"its appearance is a convenient shorthand for a world rapidly vanishing in a puff of Yardley’s lavender." Felicity Cloake
I'm not sure where the inspiration for this post came from - just that I saw some Battenberg cake somewhere recently. Anyway today I am tackling it.
The version shown here is one from Lyons - and probably the one I used to eat as a child. I can't quite remember my mother ever making one although maybe she did, as it's a child-pleaser - both to make and to consume and she was a great cake maker. It's really old-fashioned though, a nostalgia ridden thing.
"One of the things about getting older is that you start to like plain cake. Gradually, cherry, marble, Battenburg, even seed cake with its curious notes of aniseed, start to appeal more than Sara Lee's Triple Chocolate Gateau." Nigel Slater
I don't think I ever really loved the taste of the cake - it was a bit dry - but then I'm not a great lover of any kind of sponge cake and I think this is a kind of sponge cake. However, I did like to eat it. Eating it was fun. First of all you peeled off the marzipan on the outside, trying not to break it as you did so, so that you ended with a long ribbon of marzipan which you could dangle above you as you chewed it's sweet sickliness from the bottom. Or save it to the last.
I used to love marzipan - always the best part of the Christmas cake but having had some recently in an Ottolenghi recipe of some kind I find it is now really far too sweet.
In the course of my 'research' I found an article on how to make the whole thing healthier - with the main target being the marzipan and an alternative 'marzipan' was offered by Lily Jones aka Lily Vanilli:
"Jones’s recipe calls for 120g almond flour and 55g stoneless sticky medjool dates. Put both into a food processor and blitz on a high speed until you have an evenly combined marzipan. Wrap it in clingfilm and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to use it."
Still sweet but not from sugar I guess. And a neat change from dates stuffed with marzipan. They replaced sugar-laden jam which holds the squares together, with a lighter sugared (and more expensive) version. Health always seems to cost more.
And still on the health kick, it seems that the pink colouring is in danger because of a proposed:
"Europe-wide ban on six food colouring agents that have been linked to hyperactivity in children. The unruly E-numbers targeted are sunset yellow, tartrazine, ponceau 4R, carmoisine, allura red and quinoline yellow." Robert I White
Not just Battenberg cake will suffer of course. I do not know if it has come into law or not.
I don't think anyone really knows the origins of the Battenberg cake although most cling to the story, to a greater or lesser degree, that it was made for the wedding of Queen Victoria's granddaughter Victoria to Prince Louis of Battenberg. Battenberg = Mountbatten - yes they are descended from there. A nice story but it seems that, according to food historian Ivan Day there were actually:
"early examples, which went by a variety of names, including a domino cake and a neapolitan roll, contained as many as 25 squares. Day suggests the simplification occurred when “large industrial bakers such as Lyons” got in on the battenberg game" Felicity Cloake
Much simpler to reduce the number of squares to four. But still not simple to assemble if you re making it without this special Battenberg cake tin, as Felicity Cloake rather endearingly demonstrated as she tried to make the perfect version
"one of the most important things I learned this week was that battenberg assembly cannot be rushed. I promise they were judged on flavour and texture, rather than appearance." Felicity Cloake
Below are versions she attempted from recipes by: Geraldine Holt; Mary Berry; Heston Blumenthal; Linda Collister and Claire Clark.
Obviously by the time she got to making the 'perfect' version, shown here her technique had improved but it's still far from perfect in appearance. That last one in the group above was from a teacher at the Cordon Bleu school, which apparently was set as an exam item. You can sort of see why, and as Felicity says - she would have failed.
"when she was teaching at Le Cordon Bleu, it was her exam cake of choice for weeding out “the cooks from the perfectionists”. Felicity Cloake/Clair Clark - Cordon Bleu
And apparently it was used as a challenge in the Great British Bake-off. So - yes, tricky to make.
I did my usual search for wild variations on the theme, but didn't really find many - one modelled on a Mondrian painting, a red velvet and mint version, a gluten free one from Prue Leith and a jubilee Union Jack.
And I have to say that none of them look particularly enticing.
However, what I did find was that Battenberg cake played a role in saving this Large blue butterfly from extinction. Jeremy Thomas, Professor of Ecology at Oxford University is the man responsible for saving it. Check out the article for the full story, but here is the bit involving Battenberg cake:
"In a race to save it from extinction, every summer for six years, he "measured everything", counting thousands of eggs, and laying trails of Battenberg cake to attract ants and locate their nests where, bizarrely, the large blue caterpillar spent most of its life ...
Entomologists had already uncovered the large blue's dependence on ants but did not fully understand it. The large blue caterpillar drops to the ground after hatching and tricks ants into taking it into their nest by secreting a seductive fluid and even "singing" to the ants so they believe it is a queen ant grub. In the comfort of the nest, the parasitic caterpillar devours ant grubs all winter, pupating and emerging from the ground as a butterfly in June." Patrick Barkham/The Guardian
One does wonder why Battenberg cake particularly but anyway there are not many cakes that can make such a claim.