Victoria Sandwich - and Mr Bird

Discussion in 'Chemistry' started by exchemist, Aug 25, 2020.

  1. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    I have recently starting baking Victoria sandwich sponge cake. The cake is named after Queen Victoria, who was partial to the original version (as replicated by me in the picture below), in which the sponge is flavoured with vanilla and a simple raspberry jam filling is used:

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    It turns out this cake was the revolutionary result of a new cooking ingredient, invented in the 1840s by a chemist by the name of Alfred Bird. This was baking powder, a mixture of sodium bicarbonate (sodium hydrogen carbonate, NaHCO3) and tartaric acid (HOOC.CHOH.CHOH.COOH). When heated in the presence of moisture there is a neutralisation reaction, evolving CO2, which causes the cake mixture to rise. The small amount of reaction product, sodium tartrate, is tasteless and quite safe to eat (the white crystals found as deposits in aged white wine are tartrates - they are harmless). Before this time, the only way to get cakes to rise was the use of beaten egg white (as in soufflés) or yeast, as in bread making.

    Bird also invented a kind of egg-free custard, which proved so easy to make (compared to the real thing, which is a huge bore to prepare) and thus popular that he founded a business to make it. The brand survives to this day and a packet of Bird's custard powder was at the back of every housewife's cupboard in Britain for about a century. I used to get it at home and at school: not very exciting, but inoffensive, yellow stuff you glooped onto various puddings. Perhaps some other readers in the Anglophone world will have come across it.

    Both inventions were apparently spurred by his wife's allergies: she was allergic to both yeast and eggs!

    Baking powder has proved a godsend in the kitchen, ever since. In the UK, you can buy 2 sorts of flour, plain and "self-raising". The latter includes some pre-mixed baking powder. Of course you can also buy baking powder separately - and in fact I used self-raising flour boosted with an extra level teaspoon of baking powder to bake the cake in the photograph.

    By the way, the Victoria sponge uses equal weights of butter, sugar, eggs and flour: in the picture, 4 eggs and 250g each of the other 3 ingredients were used. The butter can be softened by leaving it in the boiler cupboard for a bit - when the boiler is not active: you don't want to melt it!

    (Hot tip: use seeds from half a vanilla pod, not vanilla essence. It is far more fragrant.)
     
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  3. geordief Valued Senior Member

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    Didn't the price of vanilla pods go through the roof last time I looked?

    It was about 18 euros over here

    My mother always left a pod in the sugar jar.

    Have never made a Victoria sponge ,scarcely bought one either.

    Am very good at scones though.I also use both self raising flour and baking powder.

    You have to work the mixture as little as possible.

    The recipe actually calls for "cream flour" but I never worked out if that was different.

    You can beef up Bird's custard with cream or evaporated milk too.
     
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  5. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    I bought a packet of 2 pods in Sainsbury's this morning for £6. That's enough for 4 large cakes. Since the other ingredients are dirt cheap, I think the extravagance is warranted.

    By the way, on Jamie Oliver's advice I use golden caster sugar, something I didn't know existed but which again adds a subtle extra component to the flavour. You can make good meringues with it too, though they are definitely a pale tan colour rather than white.
     
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  7. Traverse Registered Member

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    What a great thread! My favourite dessert as a little kid [growing up in England until aged 10, when we emigrated out to Aussie] was "Banana custard," that was simply comprised of slices of banana smothered in Bird's custard; and I especially wanted the "skin" off the custard jug, too. Thank goodness for Mr. Bird, haha.
     
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  8. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    Did you ever look at the custard powder in the packet? What I found fascinating, as a child, was the the powder looks a sort of pale pink, but when you make it up, with milk, into the finished product, it is lurid bright yellow. You get something similar with saffron. The dried stamens are dark red, but the liquid infusion made from them is yellow.

    I guess a yellow colour means it absorbs in the blue and reflects green and red. I have not worked out how that translates into a red colour in concentrated form. Unless (guessing a bit) it is just that the absorption extends a bit into the green as well, so when it is concentrated it suppresses reflection of both blue and green, leaving red.
     
  9. Traverse Registered Member

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    I wonder if the 'dry' molecule is perhaps able to absorb in the near-UV as well, re-emitting (dissipating the energy) in the red, to account for the pinkish colour of the dry Bird's Custard Powder that I also remember noticing as a kid, too.
     

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