Battenberg cake, a checkered sponge cake with apricot jam filling and a marzipan coat, was created to celebrate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria, to Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884. The four cake panels symbolize the four princes of Battenberg.
That’s the word on the street, anyway.
Other sources claim the whimsical cake originally had nine sections, not the four you see today.
Who’s counting, I say. This English tea cake is irresistibly festive and begs to be served at a party or celebration; a bridal tea or baby shower seems fitting. In our family, the annual occasion is my mother’s birthday, as Battenberg cake is her favorite sweet confection and you can’t, to my knowledge, find it anywhere in Alabama.
In years past, I’ve made the marzipan from scratch. You could, realistically, make all components of the cake yourself: the marzipan, the sponge cake, the jam. Do that. I will applaud you from the sidelines. I, on the other hand, have surrendered making the marzipan and jam this go-around.
In lieu of using artificial food coloring this year, I made a concentrated strawberry syrup that I hoped, when added to the batter, would give the pink cake its rosy color. The syrup, after a 30-minute reduction, was thick and sticky and a deep gorgeous pink, but not even a quarter cup revved the cake color up to anything beyond a blush, even after baking. So when I made another batch, I begrudgingly added a few drops of food coloring. I’ll revisit the experiment another time.
Let’s move on to a success: the sponge cake, light and springy with hints of lemon and vanilla.
I’m a few weeks late making my mother’s birthday cake, but this year’s Battenberg is one of the best yet. I think she’ll forgive me.
Sponge cake adapted from Joy of Cooking
If you can bear with my long-winded instructions, creating this cake is just a matter of taking it one step at a time. I recommend making the cakes in advance and freezing until you’re ready to cut and assemble them.
Also, be prepared to have some cake scraps leftover after you carve out the four cake sections. I prefer having room to work with (i.e. more cake than I need) when making a Battenberg.
6 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
½ cup hot milk
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
6 egg whites
2-3 drops red or pink food coloring
½ cup apricot jam
14 oz marzipan *
* If you’re purchasing marzipan in tubes or boxes, lightly squeeze them to make sure the marzipan is still soft. If it has sat too long on the grocery store shelf, it will harden and be impossible to roll out.
Make The Sponge Cakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, beat the yolks on medium high (“8” on a standard electric mixer) for 8-10 minutes or until light in color. Add the sugar and lemon zest to the yolks and mix on medium for 1-2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Meanwhile, heat the milk until just simmering. Add the milk and vanilla to the batter and mix for an additional minute.
Sift together the cake flour, baking powder and salt and add to the batter, mixing on low for a minute or until fully incorporated. Remove the bowl from the stand and divide the batter evenly between two large bowls.
Wash and dry the bowl of the electric mixer and beater and return to stand. Add the egg whites to the mixer bowl and beat on medium-high until soft peaks form and the egg whites cling lightly to the beater when raised, approximately 5-7 minutes.
Add a few drops of pink or red food coloring to one bowl of batter, stirring until the color is evenly distributed and the color is a light-to-medium pink. It will darken in the oven, so don’t overdo it. You should now have one bowl of pink batter and one bowl of yellow batter.
When the egg whites are ready, divide them evenly between the two bowls. Fold the egg whites into the batter with a spatula, working your way around the rim of the bowl and turning the batter over in a folding motion. Do this gently until no more white streaks remain.
Have two ungreased 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pans ready. Pour each bowl of batter into a loaf pan. Bake the cakes for 35-45 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.
Let cool for 10 minutes. Slide a knife around the edges and invert onto parchment paper. You may have to coax the cake out with a knife. Mine weren’t too pretty coming out of the pans, but looks don’t matter at this stage. Once the cakes have cooled, you can either proceed with assembling the Battenberg cake, or wrap the two cakes in saran wrap and freeze until ready to assemble. I find frozen cakes easier to cut.
Assemble The Battenberg Cake: Level each cake top with a serrated knife. If your loaf pans are angled on the sides like mine, you’ll need to also cut the long sides of each cake so the cakes are rectangular in shape. Cut two 6-inch long, 1 ½-inch high, 1 1/2-inch wide strips out of each cake. You should have four cake sections: two yellow, two pink. Brush tops and sides of each cake strip with apricot jam and stack next to each other and on top of each other in alternating colors.
In between sheets of parchment or wax paper, roll out the marzipan into a rectangle 12 inches long by 6 ½ inches wide. Brush the marzipan with jam and place the assembled cake in the middle of the marzipan. Wrap the marzipan snugly around the cake, pinching the marzipan seam together with your fingers and trimming as necessary.
Rotate the cake so the seam is on the bottom. Carefully cut the overhanging marzipan and ends off each side of the cake so both ends are neat. Cover in saran wrap until ready to serve.
The cake will keep at room temperature for a day, in the fridge for a few days, or in the freezer up to three months.
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