Cake is the key to the British soul. Generations of us have been comforted by cake, we celebrate with cake, and we comfort and celebrate others with cake. Where Americans have cookies and milk, we have tea and a slice of cake. Our cakes are not always an elaborate performance art — for us they're just the taste of home.
Our year is marked by a cycle of cakes: thickly frosted Christmas cake, marzipan-y Simnel cake at Easter, decadent confections of fruit and cream in the summer, extravagant buttercreamed layer cakes for birthdays. Supermarket shelves are stacked with all manner of dainty treats, from novelty birthday cakes to gaudy Battenbergs and chocolate Swiss rolls. We eat — and enjoy — fruit cakes.
And we don't just eat cakes — we bake them too. While we will definitely make the occasional pie, and might sometimes dabble in the exotic American realm of cookies, the terrifyingly unpredictable world of bread, or the fancy French domain of pastry. But when a Brit tells you they're baking, you can generally assume that a cake is about to come out of the oven.
Kids know to raid the cake tin for homemade banana bread when they come home from school. In-laws coming to tea? We greet them with a sponge cake, freshly made that morning. Homemade cakes are brought into the office, sold at bake sales and village fêtes, and take star billing at parties and potlucks. We bake cakes to make the most of simple, honest ingredients, and because they taste so much better than the overly sugared supermarket versions, with their inevitable undertone of chemicals and disappointment.
Kids learn to bake alongside their parents and grandparents – rock cakes and fairy cakes, flapjacks and jam tarts — and then one day, at home, or at school, you will get to try a Victoria sponge. Because once you've mastered the Victoria sponge, the whole universe of British cake baking opens up to you.
These five classic British cakes can be considered variations on that basic mother recipe. Change the proportions slightly and you get a denser Madeira cake; alter the flavorings and you have a lemon, walnut, or chocolate sponge; experiment with buttercreams, ganaches, and drizzles and you have the tool kit to start creating your own flavor combinations.
The origins of these cakes are lost in the mists of time – Hannah Glasse's the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in 1747 gives a recipe for pound cake that is somewhat familiar in ingredients and method, but these cakes really took off in Victorian times, when the new-fangled tradition of afternoon tea met the invention of baking powder.
Cakes like these would have been served to the denizens of Downtown Abbey, all were my familiar childhood companions during the '70s and '80s, and all, though charmingly retro, still appear regularly on Instagram to this day. The quick, easy and versatile Victoria sponge is ever the queen, while the venerable Madeira and old-fashioned lemon drizzle are the kind of cake you can whip up on a rainy Sunday afternoon to delight the hungry hordes during the week.
The more celebratory layer cakes will take a little more time and effort and might be made for a friend's birthday or other special occasion. Whichever you choose, remember that these cakes require no fuss with piping bags and food colorings. Instead, they are kitchen table cakes, meant to be shared with friends and family, over a pot of tea and lively conversation.
Or perhaps best of all, sneak a piece just for yourself and curl up on the sofa, with a magazine and a slice of heaven.