The cake has been described as dangerously sugary, but a healthier version can still hit the spot
An afternoon tea fixture and Bake Off favourite, nothing sets Middle English appetites aflutter like battenberg cake. It is said to have been created to mark the wedding of Princess Victoria of Hesse-Darmstadt to the Prince of Battenberg in 1894 – and the nation loves it.
With its distinctive chequered pattern – pink and yellow almond sponges stuck together with apricot jam, all hugged by a layer of marzipan – it is easy on the eye and the palate. Perhaps a little too easy: its gargantuan 62% sugar content recently resulted in it being called a public health risk.
According to Kawther Hashem, a nutritionist at Queen Mary University of London, a 50g portion of battenberg could contain as much as seven teaspoons as sugar (30g) – the entire recommend daily intake of sugar for adults. Writing in the jounal BMJ Open, Hashem suggested that, while there are problematic sugar levels in many bakes – 5.5 teaspoons of sugar in your average 50g serving of bakewell tart or brownie, for example – the battenberg’s marzipan component pushes it into dangerous territory.
“The best way to reduce the overall sugar is to look at the icing and filling,” says Jones, so let’s kick off with the marzipan wrapping. Supermarket golden marzipans are all in the region of 65% sugar; Jones recommends the Lübecker variety, with a more modest 38%, if you are looking for a readymade alternative. You could also try making your own without any sugar at all. Jones’s recipe calls for 120g almond flour and 55g stoneless sticky medjool dates. Put both into a food processor and blitz on a high speed until you have an evenly combined marzipan. Wrap it in clingfilm and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to use it.
Battenberg requires apricot jam to stick its four lengths of alternating pink and yellow sponge together. While Hartley’s and supermarket own-brand apricot jams are about 50% sugar, there are excellent alternatives, such as St Dalfour, that contain only sugars that occur naturally in the fruit. Yes, they are a bit more expensive – but remember you are no longer buying Mr Kipling and this homemade battenberg will be exceedingly better for you.
You could also break from tradition and make a strawberry coulis, as Jones suggests. Hull and half 200g of strawberries and heat them, covered, with 1 tsp of lemon juice in a heavy-based pan for 4 to 5 minutes. Add 10g of sugar, cover again and cook for around 3 minutes, until it has dissolved. Allow this to thicken over a low heat – it will continue to thicken as it cools, so remove from the heat just before achieving the desired thickness. Blend, strain through a sieve and you are ready to go.
Battenberg recipes often call for icing sugar to roll out the marzipan, so that it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin. To avoid using it, Jones suggests rolling it between two pieces of clingfilm. “Annoying, but it works,” she says.
So, you’ve made a sugar-free marzipan and swapped super-sweet jam for a coulis … but what about the sugar content in the sponge itself? As Jones says: “The tricky thing with reducing sugar in a batter is that it does so much more than sweeten – it builds the crumb and forms the basis of the cake’s structure, as well as giving it moisture.” You can get away with cutting up to 10% of the sugar in a standard recipe without affecting its structure. Alternatively, try making an almond-based sponge..
Lily Vanilli’s healthier battenberg cake
90g plain (or gluten-free) flour, sifted
160g icing sugar, sifted
A good pinch of sea salt
200g ground almonds
6 egg whites
200g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
½ tsp pink food colouring
150g sugar-free apricot jam or strawberry coulis
500g Lübecker marzipan (or homemade almond and date marzipan)
Preheat the oven to 180C fan/gas mark 6. Whisk together the flour and icing sugar in a bowl with the salt and ground almonds. Whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold the whites into the dry ingredients, then lightly stir in the melted butter. It should come together into a batter.
Halve the mixture between two bowls and mix the pink food colouring into one bowl. Spoon evenly into a battenberg tin: two lengths of pink mixture, two of plain. Bake for 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clear. Cool completely before sticking the coloured sponge sections together into a chessboard pattern using the jam or coulis, which should be heated gently so that it can be brushed on to the sponge.
Roll out the marzipan between two pieces of clingfilm and trim down to a rectangle of 20cm x 30cm. Brush more jam over the smoothest side of the marzipan, then place the sponge on it and wrap the marzipan around the long sides, leaving the sponge visible at either end. Put in the fridge (or, briefly, the freezer) before slicing.,