When it comes to food, and especially dessert, much of what we like and love has a great deal to do with nostalgia. People want to eat cakes and pastries in the flavours they enjoyed as children, perhaps from a particular bakery, or a delicacy that a special family member always bought for them.
The famed sugary coffee cake, nutty nan khatais, lemon tarts with a dot of strawberry jam, a special creamy black forest cake — these are all examples of desserts many of us in Pakistan enjoyed as children and can’t get enough of, even as adults.
One bakery classic, brought by the British to the Subcontinent during the Raj, is the Battenberg cake. Sometimes called a ‘church window cake’, ‘domino cake’ or ‘checkerboard cake’ in the UK, in Pakistan it is normally called a ‘checkered cake’, the name resulting from the checkerboard formation of the cake itself.
The Battenberg is a sponge cake with different sections held together with jam (usually apricot) and, when it is cut, it reveals a 2x2 checkered pattern which is traditionally coloured pink and yellow — although in Pakistan it is almost always made in chocolate and vanilla flavours. The whole cake is encased in marzipan.
It is said that the Battenberg cake was first made in 1884 to celebrate the wedding of Prince Louis of Battenberg to Princess Victoria (Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and Prince Philip of Edinburg’s grandmother). Other sources allege that the cake honoured the four Battenberg princes, Louis, Alexander, Franz-Joseph, and Henry. The first theory has been refuted by some food historians and the second is unlikely to be true since the earliest Battenberg cakes called for nine squares, instead of the four squares that have become common in modern times.
Whatever the real origins of this cake, this delicious piece of history is well worth creating in your home kitchen today. Considering the nature of the cake’s design, some precision, a ruler and a sharp knife is required. The result, however, is worth the effort.
The classic, old-world Battenberg may look complicated but it is easy to make
Chocolate Battenberg Cake
250g butter (softened)
250g caster sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
2 teaspoons baking powder
100g ground almonds
45g cocoa powder
200g apricot jam
500g marzipan (readymade or homemade – recipe follows)
1-2 teaspoons of cocoa powder (to colour the marzipan)
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C and prepare two 20cm (8-inch) cake pans by greasing them, lining the bottom with wax paper and then greasing the paper. Set them aside. Combine the flour and baking powder in a bowl and set it aside.
Put the butter, caster sugar and vanilla essence in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Beat the eggs lightly in a separate bowl and slowly pour them into the butter mixture while mixing on high speed.
Divide the batter into two equal parts. Into one part of the batter, sift 140g of the flour mixture and 50g of almonds and fold through. In the second half of the batter, sift the rest of the flour mixture, the rest of the almonds and the cocoa powder and fold. Pour each batter into a prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes. A skewer inserted in the cake should come out clean.
Allow the sponges to cool for 30 minutes in the pans, then turn out on to wire racks and cool completely. Wrap the sponges in cling film and refrigerate for 4 hours or ideally overnight so they are nice and firm when you start working with them.
Once the sponges are cold and firm, level the tops with a serrated knife so that each sponge is 2.5cm (1 inch) high. Trim off the edges and cut each sponge into three equal parts so that each piece is 5cm (2 inches) wide. You should now have three white and three brown sponges; this is enough to make three Battenberg cakes — one to eat immediately and two to freeze for later!
To assemble the cake, warm the apricot jam on the stovetop or in a microwave and using a spoon or a pastry brush spread a thin layer over one of the chocolate sponges. Place the vanilla sponge on top, cut them in half lengthwise and lay flat.
Brush another thin layer of jam over the surface of one half slice and then place the second half slice on top with the colours facing the opposite way to create a grid of four squares when viewed from the front. Do the same with the rest of the sponge to create three separate cakes. Wrap the cakes you don’t want to use immediately in cling film and freeze in a freezer safe container.
Knead the cocoa powder into the marzipan to create a rich dark chocolate colour. Sprinkle your counter top with icing sugar and roll out the marzipan into a 2-3mm thick square of 20cm (8 inches). Spread a thin layer of apricot jam on the marzipan, place your Battenberg cake on top of it flush with one of the edges and wrap the marzipan over the cake, making sure it doesn’t overlap and trimming the marzipan as necessary. Use a pair of fondant smoothers or your hands to smooth the cake. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
Marzipan is soft, flavourful paste similar to fondant, consisting of icing sugar and almonds. Here is how you can make your own:
142g fine almond powder (make your own by grinding blanched almonds)
170g icing sugar
1 teaspoon almond or vanilla essence
85g corn syrup
14g soft butter (for kneading)
Put the almond powder and icing sugar in a large bowl and mix together. Add the essence and the corn syrup and mix with a spatula until the mixture clumps together. Add more corn syrup by the teaspoon if the marzipan seems dry. The marzipan is ready when it comes together without any dry bits. Use the soft butter to knead the marzipan, shape it in a log, wrap in cling film and store in the fridge for at least 2 hours before using it.
Marylou McCormack is a professional chef and holds a diploma in pastry from Le Cordon Bleu
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, May 30th, 2021