Is there a more visually nostalgic or retro cake than the battenberg? The stalwart of children’s parties, with its distinctive, chequerboard of bright sponge, you can spot it a mile off. But despite having encountered it more times than I’ve had birthday-party-teas, I hadn’t heard its other name, until my brother-in-law exclaimed upon seeing my most recent bake, ‘oh! Window-pane cake!’ As soon as you’ve heard that term, it’s impossible not to see it as a child-like rendering of an old-fashioned window.
It’s thought that the cake originates from celebrating the marriage of Prince Louis of Battenberg to Queen Victoria’s granddaughter in 1884, and although we lack any sources or written evidence for this, it would certainly explain the name of the cake. What we do know for sure about the cake’s origins, is that it used to look a little different to its modern party tea incarnation.
It might not feel like it while you’re standing in the kitchen trying to stop your wobbly rectangles sliding off one another, but what we think of as battenberg is in fact a simplified, stream-lined version of the original. Food historian Ivan Day observes that all early recipes, dating as far back as 1898, call for the cake are made up of nine squares, arranged in three rows of three, rather than four squares, two sitting on top of two – closer to a Rubiks’ cube face than today’s window pane. It was broadly contemporaneous with the growth of bakery factories and the industrialisation of cake-making that the number of squares fell from 9 to 4 and I, for one, am grateful, as even 4 can feel fiddly.
At its heart, it’s a simple sponge cake, sometimes flavoured with bitter almond extract or as here – with ground almonds folded through the batter. The same batter is used for the whole cake, but divided in two before filling the tin, so that one half of the cake can be tinted with an appropriately garish colour, usually pink. The sponges are baked, and then cut in half to form the four building blocks in two contrasting colours. Its impressive cross-section is its calling card, and that is achieved by careful trimming of the sponges after baking, and then cautious assembly, using jam as cement. The length of the cake is then enclosed in marzipan, leaving the chequerboard sponge at each end peeking out.
Of course, you don’t need to stick with the traditional almond flavouring and classic pink and yellow colouring: you can use any colour of the rainbow as long as there’s a colour contrast between the sponges. Coffee is a common addition, as is cocoa powder. Substituting the ground almonds with ground hazelnuts or pistachios would be delicious (although I think if you use pistachio, you are legally obligated to colour one of your sponges a bright green), but adding a handful of desiccated coconut, or the zest of a lemon or orange zest would also be a lovely variation.
You can use whatever you like as the glue between the sponges and the marzipan. I tend towards a neutral flavoured, pale jam – normally I use apricot, but on a recent occasion, I had some delicate rose petal jam that a friend had gifted me after a holiday in Provence, and this paired beautifully with the almond sponge. Of course, you can choose a bolder colour or flavour for that glue, something that stands out in contrast to the sponges – peel-free marmalade would be delicious, or if you’re making chocolatey or hazelnut sponges, then Nutella is a great choice. And if you hate marzipan, but long to make a retro chequerboard cake, you can of course skip the ground almonds entirely, and swap the marzipan for fondant icing.
Makes: 8 portions
Takes: 20 minutes, plus cooling
Bakes: 25 minutes
For the sponge
175g butter, softened
175g caster sugar
150g self-raising flour
50g ground almonds
½ teaspoon vanilla paste
½ teaspoon fine salt
A few drops pink food colouring
4 tablespoons apricot jam
- First, prepare your baking tin.You’ll need a 8×8 inches square cake tin, ideally with a removable bottom. Take a large sheet of baking paper and a large sheet of tin foil, both the width of your cake tin. Place the baking paper on top of the foil and, in the middle, create a pleat, about 1.5 inches high. Lay this pleated paper and foil into your cake tin so that the pleat sits in the middle of the tin. Preheat your oven to 160°C.
- Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla paste and salt. Weigh out your flour and alternate adding eggs and flour until all are combined. Fold in the ground almonds.
- Divide the mixture in two (if you want to be precise, use scales here). Spoon one half of the mixture on one side of the pleat in your cake tin.
- Add a few drops of food colouring to the remaining mixture, until it is a vivid, rosy pink. Spoon this into the other side of the pleat in the baking tin.
- Bake for 25 minutes until the sponges are risen and, when pressed gently with a finger, spring back. Don’t worry if the sponges are slightly discoloured on top, or don’t appear completely evenly sized: you’re going to be trimming them, so this shouldn’t show. Leave to cool for ten minutes, then carefully remove from the tin, peel away the dividing paper, and leave to cool completely.
- Once cool, cut each of the sponges in half so that you have two long strips of each coloured sponge. Trim the blocks up so that they are all evenly sized, and as wide as they are tall. For me, this meant all the blocks were 1.25 inches squared. You may need to trim the tops too: you want to create a perfect square when all four sit alongside each other.
- Stir the jam with a spoon to loosen it. Stack the blocks into a chequerboard pattern, painting a little jam on touching sides, so that the blocks stick together. Paint the surface of the cake with more jam.
- On a work surface dusted with a little cornflour or icing sugar, roll out the marzipan into a rectangle which is approximately 9 inches by 12 inches. Place your constructed cake in the centre of the rectangle. Fold the marzipan up and around the rectangle, wrapping the cake tightly, so that it sticks to the sponge, until the marzipan meets in the middle. Trim off any excess where the two sides of marzipan meet, and turn the cake over so that the seam sits on the bottom. Trim both ends of the cake so that the icing sits flush to the cake, the ends are flat and neat, and the bright colours of the sponge are exposed. If you wish, use your fingertips to create pleats or crimps along the edge, and use the back of a knife to create a light criss-cross pattern on the top of the marzipan.