it was my birthday recently. I love my birthday. I love to celebrate and eat delicious things and generally be joyful. but I find as I get older, that each birthday is also when I really reflect on my life. It's a good time for it, I've found. I look back over the past year and check-in: am I feeling good? am I happy with my life? what will the coming year bring?
as I consider these questions, I think about the ways I can invite joy, feel good, and be happy. and this year, I made a few resolutions. these aren't your typical new year's resolutions: flimsy and unattainable. I only make resolutions that I really think I can keep--so I try to make sure that they're fun (or at least fun-adjacent).
with that in mind, in the coming year I resolve to entertain more. you'd think that with my love of food and my joy in people, that I would entertain all the time. I don't.
I think some of it has to do with that term: entertain. It sounds very formal, and slightly off-putting, as though you are somehow separate from your guests. but I don't think it needs to be that way. when I think of the times I've most enjoyed myself, it's usually in a friend's home where there's music and food and people mingling. it's not some fussy extravaganza, but an invitation to enter into their everyday life: to share a meal, to come together and connect.
when I've entertained in the past, my perfectionist streak has kicked in and I've either overworked myself, unconsciously trying to impress our guests, or I've spent so much time hostessing that I haven't actually connected with the people we've invited over.
what I've come to realize is that while food is essential to entertaining, it is perhaps not the point of it. delicious cake is all well and good, but the thing about cake (and birthday cake especially), is that it really tastes delicious because it's shared: when your friends are holding their breath as you blow out your candles, and when they cheer as the first slice is cut.
so with this birthday behind me, and the coming year ahead, I resolve to invite more people into our home and into our everyday lives. there's plenty of cake to go around.
birthday victoria sponge
because I have a summer birthday, I usually opt for birthday pie rather than cake, but like many people in the US, I've been completely obsessed with the Great British Bake-Off. My sweetie and I traveled to England this summer for our honeymoon, and on the transatlantic flight, I binge-watched as many episodes of GBBO as I could. when we returned home, I determined that this year's birthday would be celebrated with the quintessential summer cake: a victoria sponge. this recipe is based on the sponge in the wonderful cookbook from Peyton & Byrne. they encourage reader to make the cake in the traditional way, by first weighing your eggs, and then weighing out the rest of the ingredients to equal measure, kind of like a pound cake. for ease, I've tweaked the recipe for American bakers by measuring the ingredients by volume and eschewing the metric system.
for the sponge
2 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
17 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks plus 1 Tbsp), at room temperature
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
for the filling
¾ pint fresh strawberries
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp. confectioner’s sugar
½ cup strawberry jam (homemade or store-bought)
¼ pint fresh strawberries
- preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease two 8” round cake pans, and line the bottom with parchment paper cut to fit. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, combine cake flour, baking powder and salt and whisk to mix. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine butter and sugar. using the paddle attachment, beat butter with sugar until pale and fluffy.
- With the mixer running, add eggs one at a time to the butter and sugar mixture, adding a spoonful of the flour mixture at the same time. Wait until this is mixed into the batter before you add the next egg and spoonful of flour. After the last egg has been added and are incorporated, add the remaining flour and mix just until combined. Stir in the vanilla.
- Pour the batter into the two prepared cake pans, making sure that the batter is evenly split between the pans.
- Place the filled pans on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the preheated oven.
- Bake the cakes for 30-35 minutes, rotating the baking sheet about 15 minutes after placing in the oven, to ensure even browning.
- The cakes are done when they spring back to a light touch, and a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean. Allow to cakes to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, before removing the cakes from their pans to cool completely on a wire cooling rack.
- Meanwhile, wash and dry the pint of strawberries. Hull and slice about ¾ of the pint and place in a small bowl, reserving the rest unhulled and unsliced for decoration.
- Pour the whipping cream into the bowl of a stand mixer and add in the vanilla and confectioner’s sugar. Using the whisk attachment, whip the cream until it holds soft peaks. Try not to overbeat. Set aside.
- In a small bowl (or in the jam jar) stir your strawberry jam until it’s a spreadable consistency.
When you are ready to assemble the cake, place one of the cooled cake rounds on a pretty cake plate or platter. Spread the cake with the strawberry jam, being careful not to spread it all the way to the edge.
Next drop dollops of the whipped cream on top of the jammy surface and spread the cream out, again being careful not to spread completely to the edge. (You can pipe the cream if you prefer for a slightly neater look, as I did.) Scatter the sliced strawberries across the whipped cream, trying to ensure they are evenly distributed.
Place the second cooled cake round on top of the first layer and press gently so it adheres to the strawberries and whipped cream. This action should spread the whipped cream and jam to the edge of the bottom layer.
Dust with confectioner’s sugar and top with reserved strawberries. I like to leave the hull on, but slice the strawberries lengthwise from the tip almost to the hull, and then fan them on top of the cake.
The finished cake should keep in the refrigerator for about two days.
You may notice that my photo of the finished cake above shows a smoothed filling, with watercolor-like smears of berries and jam throughout. When I placed my second layer on top of my overabundant piped filling, the filling oozed out alarmingly and I worried that it might escape the layers completely by the time we got to dessert.
I gently removed the top layer, and using an offset spatula, brought the filling back into the boundaries of the bottom layer of cake. I replaced the top layer and smoothed the filling to meet the edge. I added a few extra slices of strawberries to gussy up the smeary filling. I quite like the modernist look, but I'm not sure the judges on GBBO would approve. the cake was delicious at any rate, and another birthday was celebrated in style.