The Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

Marble cake: why this retro bake deserves a revival

Marble cake: why this retro bake deserves a revival
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Marble cakes are a simple concept, but such a satisfying bake, with that delightful reveal when you cut into the cake and expose the hidden pattern. They are made by dividing the base cake batter, and adding colouring or flavouring to one part of it, and then mottled by dolloping light and dark batter alternately into the same cake tin. They were a feature of my childhood, but feel a little passé now, which is a shame, as they’re well worth your baking energies. I think it’s time to bring them back.

Now, many marble cake recipes will simply use a basic pound cake recipe, and introduce a couple of tablespoons of cocoa powder to half of the batter. A pound cake recipe is an extremely useful one to have up your sleeve, but, for me, it isn’t the perfect cake recipe – and the cocoa powder doesn’t go far enough for me to create a flavour contrast. So this recipe is based on an old, vanilla buttermilk cake that I’ve been making for years: as well as the tang of the buttermilk softening the sugar content, it’s ridiculously moist and keeps extremely well (it should last a week in an airtight container, without becoming dry or stale). Similarly, the melted chocolate in the darker batter brings richness and depth of flavour. No dry or bland cakes here.

I’ve gone for, really, the most basic of flavour combinations: vanilla and chocolate, but naturally, you are not restricted to this combination. As long as you maintain a colour contrast between the two sponges, the world is your oyster. Coffee replaces the chocolate, and malt, tahini or white chocolate would be great for the paler colour. Or move away from the 70s brown, and plump for pistachio green, raspberry pink, blackberry purple, or mango orange to create your contrast. You can even eschew different flavours entirely, dig out your food colouring, and divide the batter into as many different colours as your heart desires – a psychedelic pink, blue, green and yellow cake will send kids mad with delight. The only rule, whatever combo you choose, is: don’t be tempted to marble the colours too much, otherwise you’ll end up less psychedelic or monochrome, and more… muddy. But if you are new to marble cakes, do not be disconcerted when you first remove your cake from its pan: the outside of the sponge will inevitably have darkened and look beige and indistinct, but when you cut into the cake, that beautiful contrast will be there.

This recipe is for a bundt cake, but I know that bundt cakes can inspire panic: they have so many little crevices and curves that adequately greasing and flouring it is essential to a clean release. Without this, you can end up leaving half your cake behind in the tin, and having a sad, ripped top. But there are two easy ways to ensure a perfect finish: first (boringly), take your time with the greasing and flouring. I prefer to use my hands to a butter wrapper or similar, to make sure I’m really getting a proper layer of butter on the entire tin. Use lots of flour and shake it thoroughly across the tin, banging out any excess, and returning to any areas that you can see haven’t been caught by the butter and flour. 

Secondly, when the cake comes out of the oven, douse a tea towel in just enough boiling water so that it is wet, but not dripping. Drape this across the bundt tin, and leave for fifteen minutes. The steam will help the cake release, do that you turn out the bundt cake in one perfect movement. If you are too bundt-nervous, or simply don’t have a bundt tin, you can reduce the ingredients for a third and use a 23cm round cake tin (you won’t need to reduce the cooking time).

Marble cake

Makes: 1 large bundt cake (approximately 12 servings)

Takes: 15 minutes

Bakes: 45 minutes

200g butter

400g caster sugar

3 eggs

1.5 teaspoons vanilla paste

275g self-raising flour

1.5 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon fine salt

100ml buttermilk

100ml whole milk

100g dark chocolate

2 tbsp cocoa powder

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and flour a large bundt tin very thoroughly: use your fingers or a small piece of baking paper to make sure you’re buttering every crevice, and then shake flour around the pan until it is entirely coated. Bang any excess flour out over the bin.
  2. Cream together the butter and caster sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one, by one, making sure each is thoroughly combined before adding the next. Now add the vanilla paste, then fold in the self raising flour, baking powder and salt, followed by the buttermilk and whole milk.
  3. Melt the dark chocolate in the microwave (in 20 second bursts), or in a small pan over a low heat. Separate out a third of the cake batter, and stir the melted chocolate and cocoa powder through it.
  4. Spoon heaped tablespoons of the vanilla cake batter into the prepared bundt tin. Dot tablespoons of the chocolate batter between them. Top with more blobs of vanilla batter, and then dot with the chocolate batter. Repeat until you’ve used up all of both cake batters. Gently run a skewer through the batter to create the marble effect – don’t overmix, or you’ll just end up with a beige cake.
  5. Bake for 45 minutes, until the cake is risen, golden and, when pressed gently with a forefinger, springs back.
  6. When the cake is out of the oven, pour very hot water over a tea towel and lay this taut over your bundt tin, without allowing the wet tea towel to touch the cake. Leave for fifteen minutes, and then turn the bundt out of its tin by placing a plate over it, and flipping the tin and plate in one bold, swooping motion. If the bundt is still reluctant, you can repeat the tea towel trick, and try again after another fifteen minutes. Leave to cool completely.

Written byThe Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

Olivia Potts is a former criminal barrister who retrained as a pastry chef. She co-hosts The Spectator’s Table Talk podcast and writes Spectator Life's The Vintage Chef column. A chef and food writer, she was winner of the Fortnum and Mason's debut food book award in 2020 for her memoir A Half Baked Idea.

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