What’s pink, plump and smells faintly of booze?
Hopefully you’ve given the correct answer – Domino cake – and not the answer that my soon to be ex-husband gave when I asked him: “you”.
What I’m trying to recreate today is probably better known under its modern day name “Battenberg cake”. Or rather, it’s a close variation of it. Or rather rather, it’s the cake that Battenberg cake is based on.
The origins of Battenberg cake are hazy to say the least. An oft-repeated story goes that Battenberg cake was created in 1884 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Louis of Battenberg to the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria. The novelty cake was supposedly presented to the happy couple with the alternating coloured panes representing the bond and unity between the groom, Prince Louis, and…his other Battenberg brothers. We don’t have a record of Princess Victoria’s reaction to being given a cake celebrating her husband and his family – but not her! – on her own wedding day, but the gift serves as an important reminder that, when it came to royal weddings from the past, the bride wasn’t necessarily the most – or even second most – important person there.
Deep seated though this origin story is, there’s actually very little contemporary evidence to support it. Even the eminent food historian Ivan Day (who has written not one but three excellent blog posts about the history of Battenberg cake) could find little in the way of conclusive proof of the provenance of this cake.
Day points out that recipes for cakes with coloured sections wrapped in marzipan were published in England towards the end of the 19th century, but that the earliest cakes going under the name “Battenburg cakes” (with a ‘u’, not an ‘e’), originally had nine panes, which casts the whole four-Battenberg-brothers tale into doubt. Perhaps there were five extra secret brothers history is unaware of – in which case the cake maker should have been recognised as the most important wedding guest (have you ever tried to make an original nine panelled royal wedding cake?!) – but it seems unlikely.
In another blow to fans of the wedding cake theory, these nine sectioned “Battenburg” cakes didn’t appear until 1898 – a full fourteen years after the royal wedding took place. Queen Victoria – grandmother to the newly wedded bride – was considered something of a trend setter in her day. It seems unlikely that a brand new cake, created to honour the marriage between a member of the British royal family and a German prince (and his eight siblings?!) wouldn’t, therefore, have been copied in high society.
Whatever the truth is, the scaled-down four paned Battenberg cakes we’re familiar with today don’t appear to have been produced until the early 20th century when Lyons & Co. began to mass produce them. Again, the oracle Day suggests that the switch from nine panels to four may have been a decision based on what was easier to mass produce.
A four paned cake was going to be tricky enough to recreate in one morning, but nine panes was going to be a challenge. Furthermore, Domino cake wasn’t just content to up the cake content, but included additional ingredients like alcohol – making it a sort of grown-up version of Battenberg.
The original recipe can be found in the Victorian magazine The Table, which was edited by Mrs Agnes Marshall: “Queen of Ices” and author of four highly successful books dedicated to the production of ice cream (which sort of makes it a shame she didn’t pick the better nickname “Ice Queen” instead.) As well as publishing cookbooks, Mrs Marshall was an successful entrepreneur and inventor, patenting a design for a machine which could freeze cream in five minutes and starting a business with her husband selling cookery products. Food historian Emma Kay called Marshall “one of the fiercest, most ambitious and successful women of her generation” and Robin Weir placed her on a par with other celebrity chefs of her time.
Despite her moniker, public knowledge of Mrs Marshall’s works is slim. This is partly because when she died in 1905 the rights to her works were bought by Ward Lock, the company that published Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This publishing house was, unsurprisingly, not interested in publishing another Victorian cookbook and jeopardizing the lucrative market they’d cornered by promoting Mrs B’s relatively bland offerings at the expense of other 19th century cooks, so they let the collective works of Mrs Marshall fall into obscurity. The final nail in the coffin for Mrs Marshall’s reputation came in the 1950s, when a fire destroyed the archival collection of her works.
In the July 1898 edition of The Table, the recipe for Domino cake is under the fancy French name “Gateau à la Domino” and it appears to be an original Marshall creation, long before the time of mass produced cakes from Lyons & Co.
Mrs Marshall’s cake featured the classic nine paned pattern wrapped in marzipan, but it was decidedly more upmarket than similar “Battenburgs” of the time. For one thing, the marzipan contained maraschino and vanilla essence. The quantity and quality of ingredients were also greater than the average Battenberg, with lemon peel and almond essence being incorporated into the genoese sponge and an extra sweet apricot glace (rather than bog standard apricot jam) being used to hold the cake sections together.
I began by making the sponges, which Mrs Marshall called Genoise Paste. First, I mixed butter and lemon peel together then hand beat the mixture with sugar for ten minutes, or until my arm fell off. I added five eggs, baking powder, almond essence and 8oz of plain flour to the batter before dividing it into half and colouring one half red. Mrs Marshall called for “carmine” to be used to colour the mix red, which during her time would have been from the cochineal beetle. Despite my most lacklustre efforts, I couldn’t find enough beetles to squeeze a really good measure of liquid from and a promisingly juicy worm turned out to be an old pink shoelace. I had to use “Red Red” food colouring instead which was, in fairness, more red than any beetle could have produced anyway. And less…crunchy.
Once the batter was baking in the oven I started work on the marzipan – or almond paste, as Mrs Marshall referred to it. This was pretty straightforward but after ten minutes of vigorous butter-beating my arm was tingling in a peculiar way and I could hear my wrist click with every gesture, so I snorted at Mrs M’s suggestion to hand knead ground almonds (as a true entrepreneur, she advised using her own brand of ground almonds), icing sugar, maraschino and egg white into a stiff paste, and bunged it all into the blender.
When the cakes were cool, I cut them into 6×1 inch rectangles: four pink and five white. This meant we had a bit of spare cake left over, but I’m not sure anyone in my household saw that as a problem. At least, not one that wasn’t easily overcome.
With the cake rectangles arranged in a checkerboard pattern on top of the rolled out marzipan, I heated half a jar of apricot jam with 2oz of caster sugar and a little water until all the sugar had dissolved and pushed the mixture through a sieve. This was the apricot glace which would stick the cake bits together.
Once each cake piece had been given a coating of glace, the marzipan was gently rolled up the sides of the cake and smoothed down. The edges were trimmed off – Mrs M was very insistent that the ends of the cake should not be covered – and the whole thing was given a light dusting of icing sugar.
I stepped back. It actually looked like something resembling a Battenberg cake! In fact, it looked better than a Battenberg cake because of the extra five panes and for a mad minute I thought about applying to Bake Off; after all, hadn’t they used Battenberg as a technical challenge before? And here I was more than doubling the amount of squares like it was no big deal.
“Yeah, but that was a celebrity Bake Off,” my husband informed me. “It’s like the pre-school version of Bake Off where you get marks just for knowing how to use a spatula.”
Celeb Bake Off or not, I reckon Paul would have given me a handshake for this one; it had nine identifiable and pretty much identical squares, the marzipan was of an even thickness and, most importantly, there was no trace of a soggy bottom.
Though it looked very much like a pimped up Battenberg, the taste and texture was a little different. Despite containing sugar, icing sugar and sweetened jam it was still far less sweet than I was used to which I suppose just goes to show how sugar laden mass produced cakes can be. I was a bit worried the cake would be dry, but the apricot glace helped prevent that and the sweet apricot flavour went well with the other fruit and nut flavours.
What I was most surprised by was the marzipan, which was far less almondy than I expected. Instead, the primary flavour was a sort of bitter cherry thanks to the maraschino – not at all unpleasant, but not what I was used to. I found myself picking off the marzipan coating and eating it without the cake to try and pinpoint the exact flavours.
Overall, for a cake that required the use of a measuring tape, this wasn’t as complicated to make as I thought it would be. It was also really interesting to make something that looked so similar to a modern day favourite, but with just enough differences to make it slightly unfamiliar – it was like looking at another piece of a puzzle you thought you’d already completed.
In the end I have to take back my earlier, snarky comments about this being a wedding present. I don’t know how Princess Victoria might have felt upon receiving a cake celebrating her husband and his eight brothers on her wedding day, but if it had been me I wouldn’t have cared at all – as long as I didn’t have to share it with them.
225g plain flour
225g caster sugar
Red food colouring
For the marzipan:
1 egg white
280g icing sugar
140g ground almonds
Dessert spoon of maraschino
For the apricot glace:
150g apricot jam
Dessert spoon of water
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
- In a bowl, mix butter and lemon peel until smooth and white.
- Add the sugar and beat well.
- Add the eggs, baking powder and flour, a little at a time, and incorporate.
- Add 8 drops of almond essence and mix.
- Divide the batter into two halves. Leave one half plain and colour the other half red with a few drops of food colouring.
- Portion the batter into two small baking trays (I used 25x17cm) and bake for 15-20 minutes.
- Place the ingredients for the marzipan into a blender and blend until they form a stiff paste.
- Place the marzipan into the fridge to firm up.
- Once the cakes are baked, allow them to cool and the slice them into rectangles 6x1inch. You need 5 white and 4 red.
- Heat the apricot jam with the sugar and water and when it is dissolved, push the mixture through a sieve.
- Roll the marzipan out into a sheet about 1cm thick and brush a little apricot glace onto the centre of it.
- Arrange the first layer of cake on top of the apricot glazed marzipan: white, red, white.
- Brush the sides and top of the cake layer with apricot glace and arrange the second layer: red, white, red.
- Brush the sides and top of the cake layer with apricot glace and arrange the second layer: white, red, white.
- Brush the sides and top and then roll the marzipan up over the cake layers, smoothing it down at the sides until it covers the cake.
- Flip the cake over so that the marzipan join is hidden along the bottom and trim off the excess marzipan.
- Dust with icing sugar and serve with a cup of tea.