Just In Time For Battenberg

19 Oct 2021


This article first appeared on Mishmash Food.

My memories of arriving at my grandparents’ cottage all involve food. If we arrived around lunchtime, there was always a good spread (think quiche, cheese, sausage rolls), eaten in the dining room. If it were mid-morning or mid-afternoon - or any other time of day really - it was tea and cake eaten at the kitchen table. This was slightly more chaotic as the kitchen table only seated four, so there was always someone leaning against the fridge, putting the kettle on or washing up. My Grandma would be up and down out of her chair several times to do plenty of fussing. She liked a good fuss, my Grandma. Absolutely nobody was going hungry on her watch. 

In the tea-and-cake scenario, grandchildren and adults alike were encouraged to rummage around in the bottom kitchen cupboard furthest to the left which contained all manner of treats. A biscuit tin, Penguin chocolate bars and always, without fail, a Mr Kipling Battenberg. If, somehow, you’ve gone through life without encountering a Battenberg cake, let me enlighten you. It is essentially a chequerboard of yellow and pink sponge sandwiched together with jam and wrapped in marzipan. It is incredibly fun for children (and adults) to eat, partly because it’s multicoloured - and who doesn’t love multicoloured food - and partly because a slice of Battenberg can be disassembled with sticky fingers. I used to peel off the marzipan so I was left with a long edible ribbon that I could hold high above my head and engulf in one huge almond-y mouthful. I would then pull each square apart, popping them onto my tongue like little sweets. Of course, adults can love Battenberg for these reasons as well but I’ve noticed it’s less socially acceptable for us to eat it this way. We’re expected to bite through all the squares in one go and I admit this makes me wince, just a little. 

For my Grandma’s funeral, when thinking of what cakes should be eaten amongst our quiet grief, it felt like Battenberg was an essential. So, somewhat spontaneously, I had a go at making it myself for the first time: two bowls of simple vanilla sponge cake batter, one dyed a pretty pink with food colouring, baked in a square tin lined with baking parchment that has a neat fold down the middle to keep the two batters separate. To assemble, once the cakes have cooled completely, place one cake on top of the other and trim so they are both the same size. Then cut each cake in half lengthways and sandwich the four pieces together chequerboard-style using warmed apricot jam. Spread the jam around the outside and wrap the whole thing in pre-rolled marzipan (shop-bought in my case). Trim the ends so you can see those distinctive squares. 

Reader, my first attempt did not look like a Mr Kipling Battenberg. It was uneven, a little lumpy and the squares were, well, rectangular. I’d hoped for better. ‘It’s just a cake’ I told myself, trying not to project too many of my emotions onto the sticky marzipan. But then I tasted it, pulling the sponge apart as I did so, and it tasted just like Grandma and Grandad’s cottage. I could see Grandma fussing and calling me ‘treasure’ and Grandad encouraging me to eat more cake when Mum wasn’t looking, and then winking at me like a mischievous child when we both got caught. 

It is just a cake. But the thing with food is that it’s never just a cake because, regardless of how it looks, one marzipan mouthful can invoke memories of people and places the moment it hits your tastebuds. Though I will never sit in Grandma and Grandad’s kitchen again, I can briefly be back there with a bite of Battenberg.