Wednesday, 28 May 2014

RECIPE: Classic (and unbeatable) Victoria Sponge cake.

In my opinion, Victoria Sponge is the most classic of British cakes.

I mean, we love a good sponge cake, don't we? Preferably two layers sandwiched together with something yummy. Yup, it's a pretty British style of baking. And I love it.

The strange thing is, it would seem the quintessential Victoria Sponge is less iconic abroad. My French and Belgian housemates didn't know what it was, neither did any of my German friends back in Bavaria. Madness! What do they think we eat all day? Fish and chips?!

So I'm taking it upon myself to educate the rest of Europe and share the wonders of British baking. Scones are going to have to occur soon I think.

This week there are four birthdays in my (relatively small) office and another next week - weird, huh? And what type of intern would I be if I didn't bring birthday cake for my boss? A rubbish one, that's what.

I figured Victoria Sponge would be the perfect choice because:

     a) it's simple and quick
     b) it would give my British colleagues in the BBC office a taste of home
     c) it would allow my Belgian colleagues to try a British classic
     d) it's blimmin' delicious and one of my faves.

D'you know what else? I realised I don't actually have a recipe for a simple, standard Vic Sponge on my blog. All sorts of variants, sure, but no original. How very remiss of me. Bad Rachel.

But better late then never, eh?

The Victoria Sponge cake is a classic for a reason: light, fluffy, springy vanilla sponge, sandwiched together with vanilla buttercream and fruity strawberry jam, topped off with a dusting of icing sugar. Parfait. 

Some people like fresh cream and real strawberries in the middle, but this is my fave filling. A slice of Victoria Sponge and a cuppa is just so comforting. It's like a hug in the form of afternoon tea.

It sure went down a treat at work too, disappearing in no time. Always lovely to hear comments like, "It's lovely, Rach", and, "So moist. No one likes a dry sponge." Duncan, I'd have to agree. A dry sponge is one of the most disappointing things in the world, am I right?

My Italian-but-practically-British colleague, Sofia, said it was the best Victoria Sponge she'd ever had!

Ideally you'd make this cake in two 20cm round cake tins, but I didn't have any. Instead, I used one larger tin and sliced it in half, thus giving me slightly thinner than ideal and somewhat uneven layers. But hey, that is A-OK - you still get all the deliciousness in every mouthful.

I also don't have an electric whisk in my Belgian kitchen - so tragic - but I managed to do the whole thing with pure elbow grease. It was a good arm workout, although I did get a blister as a result of all the beating. Oh, how we suffer for good cake! #bakingproblems. However I don't think you can taste the difference as a result of my old-school baking. The texture was still beautifully spongey. (If you have a handheld electric mixer though, use it. Save yourself the blister.)

That's the great thing about a Victoria Sponge - you don't need anything fancy, ingredients or equipment-wise. It's practically impossible to go wrong!

Ingredients - Cake:

200g unsalted butter, softened (make sure you take it out of the fridge hours in advance)
200g caster sugar
4 eggs, beaten
200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla essence
A splash of milk

- Icing:

50g unsalted butter, softened
75g icing sugar
A splash of milk


1. Preheat the oven to 180C and grease and line two 20cm sandwich tins (or one bigger one.)

2. Beat the butter and the sugar together until light, smooth and creamy, ideally with a handheld electric whisk.

3. Add the beaten eggs and the flour to the mix alternately a quarter at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in the baking powder and vanilla essence. Add a splash or two of milk until you get the right consistency - it shouldn't be runny but rather dollopable (yes I made that word up.)

Perfect dollopable cake consistency
4. Dollop the cake batter into your cake tin(s) and smooth the top(s) as best you can.

Bake in the oven for about 20 mins if in two tins, and 35-40 mins if one big one. If you notice the top starts to get too dark brown quickly cover the cake with foil.

5. When it's done the cake should be well-risen, springy to the touch and a skewer inserted into the middle should come out just about clean. Remove from the oven and transfer the tin(s) to a wire rack. Go round the sides with a knife and after ten minutes or so carefully remove from the cake(s) to cool fully on the wire racks.

6. To make the icing, beat the butter in a large bowl until creamy and fluffy. Add the sugar half at a time and beat well. Mix in the vanilla. Beat, beat and beat some more - the longer you go, the more air you whip in, and the lighter and fluffier (ergo better) your buttercream will be. If your icing seems a bit stiff, add a splash of milk but not too much as you don't want it to be runny - pop in the fridge for a few minutes if you need to firm it up again.

7. When the cake is fully cooled, it's time to ice and sandwich! If you've made one big cake you need to carefully slice it in half: I find the best way to do this is with my left hand on top of the cake and a large serrated knife in my right, I insert the knife into the middle of the cake and slowly turn it, carefully sawing as I go. You should then have two beautiful spongey cake layers.

8. On the bottom layer, dollop on the icing and spread to the edges in an even layer, ideally with a palette knife (don't worry if it mixes with cake crumbs, that's inevitable.)

Pour your jam on to the underside of your top layer (I find it's best to give it a quick mix in a little bowl first.) Spread to the edges.

Mmm jammy jam

Whoever gets that massive strawberry is one lucky kiddo.
Now it's time to sandwich: be brave and quickly place the top layer on to the bottom, buttercream and jam together, of course. Press down a little. Dust with a light sprinkling of snow icing sugar, sit back with pride and take to your lucky friends/family/colleagues.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Berlin take two: Trying to fall in love with the city.

I really wanted to fall in love with Berlin this time round.

Considering my recently discovered love for Germany in general thanks to six months living in Bavaria, I feel like I really ought to love the capital city.

When my friends heard I was going to saw my tweets from Berlin, SO many of them replied saying "OMG I LOVE BERLIN! BERLIN IS THE BEST! I MISS BERLIN! YOU'RE GOING TO LOVE IT!" And don't get me wrong, I don't dislike Berlin. I like it. I just don't love it as much as everyone else does.

Everyone says Berlin is fun, exciting, trendy, edgy, buzzy, great... I just haven't got that impression myself. Yet. However I know I'm not totally alone. One of my friends tweeted back saying, "It's not one of those cities I fell in love with and thought 'I wish I lived here'- it's interesting not magical." And I'd have to agree. Please don't hate me, Berliners and Berlin-fans!

The first time I visited Berlin was a year and a few months ago, in deepest darkest winter. And I'm sure you'll agree, nowhere is particularly appealing when it's freezing and the skies are grey.

After a fun few days powing out the sights with my uni friends and packing in as much as we could, I'd decided I found Berlin really interesting... But I didn't love it. Again, by no means did I disike it, oh no, but it hadn't charmed me. (Feel free to read more about my first impressions and what we got up to here.)

So, when I rather last-minute got the opportunity to spend another 24 hours in Berlin and this time in (nearly) summer, I was super excited and hopeful I might come away with an improved impression of the city.

To be fair, my impression has improved. But I wouldn't say I love it, as much as I want to.

Maybe it's because I am a wannabe Bavarian and nowhere does it for me like quaint, charming, traditional Bavaria.

Or maybe it's because I haven't seen the best places and I need an echt Berliner to show me round. Super-Berlin-lover, former-Berlin-year-abroader and blogger, Ellie, told me she didn't love it when she visited, it was only after living there that she grew to love it. "It's got a kooky hidden charm," she said, and that's what I'd love to discover.

Don't get me wrong, I still had a great few hours in Germany's capital city - I mean, hello, it's Germany! Personally, it makes me happy just to hear German all around me. Well, nearly all around. There are a lot of tourists to be fair.

I did a classic me on a mini city break - walked and walked and walked until I could walk no more.

However, seeing as this trip came about rather at the last minute, I unfortunately could not do a classic me and research/plan/make an itinerary beforehand. QUELLE HORREUR! So, with nothing organised or anything in particular on my "to do" list, I merely wandered.

I saw a few of the main sights, but I wasn't overly fussed about ticking them all off as like I said, I did them all the first time round.

With my trusty camera round my neck, I still found plenty of picturesque sights to capture, so allow me to take you on a little stroll through Berlin and share the things I liked most. Los geht's!

Past one of the uni buildings I went, thinking to myself it must be rather nice to study in there.

Then I went over the river with a lovely view of the Reichstag...

I love the mix of old and new here
... and my first stop had to be the iconic Brandenburg Gate.

Did you know they've banned the people in costume who were once so iconic in pictures of the Brandeburg Gate? Well they have. Yup, selfies with Mickey Mouse are no more. You've missed your chance, kiddos.

I walked down Unter den Linden (the biiiiig road leading up to the Brandenburg Gate) and ventured East. One of the things I love about East Berlin is the famous Ampelmann:

He's so cute, no? There are even Ampelmann shops all round the city (or maybe just the East?) where you can buy Ampelmann-themed, well, everything. I'm particularly partial to the gummi Ampelmann sweeties. There's a surprise.

Quick history lesson for those of you who know nothing about Berlin: after WW2 it was divided into East and West by this massive wall called The Berlin Wall. (Makes sense, huh?). It was kind of (totally) a big (HUGE!) deal. And although it's been 25 years since the wall came down, the differences between the two sides are still noticeable. Having studied the history of the city, I find it super interesting.

Aaaanyway, I carried on strolling, stopping to peruse some old German books as I went...

...and I soon got to the weekend art market on the Museumsinsel. I had a little lookie.

Then it was over the river to the very impressive Cathedral.

The sun may not have been shining but surrounded by green green grass and leafy trees, it looked even better than it had done in January.

Another thing I really like about Berlin is that you can basically see the TV tower from wherever you are. It may not be much of a looker but it's pretty helpful for getting your bearings, I'm sure you'll agree.

I walked some more. And some more. I went past this cupcake and froyo café and took a pic purely because it looked cute...

And yes, I did just say cupcake and froyo café. Perfect for me, much!? I tell you what, it was extremely rare to see cupcakes or froyo back in oh-so-traditional Bavaria, and I stumbled upon loads of similar places during just a few hours in Berlin. I guess that's quite a good demonstration of the difference between the two!

Oh, that leads me rather nicely on to where I went next actually...

I managed to find myself in Berlin's Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas Quarter if you want to translate, but I think it sounds much better auf deutsch) which is all historic and quaint and IT REMINDED ME OF BAVARIA!

Oh, cobbled streets and ye olde German-ness! It's been too long!

Next up, I walked round an area that was less photo-worthy so let's just skip that and get to the next pretty bit, shall we? Jolly good.

Ah, here we go:

That's the Gendarmenmarkt. It's sehr Grand and I like it a lot. By this point, however, my feet were aching and I realised my blood sugar had dropped perilously low. Any good city explorer knows that's fatal, so... TO THE BAKERY!

I really miss German bakeries. Just like Germany in general, they're totally underrated in my opinion. Everyone's always saying "Oh la la, boulangeries, bon, bein, baguettes, ouai, alors, délicieux" and there's this idea that French bakeries are the best thing since, um, sliced bread? (Not sure that expression really works here but we'll go with it.)

French bakeries, like Belgian ones, are undoubtedly full of delicious and diet-destroying treats. But they're quite different to German Bäckereien. And me, I prefer the latter. French/Belgian ones are fancy schmancy, fabulous and fine, German ones are like PRETZELS, BREAD ROLLS, PASTRIES  in your face. I'm not sure I've explained this very well but you'll just have to trust me.

Well the point is I had a delicious lunch and a reinvigorating sit down before venturing off again. I walked down the shopping street, Friedrichstrasse, managing to resist actually shopping (*hears applause in head* thank you, thanks very much.)

And I soon got to Checkpoint Charlie, which is one of the most famous crossing points on the Berlin Wall. It's now a total tourist trap and there was even a cool little sandy "beach" area where people were lounging on deck-chairs and sipping cocktails from the surrounding street trucks. Trendy, I know. The sun had come out too, hoorah!

However with so few hours in Berlin there was no time to stop and top up my tan, and on I went.

I crossed the river yet again...

...and after walking on for a while more I found myself in Gleisdreieck Park. Apparently this is quite an upcoming park, and on a sunny Saturday afternoon it was full of people picnicking, roller-skating, skateboarding, playing table tennis, sunbathing, playing on the swings and generally having a nice time.

At this point it was time for me to head to a meeting so off I went. Let's jump forward a few hours...


I had the evening to myself and so set off in search of dinner. Something vegetabley, thought I. Readers, nothing vegetabley occurred.

Back over the river I went, this time with some pretty lovely evening light going on...

...and back to the grand old Brandenburg Gate. Instagram/Twitter followers may know what happened next. You know what? I just couldn't help myself!

Yup, the classic Currywurst and chips. When in Berlin, eh? It's not even my favourite type of Wurst (everyone has one, right?) but on a mild evening in front of the Brandenburg Gate, with a side of people-watching, it was really most pleasant.

I have to say, now I'm accustomed to the famous Belgian frites I realised these chips had nothing on Belgium!

And that was pretty much the end of my day in Germany's capital. I feel like I really packed it in though. Achey feet to the max!

Goodnight, Berlin!
Aaaand good morning, Berlin!
When I woke up the next morning, there was not one cloud in the sky, and I opened my curtains to a gorgeous view of the city.

Unfortunately all I had time for was a quick (but DELICIOUS) breakfast then it was back to the airport.

Don't mind if I do!
Oh, and by the way, that is not - as my friend Rachel suggested - lasagne with strawberries. It is obviously a Streuselschnecke. You know, a Streuselschnecke. It's basically a pastry covered in crumble topping and an icing glaze. It ain't the healthiest but you can't be good all the time, and it was delish. I recommend you try a Streuselschnecke. Streuselschnecke. It's also such a great German word, don't you think? One of my faves.

Moving on...

Even the journey back to the airport looked much nicer than it had done the previous day because the sun was out to play. I was sad to have to leave on such a beautiful day.

But it was a lovely visit to Berlin and I really enjoyed discovering more of what Germany's capital has to offer. Maybe all I need is one more trip to fall head over heels in love with Berlin... Do you have any tips or recommendations for next time? I'd love to hear them.

PS. Get excited: I'M GOING BACK TO BAVARIA THIS WEEK! Keep your eyes peeled for what will undoubtedly be a gorgeous trip.
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