Poor Lady Flora had tummy aches and her belly started swelling. As she was a lady-in-waiting to the the Queen’s mother, the all-powerful Duchess of Kent, she was seen by the royal physician, Sir Dr Clark. Perhaps, “seen” is inaccurate in this case, because the modest maiden demurely refused to be examined.
The belly kept growing, quite evident in fashionable Victorian dresses, and so did the rumors. “Obviously with child, – whispered the Queen’s Lady of the Bedchamber, the Duchess of Bedford, – Dr Clark said so!” “Terrible! – confirmed Baroness Lehzen, the Queen’s former governess and an avowed enemy of Lady Flora,- What a scandal! Mein Gott! An unmarried madhen, having an affair, and with whom! Ach!” So the Queen wrote in her journal that she suspected Sir John Conroy, the man rumored to have been her mother’s lover, the author of the infamous Kensington system which had cut off the young princess’ contacts with her beloved uncles, to be the father.
The Queen hated both John Conroy and Flora Hastings to such an extent that she did not allow both of them at court! She wrote to her mother, “I thought you would not expect me to invite Sir John Conroy after his conduct towards me for some years past.” (Hibbert, 2001). Of course, she believed the pregnancy story! But when chaste and much maligned Lady Flora was eventually examined by royal doctors and found to have an advanced tumor, the Queen herself visited her at her deathbed. Lady Flora Hastings passed away at the age of 33, leaving a collection of poems, later edited and published by her sister.
Meanwhile, Lady Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, one of the two chief “baby scandal” purveyors, was suffering from pangs. Lest you think those were pangs of remorse, rest easy – Lady Anna was experiencing “a sinking feeling” in the middle of the afternoon, “because of the long gap between luncheon and dinner and so asked her maid to bring her all the necessary tea things and something to eat–probably traditional bread and butter–to her private room in order that she might stave off her hunger pangs” (http://www.foodtimeline.org). Certainly, the gap between a noontime luncheon and a fashionably late 7:30 – 8 o’clock dinner would make anyone starve, and thus a five-o-clock tea was born.
By the end of the century, afternoon tea had gravitated from nobility to all classes of society, as tea became available and accessible to all. “The table was laid…there were the best things with a fat pink rose on the side of each cup; hearts of lettuce, thin bread and butter, and the crisp little cakes that had been baked in readiness that morning.” (A Social History of Tea, Pettigrew, 2001). One of those little cakes is called Victorian Sandwich.
In addition to the concept of afternoon tea itself, Victorian era bequested to us two things without which it would’ve been unthinkable: baking powder and sponge cake. There are two ways of making Victorian Sandwich. You can make a square fairly tall sponge cake, cool it, and cut it horizontally into two layers. That requires precision. You can also choose an easy way out by baking a long thin sponge cake and cutting it into two layers vertically. As you see, I do the second one. It takes the same proportions of the same ingredients – flour, eggs or substitute, sugar or zylitol, and a pinch of baking powder (for our purposes, spelt is gluten free, but consult you doctor or use GF flour) – I simply find it easier to manage.
Classic Victorian Sandwich would have jam in the middle – any kind of jam you prefer! – and sometimes they used several different kinds in different parts of the cake. I used sugar free blueberry jam and, to make it more fun, added a shot of spiced rum to it. As you see, you simply spread it on the bottom layer and cover it with the top layer.
Instead of just sprinkling some caster sugar on top, as they would originally do, I simply couldn’t have a dessert without chocolate, so I spread a simple chocolate buttercream on top. It’s not a dessert without chocolate, right? Then I made it look festive by using some colored sprinkles. Here comes a crucial part: remember, these are supposed to be finger sandwiches, so you can’t serve it as a cake; you must cut the cake into squares and arrange those on a pretty platter in a pleasing pattern. Gently, gently, it’s moist, soft, and fragile, just like those Victorian ladies!
Now you are ready to issue formal invitations for an informal afternoon gathering of friends and family in your drawing room. What – you don’t have a drawing room? Not to worry, as the Duchess herself at first served the tea in the garden. Make it casual, make it casually pretty, and have fun!
- 4 eggs or substitutes
- 1/2 cup sugar or zylitol
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup spelt or gluten free flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 cup jam of your choice
- 1 shot (2 oz) spiced rum
- 1/2 cup Smart Balance or any non-dairy butter substitute
- 1/4 cup castor sugar or zylitol
- 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- Multicolored sprinkles to garnish
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly mist 13 X 9 ” baking sheet with oil. If your baking sheet is larger, the layers will be thinner, and you will have more pieces.
- Separate egg whites, whip until stiff peaks form, gradually adding sugar or zylitol and vanilla extract. Add egg yolks, whip together until sugar fully dissolves. Gradually and gently incorporate flour and baking powder.
- Spread batter evenly on baking sheet, bake for 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool on rack, invert onto working surface.
- Mix jam with rum. Cream butter substitute with zylitol and cocoa powder.
- Cut sponge into two layers. Spread jam evenly on one layer, cover with second layer. Spread buttercream on top, garnish with sprinkles. Cut into 12 squares.
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