Flicking through Margaret Sim’s Cookery, a recipe book dating from 1883, I catch sight of the Vinegar Cake and am immediately intrigued. I am more than usually fond of vinegar, but even I will admit that as a cake flavouring it’s unorthodox. One minute of googling teaches me that it’s not meant to be a flavouring; it is a raising agent and should leave behind no trace of acidity. This dispenses with my biggest concern about baking a Victorian cake – how to make it rise in the absence of new-fangled ingredients such as self-raising flour and baking powder – and I decide to give it a go. The introduction to Sim’s book deals severely with anyone who may be thinking of deviating from her instructions: “If [Sim] is not taken at her word, her decrees received without reservation, her rules carried out without alteration, she would prefer to be without disciples.’ However, both the list of ingredients and the method look fairly straightforward, and so I set out, confident that I will not let her down.
1 lb flour
½ lb sugar
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon carbonate of soda
(plus ½ lb currants)
Baking the cake
Beat the butter and sugar to a cream; drop in an egg, and beat for 5 minutes; then another, and so on until the four have been added.
This is straightforward, if tough on my cosseted modern arms. I use the slight ambiguity of the recipe as an excuse not to beat for a further 5 minutes after each new egg, resolving to blame any problems on the vinegar. I realise at this point that the recipe doesn’t specify when to add the flour, so I put it in now, creating a solid lump more akin to pastry dough than cake mix.
Pour in half a pint of milk, and the carbonate of soda mixed with the vinegar, and half a pound of currants.
Things now become more complicated. I had assumed carbonate of soda was an old name for bicarbonate of soda. It appears I was wrong: any number of internet sources are on hand to tell me that the two are very different things. Consulting Mrs Beeton, I find references to both, along with a description of ‘pure carbonate of soda’ which accords with the modern descriptions of the same. Carbonate of soda, alarmingly, is washing soda or water softener, also known as ‘soda ash’. It acts as a raising agent and, being strongly alkali, helps to reduce acidity. Wikipedia assures me that it is a food additive and can be found in toothpaste, but I am a bit put off by the information that it is also used in taxidermy to remove the flesh from bones and skulls. I am further warned that, unsurprisingly, it is caustic and must be treated with care. Mrs Beeton agrees that ‘it is not to be used incautiously in any preparation’. It’s not looking like one for the home baker.
Nevertheless, I am torn between basic common sense and my own enthusiasm for authenticity. Victorian foodstuffs were not always conducive to good health: regulation in this area was either ineffective or non-existent until the last quarter of the century, and food adulteration was an ongoing problem, with common additives including alum, sawdust, and lead. Surely, I reason, the genuine Victorian eating experience really should include the ingestion of corrosive and potentially poisonous non-food ingredients? Then again, the introduction to Sim’s book exhorts me, in splendidly Victorian style, to regard my stomach as ‘the father of the family’ and to keep it in ‘that state of health and complacency which shall diffuse joy and gladness throughout his lawful territory’. Concluding regretfully that eating water softener might contradict this useful advice, I decide to abandon the carbonate of soda and seek a replacement. I read repeatedly that it is not interchangeable with bicarbonate of soda, but baking oracle Dan Lepard uses this in his vinegar cake and I can’t think of an alternative, so in it goes. Sorry, Mrs Sim.
The modern world offers me a dizzying array of vinegars to choose between, but having already disobeyed Mrs Sim at least once, I decide I had better use the most neutral one I can find and opt for white vinegar. Mixing this with bicarbonate of soda produces an exciting fizzy brew which, together with the milk, transforms my dough into a huge vat of porridgey liquid. Delicious.
Mix the whole of the ingredients together; put it into a prepared cake tin, and bake in a moderate oven for about an hour and a half.
I pour it all into my largest cake tin, put it in the oven at 180°C, and wait. It comes out two hours later quite well-risen, a bit uneven and weighing about three stone. I sense this will not be the fluffiest sponge I have ever made.
It certainly is substantial – my boyfriend, taking to the Paul Hollywood role with gusto, comments upon its ‘very dense crumb structure’ – but it’s not quite as heavy as it might have been considering the amounts of plain flour involved. It isn’t particularly sweet or strongly flavoured, tasting mainly, we agree, of school pudding. In the 21st century, when cake is seen as a treat and we expect it to taste correspondingly thrilling, I’m not sure there is such a thing as an everyday cake. However, there undoubtedly was in 1883, and this – pleasant, filling, unexciting – answers the description nicely. For that reason, it does feel like a very Victorian piece of baking – although I suspect I would have to be more adventurous with the washing soda to gain acceptance as one of Mrs Sim’s disciples.
Rating: A solid (in every sense of the word) 7
Claire Furlong is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, researching science and gender in early Victorian popular periodicals.
 Margaret Sim, Margaret Sim’s Cookery (London, W. Blackwood, 1883) (available online at http://archive.org/details/margaretsimscoo01simgoog)
 Sim, p. xiii
 F. B. Smith, The People’s Health (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1990) pp. 203-210
 Sim, p. x