A simnel cake for Easter
April 3, 2014 § 1 Comment
I baked myself a traditional simnel cake last weekend just in time for Mothering Sunday. I was pleased with the end result and felt moved, albeit prematurely, to dig out the easter eggs I’d previously painstakingly blown and painted to complete the decoration of our Sunday lunch table.
Simnel cake was traditionally made for Mothering Sunday but has now become more usually associated with easter. It struck me as I gathered together the copious quantities of marzipan, butter, sugar, eggs and dried fruit needed for the cake that these ingredients seemed very much at odds with the spirit of the Lent fasting season. After all if we can’t even eat the humble pancake comprising just milk, flour and eggs after Shrove Tuesday how on earth would a cake like this be permitted?
I did a bit of research into the subject. One commentator suggests that the simnel cake was given as a gift on Mothering Sunday but put aside and not eaten until easter . This sounds unlikely and peculiarly ungenerous. I found a more likely explanation on a website devoted to the rites of Catholicism. Mothering Sunday coincides with Laetare “Rejoicing” Sunday close to the midpoint of Lent and on this day worshippers are permitted a bit of a breather from the strictures of the Lenten fast and may have a bit of a blow-out before resuming the fast the following day. This sounds much more plausible to me.
A properly made simnel cake is a lovely thing with the buried marzipan layer a delightful and finely flavoured surprise in its centre. I’m sorry but you really should make your own marzipan as the bought stuff is much sweeter than homemade and always has far too much almond flavouring added for my taste imparting a harsh chemical flavour to your otherwise lovely mellow cake
The Four Seasons Cookbook recipe on which I based my version of a simnel cake has perfect proportions for the specified 8 inch/20cm cake tin. The completed cake is golden in colour with a distinct citrus flavour from the combination of zest and candied peel. I found some rather pleasing golden sultanas (see pic) to heighten the golden colour of the cake.
Baking the cake presents something of a technical challenge as the usual test for doneness, sticking a skewer into the cake and seeing if it comes out clean, doesn’t work. The buried marzipan layer clings to the skewer come what may so the baker has to draw on other knowhow – checking for a slight shrinkage from the side and gently pressing the cake surface feeling for just the right degree of resistance. As always with rich fruit cakes, a long slow bake works best.
Adapted from a recipe in Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book.
750g prepared weight of marzipan (homemade is best) divided into two pieces one slightly larger than the other plus a little sifted icing sugar for rolling out
175g unsalted butter
175g Demerara butter
1 tablespoon golden syrup
grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
225g plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon each of freshly grated nutmeg, ground cinnamon and ground allspice
115g chopped mixed candied peel
up to 150ml milk
To finish the cake
The second piece of marzipan plus a little sifted icing sugar (see above)
2 tablespoons sieved apricot jam or marmalade (or light coloured fruit jelly if you have some to hand)
a few Cadbury’s mini eggs or similar
an easter chick or two
pretty ribbon to tie around the cake
Roll out the smaller piece of marzipan into a round the exact size of the cake tin. No need to trim as it won’t be visible but will form a layer baked inside the cake, just press this disc into shape with your hands. Do this before lining the tin so you can use the base as a template.
Preheat the oven to 140 degrees C fan and fully line with double thickness of baking parchment a deep 20cm/ 8 inch loose-bottomed round cake tin.
Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in first the tablespoon of golden syrup and grated orange and lemon zests then the eggs one at a time adding a tablespoon of flour after each addition of egg to help the mixture emulsify.
Stir the salt and spices into the remaining flour and fold into the mixture with the dried fruit. Finally stir in just enough milk to make the mixture a not too soft dropping consistency like a Christmas cake batter. If it’s too soft it won’t support the weight of all that dried fruit and the internal marzipan layer.
Spoon half the cake mixture into the prepared tin and level off. Carefully place the preshaped marzipan round onto the cake mixture and top with the remaining cake mixture. Level off and place into the preheated oven and bake until done, up to 3 and a half hours but could well be less depending on how your oven behaves at lower temperatures.
The usual technique of inserting a skewer into the cake and seeing if it comes out clean won’t work as even when the cake is baked into oblivion the marzipan layer leaves a false trace on the skewer. Instead, press the cake top gently to make sure it resists and look to see if the cake has shrunk just a little from the sides of the lined tin.
Leave the cake to cool in its tin for several hours or overnight until it is quite cold. This gives you time to gather together the bits and pieces needed to decorate and finish the cake.
Remove the cake from the tin and peel off and discard the layers of baking parchment. Knead and roll out the reserved marzipan to a thickness of no more than 1cm.
Brush the top of the cake with warmed sieved apricot jam, marmalade, apple jelly or similar – something with a suitably golden colour.
Invert the cake onto the rolled out marzipan and trim to a neat circle, reserving the trimmings for the traditional marzipan ball decoration.
Turn the cake the right way up and gently mark the top into large squares or, prettier still, into lozenges using a large cook’s knive. Try not to cut right through the marzipan.
To mark the top into lozenges first mark horizontal lines across the cake at a distance of c.2.5cm from each other. Then rotate the cake and mark another set of lines not at a 90 degree angle but offset so that the intersecting lines form lozenge or diamond shapes.
Slip the cake under a heated grill to lightly toast the surface to give an attractive finish to the cake. Be sure to watch it carefully at this stage so that it doesn’t catch and burn.
Make 11 small marzipan balls (the traditional number representing the apostles minus Judas) with the reserved marzipan trimmings and set these evenly around the cake, sticking them into place with a little more warmed jam if you like.
Complete the decoration by adding a few pastel coloured mini eggs and an Easter chick or two to the top of the cake and tying a decorative ribbon around its sides.