Delving into the true history of our foods is always much more rewarding than blindly accepting the tired old clichés and myths that are often used to explain their origins. I have already in two earlier postings tried to unravel the complex history of the popular Battenburg Cake, but the more I look at this subject, the more puzzling it becomes. A popular theory about its origin tells us it was made to celebrate an important Victorian royal wedding in 1884. In a 2003 newspaper article, food historian Catherine Brown tells us,
'But there was nothing to compare with the German pastry cooks' sophisticated use of marzipan, colours, shapes, flavours and allegorical designs. The British were impressed. They tried their hand at the German techniques and some native pastry cooks became almost as good as the Germans. Such was their confidence that when Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse-Darmstadt, married Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884, it was decided that a celebration cake was required, in their own design of course, but appropriately German in style to celebrate the marriage. What else to call it but a Battenberg cake? It was to be unique: a cake to stun British cake-lovers. They took inspiration from the German rococo style of architecture which featured gold (marzipan) with pastel colours (pink and yellow sponge).'*
This all sounds plausible, but Brown does not inform us of her sources. I would love to know who it was who decided that a celebration cake was required. Until Catherine Brown can point out the primary sources for these statements, I am inclined to believe that she is simply repeating a popular anecdote which appears to have surfaced fairly recently and has no basis in fact. In a recent Great British Bake Off programme, the television historian Kate Williams repeated the same myth.
My good friend Robin Weir, knowing my interest in the Battenburg, was amazed to recently come across an illustrated recipe for an identical cake called Gateau à la Domino in a July 1898 edition of the Victorian food and housekeeping magazine The Table, published and edited by the remarkable Mrs Agnes Berthe Marshall. Although Mrs Marshall's four books on cookery and ice cream are now fairly well known, The Table is rarely cited, though it is one of the most extensive and richest sources on the domestic life and food of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She launched it on 12th June 1886. There were 1690 weekly issues until June 1918. It was then renamed The Table and Housekeeper's Journal and was published fortnightly with 547 issues until its demise in September 1939. In its day The Table was the most important food magazine published in Britain. Mrs Marshall died in 1905, but The Table went on and on.
Mrs Marshall's recipe for Domino Cake appeared in 1898, the same year in which recipes for two almost identical cakes - Frederick Vine's Battenburg Cake and Robert Well's Neapolitan Roll were published. In appearance, Vine's cake is identical to Marshall's with nine panes of alternate pink and white genoese enclosed in an overcoat of almond paste. Well's cake on the other hand, with its four panes is closer to the modern version that we call Battenburg Cake today. If you have not read my earlier posts on this subject, here are some images to show you what these three cakes looked like.
Mrs Marshall's Gateau à la Domino from The Table, July 2nd 1898
Wells does not illustrate his cake. so I made his Neapolitan Roll from the recipe he published in Cakes and Buns (1898). Unlike Marshall's and Vine's versions, Well's cake was dusted with pink desiccated coconut and has only four panes.
It may be that there are other recipes. I have not had a chance to look through the late nineteenth century numbers of the trade magazine The British Baker and Confectioner, which was edited by Vine, so the jury is still out as to who first devised the recipe. To me however one thing is sure, that the myth about the cake having four sections to commemorate the four Battenburg princes is total rubbish. And I am also now very sceptical about the unsubstantiated claim that this cake was originally invented to commemorate the wedding in 1884 of Prince Louis of Battenburg to Princess Victoria. If this was so, why does Mrs Marshall twelve years after the wedding call it a Domino Cake and Wells a Neapolitan Roll? Below is Mrs Marshall's full recipe, published here courtesy of Robin Weir, who is Britain's leading authority on this remarkable lady. I have a nagging suspicion that Mrs Marshall may have invented the cake, but cannot prove it. With its vanilla and maraschino flavoured almond paste, her version is more sophisticated than either Vine's or Well's, whose simpler recipes were designed for the trade rather than the domestic cake maker. She also copyrighted her recipe - see below - and declared that it was new. Perhaps the other two pinched it and renamed it in order to disguise their source. So to take a terrible liberty with Gertrude Stein's well known phrase relating to a well known flower, "A domino cake, is a Neapolitan roll, is a Battenburg cake.'
|Domino Cakes were normally small rectangles of genoese decorated with icing in the form of dominoes, as No. 4 in this fine chromolithograph by Kronheim from Mary Jewry, Warne's Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book (London: 1868).|
*Catherine Brown, Battenberg Cake; A celebration confection fit to grace a royal wedding. The Herald, March 29th 2003.
Read my other two posts on Battenburg Cake -