Hi Nick,

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I have a favour to ask.

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My small group of primary school mums (of the late ’80s) decided to have a bake-off in order to:
• Have fun
• Fill in an afternoon
• Learn a new skill

This is the beginning of an email I received last month from Jane, a long-time family friend. I took her daughter to my high school dance, but Jane and I haven’t spoken for a number of years.

None of us have baked a sponge before, so we settled on the classic Victorian sandwich cake.
I was wondering if you would judge the six entries. They will be judged on looks alone because of our isolating. I would send you photographs of the six entries and you just have to pick one. Yes, just one – no runners-up.

NO RUNNERS-UP? This little contest isn’t nearly as lighthearted as Jane is making out. Exhibit B – the rules:

• It has to be a classic Victorian sandwich cake. Flavour of filling not specified, so baker’s choice.

• It must have a slice cut out of it.

• Must be photographed in context of our own kitchen – i.e. no photos out of Nigella’s book!

“Please don’t feel compelled to judge, but I would love it if you could,” she writes at the end of the email. “Absolutely understand if you would rather not.”

I’m chuffed Jane thinks this Broadsheet editor is qualified to judge a baking competition, even though I’m absolutely not. But I didn’t want to let her down, or miss the chance to play cake god to a bunch of young grandmas.

So I called in some help: cook, author and Great Australian Bake Off co-host Maggie Beer. Yes, the national treasure herself, who’s currently streaming her own show, Cooking With Maggie, on Instagram, Facebook and Youtube.

I wrote back to Jane to share the good/terrifying news (I mean, imagine Maggie Beer judging your baking effort), and asked each of the entrants to write “a few lines” about their cake, “such as which recipe they used, where they got their cake stand/platter, which fruit/icing they used, etc”.

As you’ll see, our competitors took some real liberty with the idea of “a few lines”. I think I understand, now, why Jane keeps them on such a tight leash.

Margie – Gluten-Free Strawberry Sponge

Margie: My daughter Anna was diagnosed with coeliac disease at 21, and since this time we’ve adhered to a strict gluten-free kitchen, even though Anna has her own home and family now. I’d like to say that I trawled through my trove of gluten-free cookbooks for this recipe, but in truth I consulted Google and came up with this “award-winning gluten-free sponge” using gluten-free cornflour. I’m so happy the recipe required five eggs (local eggs from happy hens were used) – these large-yolked eggs contributed to the luscious yellow sponge colour. Locally grown Sunny Ridge strawberries and a blush of icing sugar adorn the top. I had a blast making the sponge. I think having Jimmy Barnes playing in the background gave my sponge mixing with my hand-beaters extra oomph. (Although I do think it’s time for me to buy a stand mixer, given my trusty hand-beaters were a wedding present from my Auntie Dorothy oh so many years ago.)

Maggie: I love the rich colour from the eggs. And top marks for the generosity shown in the jam and cream filling. Nice simple presentation, although I am left wanting a little more. I love the elegant cake stand, however, the styling could benefit from a little contrast in foreground, maybe a fork or a napkin?

Nick: I didn’t need the Jimmy Barnes reference to guess you’re a total badass, Margie. You’re not coeliac or even gluten intolerant, yet you willingly chose to bring a gluten-free cake to a bake-off. Wow. Even if you don’t win, you’re top dog in my eyes.

Sally E – Passionfruit-Vanilla Sponge

Sally E: This is the first sponge I’ve ever made, and what enjoyment I had. I chose a Donna Hay recipe. I was quite nervous, but all went smoothly with the mixture behaving and tripling in volume, as prescribed. I learnt some new tricks, like banging the tins on the bench to ensure no air bubbles were present! The end result, adorned with cream mixed with sour cream and icing sugar, was so delicious I had to deliver it (at a distance) to various people in the neighbourhood so as not to eat the whole cake by myself. My adult children gave me this beautiful cake stand one Mother’s Day. So I popped the cake on the stand and sent them a photo! My cake is displayed with some of my grandmother’s pansy china, which I grew to love from sharing morning teas with her. I was so thrilled when she left it to me in her will. Not only was this a great way for us to communicate through baking, but it has brought back so many happy memories from my childhood as well.

Maggie: You would have had me just on the volume of passionfruit on the top of the cake alone. But being on a thick layer of cream, it becomes too rich for me. If I’m ever to eat cake (and it’s very rare), it must have icing – and that’s from a non-sweet-eater, so go figure! The height of this cake is lacking a little, although I commend you on the amount of cream in centre. I do love your pansy plate and teacup.

Nick: Maggie, I invited you here to make up for my own incompetence. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I disagree here. I’m not big into regular cream either, but there’s sour cream on this cake too. It’s half-half, so I’m betting this cake has a nice acidic tang to it.

Jane – Passionfruit Sponge

Jane: Why have I always been terrified of the sponge? Fear of failure, I suppose. And with good cause – the sponge can go horribly wrong. So I turned to my kitchen guardian angel, Stephanie Alexander, and she guided me through the process. It’s not perfect – the passionfruit icing poured, rather than drizzled! The cake itself, though, is light and airy, and I’m on cloud nine. The sweetness of the icing juxtaposed with the tartness of the fruit worked well. I didn’t display it as a good Victorian classic sandwich should be displayed (I’m cooking for the family here), but I grabbed my pizza board, which serves for everything. It’s got a jolly good handle for passing around, and it just works for me. However, the tea to go with it must be poured into the bone china cups from my Grandma Emmie’s teapot. This sponge taught me a few things though: choose your recipe carefully, from someone you trust, slow down and follow the recipe to a T. It taught me that baking and friends are a perfect combination. I’m on a roll now!

Maggie: At very first glance I couldn’t take my eyes off the passionfruit sponge and then I realised it was Stephanie’s recipe. At first I didn’t see at the book, but I know it for a failsafe. Passionfruit will get me every time. The height of the cake, the cream oozing out and the icing look to be generous. Wonderful. I can certainly imagine sitting down to a cup of tea as the perfect reward after baking this treat!

Nick: Cake? On a pizza board? This disregard for convention tells me you were perhaps expecting special treatment ’cos of the family connection, Jane. Why else would you feel confident to push the boat this far out? Sorry, but you’ll get none of that here. The cake does look delicious, though. Would it transport me to cloud nine, like you say? We’ll never know.

Jo – Strawberry Sponge

Jo: I hadn’t made a sponge for many, many years, but the memories of making them with my mother came flooding back: the old laminex table in the warm ’50s kitchen, the Sunbeam Mixmaster, always waiting for Mum to turn her back so I could put my finger in the bowl. (Hope I’d washed my hands, though I doubt it!) More memories of licking the beaters – they didn’t taste the same this time. Sadly, I don’t know what recipe my mother used, but this was the next best: Patricia’s Flyaway Sponge Cake. I received the recipe from a friend, who got it from her friend Sue’s mother. It was guaranteed to work, and it certainly was as light as a feather. There was everything to love about our Sponge Cake Challenge, especially in this time of isolation. It reminded us our friends are around, even if we can’t meet up with them. Knowing they are there is so very special, and I know I could call on any of them at any time. We all win in this!

Maggie: The height of your sponge astounded me. Your guests certainly wouldn’t be disappointed with your generosity! However, for that amount of wonderful cake I need the jam to be abundant in the centre, and icing too, please, with those delicious-looking strawberries. Your choice of cake stand is great, and I love the rose in the background, one of my favourite colours.

Nick: “We all win in this!” Jo, Jo, Jo, Jo, Jo. You read the rules. There’s only one winner here. This mindset isn’t going to help you against a cunning competitor such as Jane. Back yourself – that little strawberry Stonehenge atop your cake is a sight to behold.

Sally K – Strawberry Sponge

Sally K: I have such fond food memories of being brought up on a farm at Keyneton, on the edge of the Barossa Valley. Our kitchen was a place to gather. The Aga was always burning – Mum seemed to be forever baking. There was breakfast, morning tea, afternoon tea, dinner and the evening meal we called tea. Dad and the workmen often ate out in the paddocks somewhere, and so the biscuit barrels and cake tins were always being replenished. But with all this baking going on I have no recollection of a sponge, and I’ve never baked one before. With the help of two books – the Keyneton Recipe Book produced by the Keyneton Primary School Welfare Club in 1968, and Margaret Green’s recipe in The Blue Ribbon Cookbook by Liz Harfull (an anthology of recipes, stories and tips from prize-winning South Australian country-show cooks) – I embarked on my challenge. I thought Margaret’s tips and simple technique would give me a good head start, but my tins were a size too big. I needed a four-egg recipe and I was also lacking some ingredients, so I googled the champion Stephanie Alexander, who, along with my other trusted sources, guided me to my creation. Thank you, Mum, for instilling the joy of cooking in me.

Maggie: I love the burnished edge of the sponge. It actually suits me, but wouldn’t win a show prize sadly. Fabulous to see lots of jam in the middle, however it could do with more cream there as well. Again, it would be great to see your sponge dressed in a generous layer of icing and strawberries. I love the bright plate and that it cleverly matches your garnish!

Nick: Bringing up your Barossa connection to appeal to Maggie’s emotions. Interesting move, Sally. Bold, if a little transparent. We’ll see if it pays off for you. The cake is nice.

Annie – Passionfruit Sponge

Annie: I used a very old recipe from my mother-in-law. She’s long gone, but her daughter copied it out for me, which I dutifully followed. Having never made a sponge before I was a little surprised that the recipe indicated a tablespoon of cream of tartar, but I followed anyway. Result: okay-looking sponge, but totally inedible! My sister-in-law had made a mistake when copying the recipe. She was suitably contrite! In the bin with first attempt. Second attempt with a teaspoon of cream of tartar actually tasted delicious. I made passionfruit icing – a nostalgic memory of the way my mum presented her sponges. I also used crockery from my mum.

Maggie: I think your mother-in-law left something out here – a tablespoon of cream of tartar. I don’t understand, but then I read more and see it was a mistake. It’s wonderful that you had a go, and I like the use of icing. Pro tip: Next time use Stephanie’s recipe – it really works, and this is from a non-cake maker! I really love your plates ¬– we serve our cakes in a similar fashion at my Farm Shop in the Barossa Valley. Your styling would be even better with a few simple props.

Nick: Very clever exploitation of the rules here, Annie. I like it. Jane didn’t think to specify how many attempts each competitor was allowed before presenting their final cake. You’ve worked that to your favour with this tasty-looking sponge.

Final judging

Maggie: I was delighted to be asked to guest judge this at-home bake-off. Having sought comfort in my own garden and kitchen during these challenging times of self-isolation and distancing, it’s been wonderful to see that so many others are doing the same! All six entries were fabulous and closely matched, but Jane is my pick based on appearance and presentation alone. The generous amount of passionfruit icing upon a sponge with a fabulous height, topping that flows over the edge, and no holding back on the luscious cream filling!

Nick: No Maggie, no! You played right into her hands. Jane planned this from the start with her rules. Oh well, your word is law. I guess Jane wins?

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