RECIPES AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANIELLE PROHOM OLSON
(A.K.A. GATHER VICTORIA)
Infused with rose water, filled with primrose custard, topped with a dollop of rose cream, and adorned with candied daisies, pansies, and violas, these classic Victorian Sponge Cakes are my tribute to English artist Evelyn De Morgan’s celebrated portrait Flora (1894). Recently shown at the National Portrait Gallery in an exhibit titled The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, De Morgan’s painting depicts the goddess of flowers in a shimmering gown embroidered with pansies. Roses of every color and description fill her arms and drip from her fingers, while more pansies—along with daisies, primroses, and violas—lie at her feet.
I think it no accident that De Morgan painted these particular flowers. Considering the significant role goddesses, mythic themes, female sexuality, and flowers play in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, it’s likely that De Morgan was well aware that these blooms were sacred to Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. After all, her depiction of Flora evokes Botticelli’s iconic paintings Primavera and The Birth of Venus, both of which feature Venus attended by a figure believed to be Flora. Dressed and adorned with pansies, primroses, violets, and daisies, she too holds an armful of roses that fall from her fingers.
Flora was considered the personification of spring, but like Venus she was all about love, sex, and fertility—allegorical associations De Morgan seems to be drawing from in her use of these flowers. Given the popularity of floriography (the symbolic meaning of flowers) during the era, De Morgan was likely aware that sending these flowers expressed sentiments too improper to state aloud in tightly laced Victorian society. Pansies were delivered in secret courting rituals. Primrose meant “I can’t live without you.” Viola or violet meant the sender was occupied with “thoughts of love.” Pink rose buds were sent to represent new love, and the red rose meant passion.
I find it fascinating that not only were these flowers all famously used as aphrodisiacs and included in love and beauty potions through the ages, they played a starring culinary role in that grand Victorian passion—high tea! Invented by Lady Bedford, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, high society afternoon tea was a canopy of floral sandwiches and sweets. From violet ladyfinger and rosewater tea cakes to primrose creams and candied blossoms, all were served on trays decorated and adorned with even more flowers.
I doubt these floral confections were intended to cast spells of amour, since no references to such carnal purposes can be found. But who knows? The Victorians certainly wouldn’t have mentioned it! Nonetheless I’m enchanted by the idea of making and serving a spring cake imbued with the “secret language of flowers.”
I’ve decided to go with the somewhat prim sponge cake, not just because it was especially beloved by Queen Victoria (hence its appellation “Victorian Sponge”) and a renowned tea-time classic, but because its airiness and lightness make it the perfect complement for sensual mounds of cream, custard, and candied blossoms. While I created several versions, including a simple single cake and a towering sponge with six layers, I’ve shared the recipe for mini-sponge cakes as they were just the prettiest! So why not join me in celebrating the floral fertility of spring? I’m pretty sure De Morgan would agree that these floral confections speak a sweet language of love thousands of years old. May they cast a spell on you!
Sponge Cakes (makes approximately 18 mini sponge cakes)
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
½ cup butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons rose water
3 large eggs
2 cups primrose (Primula vulgaris) blossoms, with calyx (the green sheath the flower petals sit in) removed
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
4 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1½ tablespoons cornstarch
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest Rose Cream
1 cup cold whipping cream
2 teaspoons rose water
1 tablespoon confectioners or icing sugar
½ cup of assorted edible flowers such
as pansy (Viola x wittrockiana),
primrose (Primula vulgaris),
violet (Viola odorant),
or daisy (Bellis perennis)
1 egg white
½ cup granulated white sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Lightly grease a nonstick mini cupcake, mini cheesecake, or mini muffin pan. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together and set aside.
In another large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the vanilla extract. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each until incorporated. Fold the dry flour mixture into the butter mixture, blending gently. Do not overmix! Spoon the batter into the pans. Fill each cup halfway.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. You can test with a toothpick inserted into the center. If it comes out clean, it’s done!
Allow the cakes to rest in the pan for a few minutes before removing. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Place 1 cup of primrose flower in a bowl of warm cream and place another cup of flowers in a cup of warm milk.
Cover and let sit for 24 hours. Sieve off spent blossoms. Combine infused milk, heavy cream, lemon zest, and vanilla extract in a saucepan over medium heat.
Keep stirring continuously for 5 minutes. When mixture is almost boiling, remove from heat. In a large heat-resistant bowl, whisk together egg yolks, cornstarch, and sugar until well blended.
Slowly pour the hot cream mixture over the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly.
Return custard mixture back to original pan set on low heat.
Stir for 8 to 10 minutes or until custard has thickened. Do not boil your custard or it will curdle.
Pour chilled cream and rose water into a chilled bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed.
Once it thickens, add sugar and beat further until soft peaks form. Don’t overbeat or you’ll get butter! Use immediately.
Whisk egg white until light and frothy. Pour sugar in a shallow bowl.
Hold a flower by stem and with a pastry brush or small paint brush gently coat tops and bottoms of all petals with egg white mixture.
Dip flowers into sugar and coat evenly. Gently shake off any excess sugar and place on wax paper for at least 24 hours to set.
Slice each cake in half.
Spoon approximately 1 tablespoon of primrose cream over the bottom half. Place the top cake half in position.
Add approximately 1 tablespoon rose cream to the top of the cake.
Adorn with candied flowers and sift powdered sugar over the top of the cakes.