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 tsp rose water
pink food colouring
100g lemon curd
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Weigh your mixing bowl and write down the weight – this is important!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.