I’ve made lots of recipes for this blog now. Something like, 90, I think! But, I’ll be honest, some are way more interesting to me. Battenberg cake has been on my list now for years. I mean, it’s just so pretty!! The perfect spring cake. I finally got around to looking up what it’s all about, found out that it had royal connections, and decided now was the time to share it. So what is Battenberg cake? The famous checkerboard teacake is a beautiful dessert, and its design, reminiscent of a coat-of-arms or a flag, is fitting of its royal history.
Though we don’t know the exact origins of the Battenberg cake, it is believed that it was created for the marriage of Princess Victoria of Hesse, a granddaughter of the English Queen Victoria. Princess Victoria married her first cousin, once removed, Prince Louis of Battenberg, a German nobleman serving in the British navy.
The couple were to become the maternal grandparents of Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Phillip. But before the wedding, Princess Victoria’s father did not approve of the marriage, believing that the Prince of Battenberg couldn’t financially support the lifestyle his daughter had grown up accustomed to. Victoria paid little attention to this, and married Prince Louis on April 30, 1884, in Darmstadt, Germany. (A bit of irony on the side here: Princess Victoria’s father, though unapproving of his daughter’s marriage to a man he thought of lesser status, took the opportunity of her wedding day to marry his second wife, Countess Alexandrina Hutten-Czapska. The Countess was certainly not of equal rank to her husband and, due to the disapproval of his family, their marriage was annulled within three months.)
(And if the only royalty you like is the terribly tragic, or the terribly Disney, kind, you should know that one of Princess Victoria’s sisters would marry Nicholas II of Russia, becoming known as the Czarina Alexandra, who eventually lost her life in 1918 during the Russian Revolution, along with her husband and five children, including the well-known Anastasia.)
The Battenbergs would eventually change their last name in response to the anti-German sentiment brought on by World War I, to the English translation of Battenberg: Mountbatten. (The British royal family would change their last name too, from the extremely German-sounding “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha,” to the much more English sounding “Windsor.”)
The Battenberg cake, which was said to have been created for the wedding, and which is also sometimes called domino cake, or church window cake (for its resemblance to stained glass), was to become a British teatime classic. Battenberg cake is traditionally composed of pink and yellow sponge cake, arranged in a checkerboard pattern, held together with jam, and wrapped in a layer of marzipan. The new teatime delicacy was a complicated step forward in the evolution of a fairly recent invention: Sponge cake as we know it today became popular during Queen Victoria’s rule, when eggs began to be used in cake baking, which allowed for a fluffier texture. The invention of baking soda in 1843 allowed for an even lighter and taller cake. It was also during Queen Victoria’s rule that English teatime became popular. (Queen Victoria herself was said to have been a fan of sponge cake during tea time, so much so that sponge cake in Britain would become known as “Victoria Sponge.”)
But just why the Battenberg cake is checkered is unknown. Some suggestions say it’s possible that the cake was used as a welcoming symbol to the German prince. It has been said that the four quadrants of the cake represent Prince Louis and his three brothers (an older sister was omitted).
Another unknown is why the the Battenberg Cake is pink and yellow. Perhaps it was because it was made for a spring wedding. Perhaps the pastels represent Easter colors, as the bride was born on an Easter Sunday. I was able to find a reference to a “new Battenberg Cake” in a Scottish newspaper from November of 1885, the year after the wedding, which lists the confection as “flavored by fresh fruit.” It may have simply been that sponge cake, using additional eggs, naturally made for a yellow cake, and fruit was added as contrast.
As for why the cake was wrapped in marzipan, it may have been to celebrate the German union. Lubeck, in northern Germany, is considered the marzipan capital of the world. Marzipan would have been immensely popular in both England and Germany at the time.
This cake looks a lot more difficult to make than it is. For the longest time, I couldn’t even wrap my head around how anyone would make it. My brain just doesn’t work that way. But just walk through the steps (there are a lot of them!), and don’t rush the process. It will all make sense in the end, and by then you’ll have a pretty pastel cake!
Raspberry + Lemon-Poppyseed Battenberg Cake
Makes one 7-inch cake.
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup, plus 1 tbsp of sugar
1 egg white, plus 2 whole eggs
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup whole milk (room temperature)
1 2/3 cups flour
1 tbsp poppyseeds
1/2 tsp lemon zest
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 cup raspberry jam, warmed and strained through sieve to remove seeds, separated
2 drops red food coloring, optional
7 ounces prepared marzipan
Confectioner’s sugar, for rolling marzipan
Freeze-dried raspberries, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Grease an 8×8-inch square pan with oil. Crisscross two sheets of parchment paper over each other in the pan.
Take an 8×6-inch piece of foil and fold until it is a two-inch tall strip. Place down the center of the pan, cutting down if needed.
Beat together softened butter and sugar until fluffy and light in color. Add in the egg white and stir in until just combined. Add the additional two eggs, one at a time, mixing each in fully. Stir in the vanilla extract, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the vegetable oil and milk. Finally, add the flour, all at once, stirring until just barely combined (as you will continue to stir when adding flavors).
Equally separate the batter into two bowls. To one bowl, add the poppyseeds, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Stir together until just combined. In the second bowl, add three tablespoons of raspberry jam, plus two drops of red food coloring, if you want to enhance the color. Stir until just combined. Pour the lemon-poppyseed batter into one half of the pan. Pour the raspberry batter into the other half.
Bake for 25-28 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of each half comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to sit in pan for 10 minutes. Then, remove the two cakes to a rack to cool completely.
(From this point on, I found it easiest to work with the cake with some periodic 10-15 minute refrigeration.) Once the cakes are cooled, trim each cake into two equal strips, approximately 1.5 by 1.5 by 8. There should be four strips total, two of each color.
Using the remaining raspberry jam, lightly paint each side of the cake strips with raspberry jam (you should still have approximately 1/4 cup of jam left at this time). Then, place one raspberry strip next to one lemon-poppyseed strip. Next, put the second lemon-poppyseed strip on top of the first raspberry strip, then place the second raspberry strip next to the second lemon-poppyseed strip. This should make one large rectangular cube with a checkerboard pattern. Refrigerate while you prepare the marzipan.
Lightly dust your work space and a rolling pin with confectioner’s sugar. Roll your marzipan out to approximately an 8×12-inch rectangle. Brush the remaining raspberry jam across the surface of the marzipan.
Place the cake lengthwise on the longer side of the marzipan. Carefully pull the marzipan up closely around the cake, pressing the two ends together. Trim the excess off, and carefully rub the seam to smooth it. At this point, you’ll probably have some excess marzipan hanging from each end. This is fine. Refrigerate the cake for another 10 minutes. Then, cut about a 1/2-inch from each end. Score the top of the marzipan with a knife, and sprinkle with crushed freeze-dried raspberries, if you’d like.
Enjoy immediately with tea.
So, folks, if you’re… I don’t know… planning a British-themed party to celebrate the impending birth of a half-American movie star, half-British prince, member of the royal family… maybe you should consider this cake. Just saying. Happy caking!