I thought this was one of those made up challenges, like a three-tiered pie, until I googled it, and it turns out that tennis cakes were a big hit in the late 1800s, when lawn tennis became a popular sport that men and women could play together — although women were definitely at a disadvantage, wearing long skirts and corsets. Still, it gave them a reason to have tennis parties, where tennis cakes were often featured.
These cakes were almost always elaborately decorated with candied fruit or royal icing in the shape of tennis balls or racquets, and sometimes made to look like miniature tennis courts, like the one Mary Berry found in one of her antique cookbooks and used for this technical challenge in Victorian week. Almond paste, or marzipan, was often used to cover the cake, which was then iced or coated with fondant before the decoration was added.
They also contain an inordinate amount of candied fruits and citrus peel, raisins or currants, and almonds — Mary’s recipe contains a whopping 36 ounces of glacé cherries, dried apricots and golden raisins, not to mention the small can of pineapple, zest of 2 lemons, and chopped almonds. That’s over 2 pounds of fruit! In other words, these cakes are pretty similar to the fruitcakes that we in America usually only see at Christmastime.
Mary’s recipe calls for a 6×9-inch pan, which I didn’t have, so I thought I’d convert my 9×9-inch pan by creating a divider out of aluminum foil as demonstrated here. But once I had made the batter, I realized it would never fit in that size pan. (Upon looking at the recipe again, I see that it says a “deep” 9×6 pan, and clearly mine wasn’t deep enough.) So I scrapped the divider and made a 9×9-inch cake instead. After it was baked, I trimmed it to the requisite 9×6-inch size, freezing the scraps for later.
The other problem I had with this bake was the royal icing. The recipe says it is preferable to use pasteurized egg whites — which is understandable, since they won’t be cooked — so I purchased a carton of pasteurized egg whites. The icing worked fine for outlining the tennis court on the cake and making the tennis racquets and the net, but when I colored the remaining icing to pipe a decorative border around the edges, it didn’t hold up, and unfortunately my beautiful piping soon looked like melting blobs dripping down the sides of the cake. With a little research, I discovered that pasteurized egg whites don’t beat up as stiff as fresh egg whites unless cream of tartar or lemon juice is added, so that might have been the problem. I have adjusted Mary’s recipe (below) and added a note to that effect.
The fondant in this recipe uses leaf gelatin. If you’ve never worked with it before, or you want to substitute powdered gelatin, I recommend reading this article first. The recipe also calls for a small amount of glycerin (or glycerine). I happened to have some on hand because I used it in some homemade liquid hand soap, but it’s available online and in some craft stores (check Jo-Ann stores in your area if you live in the U.S.). Just make sure you get food-grade vegetable glycerin.
I am not a fan of fondant, but the marzipan lends a refreshing counterpoint to the tartness of the dried apricots and raisins in this cake. However, the amount of fruit makes for a very dense texture, which might be why fruitcake is not a popular dessert (at least here in the U.S.).
Even people who enjoy fruitcake (of which I am not one) don’t generally eat a lot of it at one time, though, so I cut this cake into smallish pieces and took it to a potluck picnic, telling people they were “fruit bars.” While most of them politely tried one, I still had plenty left over to take home afterward. Even a plea to my local Facebook friends asking if anyone liked fruitcake received no takers. So I froze the rest, hoping it will keep till Christmas, when I may be able to give it away on cookie trays to unsuspecting friends and neighbors, hidden among the spritz and gingerbread men.
You’ll find Mary’s recipe for Tennis Cake here, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers below.
Mary Berry’s Tennis Cake
(Adapted for American bakers)
For the cake:
For the almond paste:
- 2¾ c. ground almonds
- ¾ c. superfine (baker’s) sugar
- 1¼ c. powdered sugar, sifted, plus extra for rolling
- 1 large egg (preferably pasteurized)
- 1 t. almond extract
For the fondant:
- 4 sheets of leaf gelatin
- 2 T. water
- ¼ c. light corn syrup
- 1½ t. glycerin
- 3¾ c. powdered sugar
- Gel food coloring in green
For the royal icing:
- 3 egg whites (preferably pasteurized)
- ¾ t. cream of tartar*
- 1½ lb. (5 5/8 c.) powdered sugar, sifted
- Gel food coloring in pink and yellow
- Preheat oven to 320°F. Grease a deep 9×6-inch cake pan (or use a standard 9-inch square pan and plan to trim the cake to 9×6 inches). Line the base and sides with parchment paper.
- Rinse the cherries under running water and drain well. Dry the pineapple and cherries very thoroughly with paper towels. Place all the fruit and nuts in a bowl with the lemon zest and gently mix together.
- In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, with a spoonful of flour each time to prevent the mixture from curdling. Fold in the remaining flour and ground almonds. Lightly fold in the fruit and nuts, then pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan. Level the surface with a spatula.
- Bake for 2 hours, or until golden-brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. (If using a 9×9-inch pan, it may not take the full two hours, since the pan is not as deep.) Cover the cake loosely with aluminum foil after 1 hour to prevent the top from getting too dark.
- When cake is done, let it to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn it out onto a cooling rack, peel off the parchment and leave it to cool.
- To make the almond paste, mix the ground almonds, superfine sugar and powdered sugar in a bowl. Stir in the egg and almond extract. Knead in the bowl to form a stiff paste, but don’t over-knead or it will become oily. Wrap in plastic wrap and set aside.
- To make the fondant, place the gelatin, 2 tablespoons water, corn syrup and glycerin in a bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water and heat until the gelatin has dissolved (do not allow the water to boil or the gelatin to get too hot). Remove from heat.
- Sieve half of the powdered sugar into a large bowl. Make a well in the center, add the gelatin mixture and, using a wooden spoon, mix together. Sift the remaining sugar onto the work surface and tip the mixture onto it. Knead together until the fondant is smooth and pliable. Reserve a thumb-size piece of white fondant for the tennis ball and wrap it in plastic wrap. Little by little, add green food coloring to the remaining fondant and knead until it is a pale green color. Wrap in plastic wrap until ready to use.
- To make the royal icing, whisk the egg whites in the large bowl of a stand mixer with the cream of tartar* until they become frothy. Mix in the sifted powdered sugar, a tablespoonful at a time. Beat the icing until it is very stiff and white and stands up in peaks. Cover the surface of the icing with plastic wrap until ready to use.
- Divide the royal icing equally between 3 bowls. Color one bowl pale pink, and color the second bowl a light yellow. Leave the third bowl white.
- Spoon most of the white royal icing into a piping bag fitted with a No. 3 writing tip. On a sheet of wax paper or a silicone mat, pipe the outline of two small tennis racquets (approximately 2½ inches long) and a tennis net about 4½ inches by 1¼ inch. Spoon the remaining white icing into a piping bag fitted with a No. 2 plain tip and pipe the strings of the tennis racquet within the tennis racquet outline and the strings of the net within the outline of the net. Leave to dry until you can peel them off the paper.
- On a work surface lightly dusted with powdered sugar, roll out the almond paste to a rectangle slightly larger than the cake. Neatly cut out a 9×6-inch rectangle and place it on a silicone mat or piece of parchment dusted with powdered sugar. (This will enable you to slip it onto the cake once the cake has cooled.)
- Scrape any bits of almond paste off the work surface and lightly dust it with powdered sugar again. Roll out the fondant to a rectangle slightly larger than the cake. Neatly cut out a 9×6-inch rectangle and carefully place it on top of the almond paste.
- When the cake has cooled, cut it to a 9×6-inch rectangle, if necessary. Then, gently lift the layers of almond paste and fondant onto the cake. If needed, trim to fit.
- With the white royal icing in the piping bag with the No. 3 tip, pipe the outline of a tennis court onto the green fondant, leaving a ¾-inch-wide edge around the outside. Spoon the pink icing into a piping bag fitted with a small star tip, and spoon the yellow icing into a piping bag fitted with a smaller star tip. Using the pink and yellow icing, pipe a decorative border around the outside edge of the fondant.
- Pipe a line of white icing across the middle of the tennis court. Peel the net off the wax paper and stick it onto the line of icing, so it stands up on its own. Lay the iced tennis rackets on either end of the court and, finally, roll a small tennis ball from the reserved white fondant and place it on the court.
*NOTE: Mary’s original recipe does not include cream of tartar, but I found that, without it, the royal icing did not hold its shape as well. It is not necessary to add cream of tartar if using fresh egg whites (although there is a small possibility of contracting salmonella when consuming uncooked egg whites.)