Monday, 5 December 2011

Battenburg Cake Revisited, or Neapolitan Roll Rediscovered

Robert Wells
I recently tried to sort out some of the nonsense that is commonly written about the Battenburg Cake (see posting for August 2011). I described how the earliest recipe for a multi-coloured Battenburg Cake was published by Frederick Vine in 1898. Vine's cake had nine panes rather than the four that make up the modern cake.

Cover of Wells's Cakes and Buns.
However, the story of Battenburg Cake's origins is more complicated than I thought. I recently discovered a recipe for a cake called Neapolitaine Roll in a small book - Cakes and Buns written by a contemporary of Vine called Robert Wells. Wells was a prolific author on bakery and confectionery matters, who like Vine wrote mainly for the trade. A preface in my copy of the second edition (undated) of Cakes and Buns is dated 1897, so the book was probably first published, or at least written in that year. The British Library catalogue lists an edition published in 1898. What is curious about Neapolitaine Roll is that it is identical to a modern four pane Battenburg Cake, except for  a coating of pink coconut which encases the almond paste. Here is Wells's recipe.

Neapolitaine Roll (sic.)

Cut from your Genoese cake two strips of plain
 cake about one inch square, and the length being the
 width of your tin upon which it is baked. Likewise 
two similar strips from the " Raspberry Genoese." 
Place these together with apricot jam. If made hot
 you can apply it much better with the aid of a small, clean grease brush. Place the coloured strips alternately, so that the pink strip rests upon the white
 strip, and the other white upon the red, making a
 square with the four strips. Take and roll a sheet 
of almond paste, making the width to cover the four 
sides, and the length the same as the cake. When
 you have rolled your almond paste out you must cut 
to the size required with a knife. See that it does not
 stick to the slab, dust with a little icing sugar. Take 
your brush and slightly moisten, just sufficiently to
 make it adhere to the cake, then lay the cake upon it, commencing by carefully laying at the edge and gently 
pressing. It will turn over with the paste adhering to
 the cake. Having got the almond paste right round, see that it thoroughly holds to the cake by gently
 pressing with the palm of the hand all over. Again I brush on apricot jam, and roll on pink cocoanut. Sell at 1/- and 1/4 per lb.
 This is a very simple yet a very pretty and
 attractive cake.

From Robert Wells, Cakes and Buns. Manchester: 2nd edition nd.c.1900. pp.42-43.


Neapolitan Roll - an 1898 sponge and marzipan cake by Robert Wells. Don't mistake this for Battenburg cake, which had nine panes - not four at this period. Unlike Battenburg Cake, Neapolitan Roll was dusted with pink desiccated coconut. 
So during the closing years of the nineteenth century, there was a four-pane cake with alternate pink and white genoise square sections wrapped in almond paste, just like a modern Battenburg Cake, but it was known as Neapolitan Roll. This cake co-existed in late Victorian England with a similar, but nine-pane cake, which was called the Battenburg Cake, at least by Vine and a few other professionals. This new evidence makes me believe even more strongly that the story about each pane of the Battenburg Cake representing one of the four Battenburg princes is a later twentieth century fabrication. Neither Vine or Wells mention this story and Wells does not associate his cake with the Battenburg family at all, even though its morphology is much closer to the four pane version we consider to be the 'traditional' Battenburg cake today. 

Wells may have called his cake a Neapolitan Roll because of its similarity to the striped Neapolitan ice cream, which was very popular at this period. Striped jellies known as ribbon or ribband jelly had been popular since the seventeenth century. Neapolitan Roll was very much in this decorative tradition of English food. Interestingly, in twenty first century US, Neapolitan Roll Cake or Neapolitan Jelly Roll, is what we in Britain call Swiss Roll. Why did Wells call his cake a roll, when it is actually square? Probably because the almond paste is rolled round the four strips of genoese to create the marzipan jacket.

A Neapolitan brick of ice cream - also known in the nineteenth century as hokey pokey
There were other cakes in the late Victorian period which were also called Neapolitan Cakes. These were usually made by building up layers of almond cake with different coloured jams spread in between. So Neapolitan meant stripes. However, some Neapolitan cakes only revealed their stripes when they were sliced, as they were often elaborately decorated on the surface with cut-out shapes made from puff pastry, as in the illustration below. Many types of Neapolitan cake with coloured stripes or checkered patterns are still made today. Well's recipe indicates that the Battenburg cake was a variation on this theme that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century.

Neapolitan Cake from T. Garrett. The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery. London: 1890.
A menu for refreshments for a Bicycle Gymkhana I recently came across in a Victorian scrap book. 
Original source and date unknown.
Our Victorian ancestors loved colourful novelty cakes like the Neapolitan Roll and the Battenburg. Perhaps the most fun member of the genus was the Domino Cake, which was a Genoese fancy decorated to resemble a domino. These were made in sets, but I wonder if they actually played dominoes with them?

Above is an extraordinary bill of fare for refreshments for a Victorian 'Bicycle Gymkhana' in which Domino Cakes feature. You will notice that there is also a recipe for them. They are coated in maraschino icing. What a wonderful and sophisticated selection of picnic dishes this is. The spiced beef and cucumber sandwiches sound delicious, as do the three flavours of ices and iced drinks. And as for the very molecular sounding fruit "foam"at this early period, eat your hearts out Feran and Heston - there is nothing new under the sun. It would seem that "foams" were being served at Victorian bicycle gymkhanas well over a hundred years before they arrived at either elBulli or the Fat Duck!

A domino cake from T. Percy Lewis and A. G. Bromley's The Book of Cakes (London: 1903)
Since this was published, we have discovered more about Battenburg Cake - Click here to find out more

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