Lemon, Raspberry and Rose Battenberg

Judging by its colour and retro design, I’d always assumed Battenberg cake was a kitsch creation of the 1960s or 70s. Upon a little light Googling, however, it transpires that the Battenberg’s conception dates back a lot further, to the 19th century. Although its exact origins are unclear, it is widely purported that the first Battenberg was baked to honour the marriage of Princess Victoria (daughter of Queen Victoria) to Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884. Early recipes for the cake feature several alternative names, including ‘Domino Cake’ (recipe by Agnes Bertha Marshall, 1898), ‘Neapolitan Roll’ (recipe by Robert Wells, 1898) and even ‘Church Window Cake’.

Until recently, I’d never tasted Battenberg cake before – being a coeliac, I hadn’t been able to for obvious reasons. As a child, I remember being mesmerised by the pretty pinks and yellows of the supermarket version, but grew increasingly indifferent to the idea of it as I got older, suspecting that the lurid colours would give way to a saccharine-sweet cake with an artificial almond aftertaste.

Although it looks rather complex, Battenberg cake is surprisingly straightforward to make – the hardest part of the process is preparing the tin! Traditional Battenberg cakes are flavoured with almond extract and are typically held together with apricot jam before being covered in yellow marzipan. My version includes both lemon and raspberry for a bit of sharpness, complemented by the zingy lemon curd which sandwiches the cakes. I know it may seem like a faff to make your own marzipan, but it’s surprisingly easy, and yields a result which is altogether less sweet, and subtly flavoured with rose (the key word here being subtle; it’s easy to end up with soap-flavoured marzipan!).

I strongly recommend using gel food colouring here to give the sponge and marzipan a vibrant colour – it’s now widely available in large supermarkets. I find that the little bottles of liquid colouring don’t give a good quality colour to the end result.

For the cake:

200g butter, softened, plus extra to grease

200g caster sugar

50g ground almonds

3 large free-range eggs, beaten

175g self-raising flour (I use Dove’s farm gluten-free)

½ tsp baking powder

2 tbsp milk

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

10g freeze-dried raspberries, ground to a powder in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder

Pink food colouring (gel food colouring is best here)

For the marzipan:

250g ground almonds

160g caster sugar

150g icing sugar, sifted

1 large egg

1 tsp rose water

pink food colouring

To assemble:

100g lemon curd

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4 and get to work preparing a 20cm x 20cm square cake tin. Cut a sheet of greaseproof paper so it’s 38cm long (usually the width of the roll) and 20cm wide (the width of your tin). Use it to line the base and 2 sides of the greased tin, then grease the paper with butter.
  2. Now cut a second sheet of baking paper to 48cm long and 20cm wide, then cut one of foil the same size. Put the baking paper on the work surface, grease it with butter and lay the foil on top. Fold in half widthways to give a 24cm x 20cm shape, then fold over 5cm of the folded edge. Open out the paper/foil, with the baking paper side up, but keep the 5cm fold together, creasing it so it stands up as a ridge – this will be used to divide the cake tin in half.
  3. Use the paper/foil to line the base of the tin and the 2 sides that aren’t already lined, making sure the ridge is exactly at the halfway point in the tin. This will enable you to cook the 2 different coloured sponges at the same time.
  4. Weigh your mixing bowl and write down the weight – this is important!
  5. Cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer for 5 minutes until very pale and fluffy. Mix in the ground almonds. Add the beaten eggs a little at a time, adding 1 tbsp of the flour with the last bit of egg so the mixture doesn’t curdle. Sift over the remaining flour and baking powder, then gently mix it in, followed by the milk.
  6. Weigh the bowl and mixture combined, subtract the weight of the bowl, then scoop exactly half the mixture into a second bowl. Stir the lemon zest into one half of the mixture. Stir the freeze-dried raspberry powder and a dash of pink food colouring into the other half.
  7. Spoon the cake mixtures into different sides of the prepared tin, then lightly level the surfaces with a spoon or off-set spatula. Bake for 25-30 minutes until a skewer pushed into the centre of each sponge comes out clean (turn your attention to the marzipan now). Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely in the tin, then carefully lift out the sponges (still on the baking paper/foil) and peel away the paper and foil.
  8. Whilst the cake is in the oven, make the marzipan. Put the ground almonds, caster sugar and icing sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a beater attachment (or in a large bowl using an electric hand whisk) and mix very briefly, just to combine. Add in the egg, rosewater and a few drops of food colour, and mix on a low speed until a soft, smooth and kneadable dough has formed. You may need to knead the marzipan a little by hand in order to evenly distribute the colour. If the marzipan feels too dry or brittle, add in one teaspoon of water at a time until smooth and pliable. Wrap the marzipan in clingfilm until needed.
  9. Once the cakes are cool, trim the sides of each sponge. Put one sponge on top of the other and trim again so they’re exactly the same size (about 9cm x 18cm), then cut both sponges exactly in half lengthways to give 4 long sponges (2 lemon, 2 raspberry).
  10. To assemble the cake, spread the long sides of a lemon sponge and raspberry sponge with lemon curd, and sandwich them together, then do the same with the other pair. Brush the top of one pair with more lemon curd and place the second pair on top, alternating the colours that lie against each other to create the classic chequerboard effect.
  11. To determine the size your marzipan needs to be, cut 2 pieces of string – one as long as the cake and one that’s long enough to go all the way round the middle of the cake. Roll out your marzipan between two large pieces of cling film into the shape of a rectangle that corresponds in size to your pieces of string (around 18cm x 36cm). The thickness of the marzipan should be about 0.5cm.
  12. Peel the top layer of cling film from the marzipan, and carefully lift the cake and position it so it lies across the centre of the marzipan. Spread a thin layer of lemon curd on the top and sides of the assembled cake. Now wrap the marzipan tightly around the outside of the cake, using the clingfilm to help you. Press the marzipan it firmly to the sides of the cake as you wrap it, bringing the edges together in a neat seam along the top. Smooth all the sides with your hands (or an icing smoother, should you have one) and press the edges of the marzipan together to seal.
  13. Carefully turn the cake over onto a plate or serving dish, so the seam-side is facing down. Cut a thin slice from each side of the cake to neaten it, removing any excess marzipan to reveal the pattern. Cut yourself a slice and enjoy with a strong cup of tea. The cake will keep well in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Bittersweet: Britain’s sticky history with sugar

Frank Newbould, Waterlow & Sons Ltd, Reaping Sugar Canes in the West Indies, lithograph. Image source: manchesterartgallery.org

A simple cup of tea – white, one sugar – is something that has been quintessentially British for centuries. But scratching the surface of the seemingly innocent act of stirring a spoonful of sugar into a cuppa reveals a dark, oppressive past. In fact, almost the entire social and consumer history of Britain can be examined through a crystallised ‘prism’ of sugar.

The first agricultural production of sugar can be traced to North India, sometime after the first century AD. It wasn’t until the 11th century AD that sugar was first recorded in Britain in 1069, as a result of the Crusades. Over the subsequent centuries, trade between Europe and the East saw sugar become a luxury commodity in Europe; by the medieval period, sugar had been discovered worldwide, with its worth comparable to valuable goods such as musk and pearls.

Today, we consider sugar as a foodstuff or ingredient, but in 12th-century Britain sugar was consumed as a spice, a preservative, and – most crucially – a medicine for a variety of ailments ranging from fevers, coughs, stomach disease and even chapped lips. However, as industrial sugar-refining technology advanced in the 16th and 17th centuries, sugar transformed into a pivotal symbol of wealth and rank amongst the European elite. Throughout the early modern period, sugar’s value was in its materiality as it became an artistic medium, and was used to create elaborate sugar sculptures for the banquet tables of royalty and the aristocracy. As sugar developed into an early form of installation art, confectioners’ social status rocketed as they came to be considered as highly skilled artists. The painstakingly specialised labour required to fashion such intricate sculptures was matched only by the cost of the raw material itself. A single ‘sugarloaf’, which until the late 19th century was the standard form that refined sugar was produced and sold in, would have cost the equivalent of an average labourer’s monthly salary in the 16th century.

The European elite were so beguiled by white sugar not only because it was expensive, but because it was pure, beautiful and exotic. Sugar sculptures enabled the wealthy and the powerful to demonstrate their status through what they served on the table. Such sculptures, however, were a dazzling yet superficial veneer to an ugly, burgeoning business which valued raw materials over human life.

To accommodate the mounting demand for sugar in Europe, more and more sugar plantations were built, first in Brazil and then in the Caribbean. Sugar plantations were gruellingly labour intensive, and plantation owners struggled to source enough Europeans and prisoners to work them. Consequently, it is estimated that between 1500 and 1850, some 20 million African people were shipped to the Americas, marking the largest enforced migration the world has ever seen. It goes without saying that conditions for the enslaved people on plantations were atrocious – there is a fundamental semantic failure when it comes to conveying the sickening inhumanity, indignity and brutality of enslavement and forced labour. Ironically, these African enslaved persons who were branded as ‘primitive’ and ‘unskilled’ helped to build the comparative ‘sophistication’ of the West and revolutionised the way we eat today. As African American cook and author Michael Twitty puts it, the man and the woman who became enslaved in turn enslaved the palettes of those who subjugated them.

 As plantations were established in the Caribbean, the price of sugar fell dramatically, and by the 18th century, sugar had become available for consumers from all levels of British society. Initially, sugar was mostly used to sweeten tea, but was soon being added to enriched breads, biscuits and cakes, with confectionery and chocolate becoming immensely popular in the early 20th century. Soon, Britain had the highest annual per-capita consumption of sugar in Europe – it soared from 4lbs in 1704 to 18lbs in 1800 and a staggering 90lbs in 1901. Britain became a nation built on sugar – a nation defined by its sweet tooth. Sugar’s transition from a rare, foreign luxury for the elite to an ordinary necessity of modern life traces the historical progression of Western industry and capitalism, and was entirely facilitated by slavery.

Today, sugar has well and truly fallen from the proverbial pedestal, and is now most associated with its negative effects on our health. Although our sugar consumption is higher than ever, we are constantly reminded by the media of its dangerous health implications: aside from being dense in calories, high consumption of sugar is thought to increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and potentially cancer. The last few years have seen the UK government impose a ‘sugar tax’ to tackle rising rates of diabetes and obesity. Whilst opinions and studies vary as to the extent of these health implications, there is certainly a recurrent theme: sugar is addictive, and it is this addiction which fuelled centuries of injustice.

As the Black Lives Matter movement resurged in 2020, several corporate businesses were called out for historic slave trade profits, including the British sugar giant Tate and Lyle. Although Tate and Lyle’s history begins with Henry Tate’s partnership with John Wright in 1859 (and thus after the formal abolition of the slave trade), it is still a business built on the shameful exploitative practises of unpaid apprenticeship of former enslaved peoples and the indentured labour of Indian and Chinese people which followed the abolition. Something as ordinary as sugar, then, can be emblematic of the need to be transparent about our cultural history, and to acknowledge the problematic aetiology of modern-day consumerist culture. Failure to address our instrumental role in the sugar trade – and therefore slavery – runs the risk of Britain’s sweet tooth going rotten.

White Chocolate and Miso Cookies

I find it all too easy – especially in the tedium of lockdown – to become obsessed with perfecting a recipe. In January, I was determined to find the trick to making the ultimate gluten free choux pastry (still an ongoing quest). After a long conversation about cookies with my friend Anda a few weeks ago, it became my mission to make the perfect gluten free white chocolate and miso cookies. I’ve made countless classic chocolate chip cookies in the past, but I knew that the addition of miso and white chocolate would change the structure and quality of the dough.

The first batch I made were good – but not good enough. They were too thin, which made them bendy once stored, and they were ever so slightly greasy to the touch. Chocolate chip cookies are strangely deceptive – although they seem like an accessible, ‘Everyman’ bake, even the slightest change to the recipe can produce fairly drastic results. The type of sugar, for instance, is instrumental to a good cookie dough; using only white sugar will yield a pale and more brittle cookie. I find that a balance of caster sugar and dark brown sugar here gives a result that is crisp-edged, chewy in the middle and wonderfully caramelised. Some bakers barely cream the butter and sugar, others beat them together for up to ten minutes, whilst some swear by browned butter. The ratio of raising agent is also very important. Too much, and the cookies will rise too high and then deflate; too little, and the cookies will be dense and cakey.

This recipe uses the ‘pan banging’ technique popularised by Sarah Kieffer, which essentially ensures a flat cookie with a crisp edge and chewy middle. Try not to skip the chilling process here – the world won’t stop spinning if you do, but chilling the dough will drastically enhance the texture, flavour and appearance of the finished cookies.

A note about miso: brands can really vary in their saltiness and pungency (I use Waitrose white miso). I recommend adding it to the batter a teaspoon at a time and tasting as you go to find a balance that works for you.

Makes 16-18 medium sized cookies

Ingredients:

125g unsalted butter, at room temperature

85g caster sugar

65g dark brown muscovado sugar

4 tsp white miso paste

1 large egg, at room temperature

200g plain flour (I use Dove’s Farm gluten free plain flour)

3/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

200g good quality white chocolate, roughly chopped

  1. In a medium bowl, measure out the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda and fork together to mix thoroughly. Set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (you can also use a hand-held electric mixer and a large mixing bowl) beat together the butter and sugars on a medium speed until fluffy and very pale in colour – about 5 minutes. As you mix, scrape down the sides of the bowl using a spatula to ensure everything is thoroughly and evenly mixed.
  3. Add the miso, mixing until just combined, then add the egg, again scraping down the sides of the bowl.
  4. Add half of the dry ingredients and mix at a medium low speed. Beat until roughly combined, and then add the remainder of the dry ingredients and beat for about 10-15 seconds, until the mixture is smooth and homogenous.
  5. Tip in the chopped white chocolate and mix until just combined. Cover the bowl with clingfilm or a lid, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, but preferably 8-24 hours.
  6. When you’re ready to bake the dough, preheat the oven to 160°C fan (or 180°C) and line two large sheet pans with greaseproof paper. Remove the dough from the fridge and, using a tablespoon measure or small ice cream scoop, scoop out as many cookie dough balls as you can from the dough. Arrange the balls of cookie dough on the sheets, leaving plenty of space for them to spread – I do about 4 cookies per tray. (If you have any cookie dough you don’t want to use right away, you can freeze the balls of cookie dough and bake straight from frozen at a later date).
  7. Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes. About 8 minutes into baking, open the oven door and raise the cookie tray by a few inches, then use a little bit of force to tap the tray against the oven rack, so the cookies deflate a little. Close the oven door and let the cookies bake for another minute, then tap again. Bake them for another minute, then tap for a third time. Bake for another 30 seconds to 1 minute, until they are golden, crisp around the edges and just set in the middle. Remove from the oven and let the cookies cool on the trays for about 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat as necessary until all the cookies are baked. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.