Battenberg Cake (aliases: Domino Cake, Church Window Cake, Neapolitan Roll) is an unapologetically and uniquely British confection, having morphed into a confectionery symbol of the country since its creation in the late 1800s. The attractive checkerboard sponge cake inside and jam-laced marzipan covering make it suitable for both formal and informal settings.
Spotlight Ingredient: Marzipan
Marzipan, a thick paste created of ground almonds and sugar, is more widely known for its ability to be morphed into whimsical shapes than as a covering for cakes. The paste originated in Persia, although not for culinary use nowadays. It was first employed as a therapeutic salve, according to the writings of Rhazes, a well-known healer who lived from 850 to 923.
Marzipan originally appears in England about the middle of the 15th century, when it was known as marchpane. (Marzipan arrived in the Mediterranean much sooner, perhaps even prior to the Middle Ages.) The confection even makes an appearance in Romeo and Juliet, as a Servant remarks, “Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane!” The modern German spelling, marzipan, eventually prevailed over.
The addition of marzipan on a Battenberg cake serves two functions. First, it plays into the cake’s clear German heritage (the country fancies itself the marzipan capital of Europe) and also enables the sweet to have an ornate, decadent touch, as marzipan was fairly expensive to use even in small amounts.
Spotlight Region: Battenberg, Germany
It’s quite curious, at first glance, that a quintessentially English cake has a name that pays tribute to a small German town. Yet, European politics and royal weddings may occasionally make the improbable seem reasonable.
The cake was created as a wedding gift for Prince Louis of Battenberg and Princess Victoria (granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and paid tribute to England’s newest royal family member by using his last name as the title of the confection. Because of the growth of anti-German feelings in England during World War I, the prince changed his surname to Mountbatten. The Battenberg Cake, on the other hand, lives on.
According to popular lore, in 1884, the marriage of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse-Darmstadt, to Prince Louis of Battenberg called for a celebration cake of royal proportions. With a design that evoked German rococo architecture and ingredients (such as apricot jam) that were popular with the English palate, the sweet developed, Batterberg Cake, communicated to both British taste and German aesthetics. The inner pastel hues of yellow and pink are still visible in cakes today, with the four checkered blocks representing the four princes of Battenberg.
While this tale is the general consensus around the cake’s origins, newspapers and cookbooks indicate that there were a number of similar, checkerboard-style cakes emerging around the same time. Gateau à la Domino is a baked delicacy that first appears in the Victorian housekeeping journal The Table in 1898.