I’ve just come back from central London, and the old city is looking rather glad, with bunting string across streets and Union Flags hung from just about everything you could imagine. All very, very British.
And this bring me to the Battenberg cake. This is just about the most British-looking cake you could probably imagine. I mean, what other nation would come up with something that has squares of different-coloured cake all wrapped up in marzipan?
That said, in all my years, I have never, ever, seen anyone actually make a Battenberg Cake. It seems that Mr Kipling has the market cornered on this one, and if you want one, you usually buy one. So today, I’m taking on the challenge.
As you might suspect, this is also a cake with links back to royalty. The name itself is a bit of a giveaway. Battenberg…sound familiar? Well, it’s clearly German, but let’s flip it round (so we’ve got Berg-Batten) and then translate it into English (Mountbatten). Sound familiar now? Yes, this it the family of Price Philip, the Queen’s husband. So basically, it’s a royal wedding cake.
The Battenberg Cake was originally created by chefs in the palace for the wedding of Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine (how’s that for a title?), a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, to Prince Louis of Battenberg. So that is where the name comes from. And to make the link clearer, these were the grandparents of Prince Philip, so that’s were the surname comes from (even if it is now Mountbatten-Windsor). The marzipan link is apparently due to a British admiration for the German ability to turn this simple sugar-and-almond paste into works of art, and when called upon to impress royalty, they wanted to use it as a key part of the wedding cake. With that, a British afternoon tea classic was born.
So at the weekend, I got out my sieve, almond extract and marzipan, and tackled this cake. Before I started, I was a little apprehensive – I’ll freely admit that I’ve got a manifest preference for making things that should have a sort of rough rustic charm to them. If it consists of equal layers, right angles and smooth surfaces, that all seems…well…might it might not turn out too well.
So how do you make sure that things do turn out well? The secret seems to be not so much how you make the sponge, but how patient you are. Wait until it is completely cool, and you’ll be able to cut the cake into neat pieces to stick together with jam. If you can’t wait, and start slicing too soon, you’ll end up with lots of crumbs and a rather rougher (might I say rustic?) appearance. I found this helpful video by the Hairy Bikers, and I would urge you to follow their tips. I glued the cake together with apricot jam, but then brushed it all over the rolled-out marzipan. It worked, but it was little but sticky to work with. Trust the men with beards!
I’m glad that I tried making this cake – it does take quite some time, but the result is a lovely, moist sponge with a delicate almond flavour and nice, rich coat of marzipan. Perfect for a fancy afternoon tea.
To make a Battenburg Cake (makes 10-12 slices)
For the cake:
• 175g butter
• 175g caster sugar
• 3 eggs
• 50g ground almonds
• 130g self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
• red natural food colouring
For the decoration:
• 250g apricot jam
• 400g marzipan
Preheat the oven to 190°C. Line a 20cm square tin with greaseproof paper. Make a divider in the middle of the tin with more greaseproof paper (we’re going to make half plain and half pink sponge, so you need a divider for this).
Put the butter and sugar into a bowl. Mix well (best to use an electric beater) until light and fluffy.
In another bowl, whisk the eggs, then add, a little at a time, to the butter mixture, beating well after each addition. Add the salt, vanilla and almond extract. Fold in the flour and almonds and beat gently until smooth.
Put half the batter into another bowl. Add a little red food colour to tint the batter pink. You won’t need very much – I used one teaspoon, and the colour was very intense.
Fill one half of the cake tin with the plain batter, and the other half with the pink batter, separating with the greaseproof paper divider.
Bake the cakes for around 30-40 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool completely.
To assemble the cake:
First, I recommend watching the Hairy Bikers video (if you’re able to get access). It should explain all!
To put the cake together, take out of the tin and remove the greaseproof paper.
Put one cake on top of the other, and trim the long edges to that they are the same size and form a square shape. Next, cut each piece lengthways, so you have four long rectangles of cake – two pink, two yellow.
Next, put the jam and a tablespoon of water into a saucepan. Heat gently until just boiling, then pour through a sieve – you’ll need to use a spoon to push everything through, and you’ll end up with a smooth jam “glue” to use on the cake.
Now is time to assemble to cake. Brush one long side of a piece of cake with jam, and attach to another piece. Repeat with the two other slices of cake. Next, brush the large side of one of the “glued” cakes, and put the other on top. You should now have a cake “loaf” with the alternating squares of sponge cake.
Take the marzipan and roll out on a surface sprinkled with icing sugar. Aim for a rectangle as wide as the cake is long, and long enough to go once round the cake. It should be around 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) thickness.
Brush the whole cake with jam, then place on one end of the marzipan. Roll the cake along the marzipan, pressing lightly to make sure that it sticks properly. Keep rolling until the marzipan overlaps along one side.
Use a sharp knife to trim the marzipan until even, and then put onto a serving plate, with the seam on the bottom.
Before serving, cut a thin slice of either end to show the pattern of the sponge cakes.
Worth making? I was utterly stunned with just how amazing the home-made version of this cake turned out. The coloured part was perhaps a little too red, but it had a lovely moist texture, fragrant almond flavour and looked the part.