You know how you sometimes picture a perfect occasion? Not really? Okay, c’mon! Work with me here. Your brain is crammed with the planning, the vision of how exactly something is supposed to go?* Then the wet fish of reality hits you upside the head? Yeah, that’s pretty much how my efforts to host a tea party this past week went.
First came: The Idea. Last summer whilst my son was at camp, I visited Mackinac Island and enjoyed a sumptuous, if overpriced, Tea at the Grand Hotel. I thought to myself, “I ought to host an event like this!”
Second came: The Recipe. Reading Sarah—A Young Foodie’s—Blog I was inspired to try and make the Foolproof Victoria Sponge.** I had the chutzpah to look at sugary, confection perfection and say, “I can bake that.” Turns out, it wasn’t so ‘foolproof’ after all.***
The recipe itself was fairly basic—if calling for an inordinate amount of butter and eggs. But the numerous British terms had me revisiting my childhood fear of metric conversion and scrambling around my local Meijer’s store trying to locate something called ‘Caster Sugar’. Turns out there is a stage between the coarse granulated grains most of us use in baking and the fine, talcum powder consistency of powdered sugar. It’s called Baker’s Sugar here in the States—in case you want to try making this. (Read: in case you are a masochist.)
The day before the party, I’m cleaning my house like a mad woman, throwing together the makings of three…count them…three kinds of tea sandwiches, lemon zested cookies and the delectable dessert which is to be the crowning achievement of my table. I decided to tackle the sponge first. I’m like a virgin on her wedding night—nervous, but excited. But I’m all, “Bring on the groom…er…I mean, cake.”
Third Came: The Wet Fish of Reality. I pull together my sponge ingredients, painstakingly following the instructions. I slid my pans into the oven and commenced work on the sandwiches…only to discover the bread I had put in the freezer had fused each slice next to the other. While struggling to dissect that mess, the wonderful odor of cake rising in the oven prompts me to peek in and see how it’s doing. (Did you gasp with horror? That’s because you know what’s coming. It’s the slasher flick equivalent of a sorority girl heading into a dark cellar. You are all collectively shouting: “No! Don’t Go In There!)
When the timer finally dinged and I pulled my masterpiece out of the oven, it was to discover that my beautiful-smelling dessert looked like a California sinkhole had formed underneath it. My cakes had fallen. (I’m not sure where the bridal analogy would go in this scenario…but calling my cakes flaccid would be appropriate.)
Faced with my Failure Sponge and shredded loaf of bread, did I give up? No! This is where the British came up with the stiff-upper lip-ism. When faced with defeat…we rise to bake again.
Not trusting my first efforts, I find what looks like an easier version on the internet and throw that into a spring form pan and hope for the best. It came out of the oven looking pretty good. I hurdled the stumbling blocks to making the perfect tea party and sallied forth. Tally ho and all that rot.
(Musical Interlude: Cue Verdi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons )
The day dawns, birds are chirping. The house is looking about as good as I can make it—as long as no one opens a bedroom door or goes into the basement. I have a fridge full of prepared food. I have the makings of a dessert. I decide to get my hair cut and styled as a treat before the party. (I was not going to mess up that bathroom.) It was only when the stylist is getting out her blow dryer that I remembered I left the sandwiches in the freezer. Panicked, I text my mother-in-law to take them out. I just crossed my fingers and hoped they would thaw in time.
The hour before guests are to arrive, I discover to my dismay that, sometime in the night, the second cake I made had deflated into a dense, rubbery disc. This is where I learned that eating the failed efforts of the first cake meant I had nothing to fall back on! (By the way, it was flat—but delicious.) With no time to try for a third cake, I slice the vulcanized monstrosity and smother it in fruit and whipped cream and called it ‘Good Enough’.
Everyone was very complimentary. Despite the jam causing the heavy layers to slide apart and the whipped cream to squoosh out the sides when it was cut, the guests called the cake delicious. Which just goes to show—being polite sometimes requires a judicious amount of lying. I don’t regret trying something new. But next time I host a shindig, I am probably buying something instead. Or better yet, I’ll just watch Downton Abbey and laugh at all the perfection depicted.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Ask any bride who ever planned her “Dream Wedding” how it actually turned out. (Have a box of tissues ready just in case it turns out they are now getting a divorce.)
**The Victoria (meaning victorious) Sponge—most ironically named dessert of my baking career.
Raspberry and Blackberry Victoria Sponge
For the sponge :
1 Cup (8 oz) softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
2 Cups (8 oz) self-r
aising flour, plus extra for dusting
1 ¼ Cup (8 oz) 250 g caster Baker’s sugar
4 large free-range eggs
4 tablespoons good-quality raspberry jam
300g (about a cup 1/2 each) of fresh raspberries & blackberries, washed and dried.
Icing powdered sugar, for dusting
For the whipped cream:
300 ml double cream (heavy cream in the US)
1 tsp vanilla bean paste/extract
4 tbsp sifted icing powdered sugar
Preheat your oven to 190°C/375°F/gas Grease two 20cm sandwich tins cake pans with butter, line the bases with greaseproof paper and dust lightly with flour.
Beat the butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy. A great tip is to stop when the mixture turns from being slightly yellow in color to almost white. Add the eggs one by one, making sure you beat each one in well before you add the next, then add the vanilla extract and the flour. Divide the cake mix between the prepared tins. Spread it out well with a spatula and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and risen and a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool slightly, then carefully turn out on to a baking rack to cool completely.
Whip the cream with the vanilla bean paste and sugar until you get soft peaks- careful not to overbeat it though! Spread the jam and then the vanilla cream over one of the cakes. Place the second cake on top, spreading onto it a thin layer of whipped cream and decorating with alternating raspberries and blackberries. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
***You Read This Far Bonus***
British Expressions You Need to Know:
Sandwich Tin = Cake Pan
Caster Sugar = Baker’s Sugar
8 oz = means different ‘effing’ sizes because it is a measure of weight not volume, you idiot. (Sorry, this is my dictionary so I get to say it like I mean it.) So 8oz of butter is one cup but 8 oz of flour is two cups. I hate math, have I mentioned this?
Self-raising Flour = Self-Rising Flour (and actually means that in high humidity, your cake is probably going to fall.)
Cream = Whipped Cream