Let Them Eat Cake…100 years of baking with the wonderful WI

This is the original text for a feature I’ve written to celebrate the  Centenary of the WI for the February issue of WI Life magazine. It goes out to all members but I thought it might be interesting for non-WI members to read the piece in full here… (the photos I have used come from other sources)

One hundred years of home baking make for a lot of cake! And what better way to explore the development of the WI and its fascinating history than with a look at how the simple sponge has played its own part in a century of social change. Mary Gwynn gets to the sticky heart of the Victoria sandwich and its place in the evolution of the organisation…

Beating in the eggsIs there a more potent symbol of the WI than the Victoria sandwich? Buttery and light, filled with a layer of raspberry jam – home-made for preference – with its golden surface dusted with a fine coating of caster sugar, its very simplicity denotes the challenge it presents to bakers. But back in 1915 as the organisation embarked on its first year in existence, were members baking and eating the famous sponge as they all sang a rousing chorus of Jerusalem at the earliest gatherings? Of course not! The truth is far more complex and revealing. Nor did the ladies at those early meetings sing the eponymous hymn – this would not happen until 1924, nearly a decade after the inaugural meeting in September 1915. It was finally introduced to WI’s around the country following a request from the NFWI (National Federation of Women’s Institutes) for suggestions for a ‘national Institute Song’, which when initiated in 1922, led to much heart searching over the following months in letters to the magazine Home & Country about what might be appropriate.

And today as we trace the development of the Viccy sandwich over the past century, its story neatly reflects that of the WI as it progressed from its earliest days in the midst of the dark days of the First World War to the iconic status of the modern organisation today here in the 21st century. The very first recipe for a sponge cake – a sandwich cake (but with no acknowledged royal connection) – to appear in the pages of H&C appears in an issue the very same year as the debate over an institute song was taking place. In July 1922, three years after the magazine was first published, a short note in H.H.H.! (Helpful Handy Hints – a regular item of cooking and household tips in those early issues, all sent in by members) finds the first of three short recipes appearing as follows: Sponge Sandwich.- 2 oz. butter or Margarine, ¼ lb. of sugar. Beat up to a cream. Add 2 eggs well beaten then stir in ¼ lb flour, 2 teaspoonfuls of baking powder and 1 tablespoonful of milk. Bake in a quick oven for a quarter of an hour. It’s more or less the recipe we cook today apart from the use of half the amount of butter. Members who sent in recipes to the magazine were reminded firmly that any hints provided must be guaranteed ‘tested’ and I can assure you it works well!

1922 – the earliest WI recipe for a sponge cake

The Victoria sponge itself predates the WI, going back, as one would expect, to the years of the young Queen Victoria’s reign. The queen was known for her sweet tooth and gave her name to all kinds of foods apart from the said cake – from the popular plum and sponge cake we still know today but also to a variety of rhubarb, a pea and a sweet suet pudding made with apples, dried cherries and apricot jam. It was Mrs. Beeton herself who wrote the first recipe to appear in print for ‘Victoria Sandwiches’ in her landmark book ‘Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management’, which first appeared in 1861. That recipe is based on 4 eggs with their weight in ‘pounded sugar, butter and flour’. The mixture would appear to contain no raising agent but is beaten for 10 minutes to add air before it is cooked in a Yorkshire pudding tin. The cake is then split, spread with ‘nice preserve’ and cut into long ‘finger pieces’.

The arrival of refined white flour and sugar along with the invention of baking powder in the 1840s had transformed baking to allow the making of rich buttery cakes with a fine crumb, ideal for serving with that other sign of luxury, leaf tea imported from her majesty’s colonies, made in a silver pot and served in the finest bone china. Victoria and her ladies-in-waiting enjoyed this new meal as the perfect filler for the long gap between luncheon and dinner – and afternoon tea parties became all the rage. In the new century, for the members of the newly established WI in the years immediately after the Great War the social side of meetings, as it had been for Queen Victoria and her guests enjoying the new fashion for afternoon tea, was viewed as being of supreme importance. A Mrs. Nugent Harris writes on the ‘Institute’s Guide to Knowledge’ in Home & Country in Aug 1919 that ‘members of an Institute get to know each other best when they meet for social intercourse’, and in her view, the simplest way to achieve that is with ‘the Institute tea’. She goes on to remind members that ‘tea-time should be the informal part of the meeting, when a real neighbourly chat can be enjoyed’. (And it’s advice that still holds true today!).

My favourite lemon and lime Victoria sandwich cake (recipe in my Busy Mum's Cookbook)

My favourite lemon and lime Victoria sandwich cake (recipe in my Busy Mum’s Cookbook) Picture – David Merewether

As ingredients such as sugar, eggs and butter, previously in short supply due to wartime restrictions, began to find their way back into the shops, WI members started to bake and preserve once more, and also take on the vital task of educating those whose own domestic skills might be lacking. Federation news from  those early years includes details of a ‘cake guessing’ competion at South Pickenham WI’s annual flower show and fete in September 1920, which raised £6.17s.3p to be ‘added to the funds of the Women’s Institute’, while Lowdham WI embodied the remit for education that was part of the earliest aims of the WI, by holding weekly ‘Fruit, Vegetable, Bottling and Preserving’ lectures which were reportedly very ‘well attended’. Edwinstowe WI formed its own ‘Infant Welfare Centre’ and ‘twenty five splendid babies’ were registered at its first meeting.

And this desire to educate and preserve essential skills and traditions (whilst also having fun!) takes us on to the next step in the joint development of the Victoria sandwich recipe and the WI. The years between the wars saw local federations produce their own cookery books that celebrated and, most importantly, recorded for posterity, all kinds of regional recipes and dishes. This protection of our culinary heritage has been seen by many as one of the most vital functions of the WI during its history; to the point where Elisabeth David in her 1977 English Bread and Yeast Cookery wrote, “recipes have been preserved, recorded and published…owing to the initiative of the ladies of the Women’s Institute”.

But interestingly in amongst the many recipes for cakes of all styles and sizes that appear in WI publications from the 1920’s up until well into the 1950s, although there are many  for sponges (the Yorkshire Federation’s cookbook Seven Hundred Recipes in its twenty fifth edition in 1950 contains no less than three different recipes for sandwich cakes in its pages plus an orange cake that is in essence the classic Victoria cake recipe we use today), the Victoria sponge/sandwich itself does not appear by name until 1957. As the long drawn-out restrictions of rationing finally came to a conclusion in summer 1954, nine years after the end of the Second World War itself, and butter and meat finally came off ration, the nation’s women could start to bake once more but now faced a new worry. Many women, drafted into work in factories and formerly male-dominated roles in support of the war effort, and faced with restrictions on ingredients such as fat, flour, eggs and butter, had lost the skills that their mothers and grandmothers had taken for granted. Basic recipes such as crumble, batters and cakes that previously they would have held in their heads were no longer commonplace. Once again the WI leapt to fill the gap. In 1954 a specially commissioned 54-page booklet entitled County Fare was handed out from the WI stand at The Ideal Home Exhibition, containing  over 130 recipes for regional specialities such as Guernsey Gache and Monmouth Pudding, as well as detailed leaflets on breadmaking and pastry skills.

And, as Mrs. Beeton’s classic recipe for Victoria sandwich finally appeared in print once more in the pages of the newly published The Constance Spry Cookbook (1956), a year later the cake received its first official recognition in a WI publication. The 1957 cookbook  More Good Recipes from the Norfolk Federation contains a recipe for ‘chocolate Victoria sponge’. And finally a year later the traditional ‘Standard Victoria Sandwich’ in the form we now recognise – 3 egg, jam filling, sugar dusting – makes its first appearance on page 64 of the The Berkshire Cookery Book.

And we’ve been cooking it for competitions and meetings in the WI ever since. As a competition cake it is the ultimate test for the baker – the simple ingredients and method allow no hiding place for sloppy technique or poor quality ingredients (it’s also why the cake is used to check new ovens and how they perform). The detailed guidelines for making the Victoria sandwich for competition are set out in the pages of the NFWI Education Committee’s handbook On with the Show, available to all institutes, and include:

  • May be baked in one or two tins
  • No cooling rack marks on top or bottom surface
  • Traditional filling raspberry jam, sufficient and evenly spread
  • Light sprinkling of caster sugar on top
  • Pale golden colour, evenly baked
  • Texture fine, even
  • Flavour delicate, characteristic, with no strong flavour predominating

And if baking such a cake for tough WI judges can be daunting, making one for your local WI is also putting a clear marker down that you are ready and confident to be judged by your peers! Today a welcoming cup of tea and a slice of cake are as integral to the success of a WI meeting as they were to Mrs. Nugent and her co-members back in 1919. And if the cake is a perfectly baked Victoria sandwich, then hallelujah to that – the heritage of a hundred years is safe in the hands of today’s WI members.  


About marygwynn

Food writer, traveller, grower, picker, gatherer, cook...oh and still a busy mum
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