cool adequately and take the cream out of the fridge. Combine the cream, gelatine solution and sugar in a bowl and whisk into soft peaks. Fold in the strawberries.

Slit the sponge cake open and paint the cut surfaces generously with the syrup - you won't require all of it. Place the bottom layer of cake back in the cake tin and spoon the strawberry mousse on top. Place the other layer of cake on top, cover and chill for several hours or overnight.

Before serving, remove the cake collar and press the toasted, flaked almonds on top and around the edge. Place the strawberry halves in the centre and dust the surface with icing sugar

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