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The Classic Cake Everyone Fell For

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post; Cake Plate From Crate And Barrel)
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By Frances Stead Sellers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe that we turn to time and again:

With regular jumble sales and garden tours, a ghost called Geranium Jane and a mayor who is elected by votes that can be purchased for pennies apiece, ours is a very English village. In the heart of mid-Sussex, where I grew up, Cuckfield puts its quirks on display at fetes and fayres, where sensibly shod ladies with ample bosoms sell hand-knitted baby clothes and jars of homemade blackberry jam. And where there is sometimes a competition for the best homemade cake.

When it comes to anointing that icon of afternoon tea, one can't help thinking that beneath a frosting of British civility, the knives might be out.

All of which makes me realize that jet lag had something to do with our decision to enter the cake competition at the vicarage garden fete. But that's what we did one rainy summer morning many years ago after flying overnight from the States with our 5-year-old daughter, who was far too excited to sleep.

Eager for an activity to occupy us by the warmth of my parents' Aga stove, my husband picked up the parish magazine and read aloud the call for entries. It went something like this:

Ladies' Division: A cake of your own creation. It should be baked, iced and decorated according to your original recipe.

Men's Division: A traditional Victoria sandwich cake.

A Victoria sandwich cake is a standby of British culinary arts, foolproof and man-proof. It is a buttery sponge that can be cut into shapes and adapted so readily with flavors and icings that it has become a staple at our daughter's birthday parties.

But "a cake of your own creation" . . . that was a more daunting prospect. And the judge? None other than Cuckfield's local celebrity: Katie Stewart, the former London Times food writer, TV cook, best-selling cookery book author and sometime village mayor.

Nonetheless, we set to work. Tim (who reminded us that he had won a back-of-the-cereal-box competition when he was a boy for his "sticky oatmeal squares") baked a Victoria sandwich cake with raspberry jam filling and a sprinkle of sugar on top, using Stewart's recipe -- no fool he. And I helped Cora with her creation: an identical sponge cake batter, to which she added two teaspoons of instant coffee granules. We made chocolate buttercream icing to spread between the two layers; she decorated the top with wild violets from the garden and some Pollocksian splotches of colored icing.

When there was a gap in the rain showers, we delivered our handiwork to the fete. Tim strode first across the vicar's wet lawn, cake in hand. And Cora walked confidently behind him, holding her creation chest-high as if it were a crown for Victoria herself, past the knitters and jam makers, toward the cake judging stand.

When sploosh. Down went the girl -- and up went the wail:

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