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.

Simnel cake

Adapted from a recipe in Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book.

Ingredients

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
3 eggs
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
450g currants
225g sultanas
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.

Bat cakes for a Night at the Opera

September 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

The opera in question was Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Clonter Opera Cheshire’s summer production. We’ve been going to Clonter for a number of years now and theming the dessert course of our opera picnic seems to have become my speciality.

Die Fledermaus is a light-hearted operetta composed by Johann Strauss the younger in 1874. It’s location is Vienna and the plot revolves around a ball set-piece scene, lots of disguises (including the bat costume) and all the silliness ends happily with forgiveness and reconciliation.

The combination of the bat image combined with the Viennese setting led me to the idea of a chocolate-bat decorated individual Sachertorte, Vienna’s iconic cake, as the centrepiece of my dessert. The Hotel Sacher has updated its chocolate cake offering by selling indvidual ganache-enrobed cubes of chocolate cake each topped with a chocolate seal. I loved the idea of these and thought they would look great topped with a discreet dark chocolate bat rather than the corporate Sacher logo.

Where on earth would I find bat-shaped confectionery in summer? There were various Halloween-themed bits and pieces available online but nothing the right size. Then I thought of Slattery’s, North Manchester’s own chocolatier. A quick phone call to John Slattery himself and two dozen bats were lined up ready for collection in two days’ time. I was even offered a choice of sizes. What service!

A single piece of chocolate cake was not going to be a show-stopper on its own so I decided that the Sachertorte would be one component within a dessert Bento-style box.

Our local cake shop supplied me (for a price!) with 12 cupcake boxes, one per guest, in a clean white card and cellophane window design that were perfect for my requirements. Sturdy enough for stacking and transport and flat-pack disposable for an easy clean-up at the end of the evening.

Now with box dimensions to work with I could visualise more easily what else I needed to complete the box. Vienna is famous for its cakes, in particular luscious layered tortes. After researching classic Viennese cakes I chose to construct a miniaturised version of the Esterházy Torte, a multilayered construction sandwiching nut sponge layers with a vanilla and nut flavoured cream, topped with a traditional feather-iced pattern.

That was two corners of the box taken care of. Now for the other two. I needed something to offset the sweet and dense cakes. A simple fruit compôte would be perfect and I chose apricot as both the Sacher and Esterházy Tortes use lots of sieved apricot jam in their construction so the flavours should be harmonious. Also, the best reason of all, apricots were in season and in peak condition.

Next I needed cream to set off both the tortes and the compôte. Sachertorte is traditionally served with a cloud of whipped cream but I like to combine Greek yoghurt and softly whipped cream 50:50, flavour it with real vanilla extract and lightly sweeten with icing sugar for a lighter, fresher result.

The apricot compôte and whipped cream could be served in transparent deli-style sealed cartons stacked one on top of each other. That left the final corner of the box to fill. What could I do here? I thought of chocolate-dipped Viennese fingers or sandwiched Viennese whirls, but these seemed to owe more to Mr Kipling than any true Viennese heritage. I then frantically thought of mini Kugelhopfs, perhaps marbled chocolate and vanilla, then had a memory flash back to my childhood when elaborate pink decorated tins of Viennese coffee flavoured with dried fig seasoning (can that really taste good?) used to be on sale. Maybe I could come up with a mini coffee meringue topped with fresh figs?

Finally I told myself to STOP and follow my own mantra of Less is More. I need not rush round the kitchen becoming frazzled before an evening at the opera. I filled the last corner of the box with a napkin, some disposable wooden cutlery (so much nicer than plastic) and the most elegant disposable plastic wine glass I could find. I then packed some half bottles of Hungary’s famous dessert wine Tokaji to serve alongside. Perfect.

Here’s the end result first with the box open:

L1060113

and then closed ready for packing and transport to Clonter:

L1060114

OK so that’s the overview, now for detail on the construction of the individual elements.

The Hotel Sacher recipe for Sachertorte is a closely guarded secret but fortunately it’s Mary Berry to the rescue. I used her Great British Bake Off recipe featured on the BBC Food website as the base for my Sachertorte cubes. Interestingly this is similar but not identical to the Sachertorte recipe featured in her Baking Bible. I doubled the recipe quantity given below and baked it in two 23cm (9 inch) square tins.

I then sandwiched the cakes together a generous quantity with sieved apricot jam flavoured with a little Amaretto liqueur (perfect as it is itself made from the bitter almond flavoured apricot kernels) and sharpened up with a spritz of lemon juice.

I trimmed the cakes, cut them neatly into 16 cubes and brushed each cube generously with more of that sieved apricot jam.

It was shaping up to be a warm, humid day so rather than a classic cream and chocolate ganache icing I chose to make the chocolate and butter ganache I’ve used before on the Ottolenghi golden clementine cake. You can find the recipe here. This worked a treat setting to a glossy sheen thanks to the honey and butter in the recipe. I needed to make a double quantity of the icing to coat all of the cubes but could probably have got away with 1 and a half times the recipe.

Finally, each individual cube was topped with one of those chocolate bats carefully transported home from Slattery’s and they were left in the cool cellar until being packed up in double white fluted cake cases later in the afternoon.

Moving on the Esterházy Torte. A classic version of this cake comprises a majestic 5 layers of nut flavoured cake sandwiched with nut and vanilla flavoured cream. The nuts might be toasted almonds or hazelnuts depending on your preferred version of the cake. There seem to be countless subtly different versions of this recipe out there so I combined features of several recipes and scaled the quantities down in order to come up with the recipe I give below for mini Esterházy tortes comprising just 2 cake layers sandwiching a layer of vanilla nut cream.

These were straightforward enough to make being similar to a macaroon batter but much easier to handle thanks to the differing proportions of egg whites, nuts and sugar.

For the filling, I reached for my failsafe Lenôtre vanilla buttercream recipe which I learned when making macarons a couple of years ago. To complete the vanilla cream I folded in some more of the toasted ground hazelnuts.

The next step before assembling the tortes was to ice the tops with the distinctive feathered icing which is an essential feature of the Esterházy torte. Despite my many years of baking this was to be a first for me and the result was going to be on show to 12 opera guests so no pressure… I decided to ice a few extra tops to make sure that at least 12 of the lids would make the grade. This proved to be a wise decision as there are plenty of pitfalls for the unwary…

The cake tops were first brushed with sieved apricot jam to create a barrier preventing the icing from being absorbed into the cake surface. I’d made my water icing using a newly available product on my local supermarket shelves, fondant icing sugar. I’d hoped this would give me the smooth glossy effect of true fondant icing but this stuff is a bit of a cheat as it’s merely regular icing sugar with a little added powdered glucose. This does give a nice sheen to the finished product but produces a slow-setting permanently soft icing which frankly is a pain to work with. Next time I will use ordinary icing sugar.

The contrasting colour in the feathered icing comes from melted dark chocolate. The addition of a little vegetable oil to the chocolate produces a softer slower-setting result giving you time to work the feathered pattern. I forgot the oil which made life difficult as by the time I had piped lines of dark chocolate onto a row of lids, the chocolate had set rock-solid before I had chance to try out my feathering skills.

I changed tack and piped a single lid with 3 neat parallel lines of chocolate and immediately ran the wooden skewer through in a perpendicular direction. This worked fine except that I set the lids down to dry at a slight angle and 5 minutes later the slow-setting fondant icing (see my comments above) had slid off onto the kitchen work surface. Very frustrating.

I managed to turn out 12 acceptable lids and left the rejects for home consumption later. Once the icing had dried for a couple of hours, it was time for final assembly. I chose to transport the Esterházy tortes in clear plastic clamshells designed for cupcakes and these proved to be perfect for protecting the delicate tortes. I place a torte base in the bottom of the clamshell, piped a disc of buttercream on top and gently placed the iced top-layer in position, applying just a little pressure to hold everything together.

On to the apricot compôte. This was relatively straightforward to make after the two complex mini-cakes, but with its sharp refreshing sweetness a very welcome element in the dessert box. I didn’t want a babyfood-smooth purée, nor did I want something resembling a can of apricot halves in syrup. What was required was something nice and thick but with a bit of chunky texture. I thought I could achieve the texture I wanted by gently poaching the peeled apricot slices in vanilla-scented sugar syrup, carefully draining the fruit then puréeing half of it before combining it with the remainder of the fruit cut into pieces. This worked a treat. The compôte was thoroughly chilled in the fridge before spooning neatly into small clear plastic deli-style containers.

The final step was to pipe my Greek yoghurt and vanilla cream into similar deli-style pots in a relaxed swirl – more elegant than just dolloping it in to the pots.

After 2 days’ work I was finally all done and packed up. The boxes and their contents travelled brilliantly and, sigh, were consumed in the interval in a matter of minutes.

Recipe for Sachertorte

Adapted from a Mary Berry Great British Bake Off recipe on bbc.co.uk/food. This quantity of cake batter makes a single layer cake. A double quantity is required to make 16 cake cubes.

Ingredients

140g plain chocolate broken into small pieces (or use professional baking drops or buttons)
140g unsalted butter, softened
115g golden caster sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
5 eggs, separated
85g ground almonds
55g sifted plain flour

1. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (fan). Grease and line with silicone paper your chosen cake tin. This quantity of cake batter will make a slim single layer cake if baked in a 23cm round tin, or a chunky layer for a two layer cake if baked in a 23cm square tin.
2. Melt the chocolate over a pan of simmering water. Remove and cool slightly.
3. Cream the butter and sugar together very well until really light. There is no raising agent in this cake so the only lift comes from air incorporated at this stage and when the beaten egg whites are incorporated.
4. Add the cooled melted chocolate and vanilla extract and beat again. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time then fold in the ground almonds and sifted flour.
5. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry. Add about one third of the whisked egg whites to the chocolate mixture and stir will to mix in. This will lighten the mixture and make it easier to incorporate the remaining whisked egg white without beating all the air out.
6. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
7. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and level the surface with a palette knife.
8. Bake for 40-50 minutes until well risen and the top springs back when gently pressed with your forefinger. The shallower 23cm square cake will cook more quickly whereas the deeper 23cm round cake will need a little longer in the oven.
9. Leave the cake to cool in the tin for 15-20 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to complete cooling.
10. Glaze, ice, fill and decorate according to your chosen recipe and desired finish. A sieved apricot jam glaze topped with chocolate ganache icing is traditional.

Recipe for mini Esterházy Tortes

Makes 16-18 sandwich cakes (32-36 individual cake discs).

Ingredients

For the cake layers

210g egg white (whites of approx. 6 eggs)
250g golden caster sugar
125g ground hazelnuts, lightly toasted
2 and a half tablespoons flour

To complete

1 quantity vanilla buttercream
85g ground hazelnuts, lightly toasted
Sieved apricot jam
1 quantity thick water icing made with 200g icing sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, a tablespoon of schnapps and water to mix
50g dark chocolate melted with a teaspoon of flavourless oil

Begin by making the mini cake layers. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C (fan). Whisk the egg whites until foamy then add the sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time whisking after each addition. Continue whisking until the meringue mixture is stiff. Fold in the flour and toasted ground hazelnuts. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a 1cm nozzle and pipe small discs 4-5cm in diameter onto baking sheets lined with silicone paper or a non-stick liner. Leave about 2cm space between each disc to allow air to circulate to achieve an even bake. They don’t spread as they bake. Bake for about 15 minutes until the discs are a light golden colour. Allow to cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes or so before carefully transferring to a rack with a palette knife to complete cooling.

Prepare the vanilla buttercream using the recipe given in the link above. Stir in the ground almonds. Set aside.

Divide the cake discs into two halves, one group will be the tops and the other the bottoms. Brush the smooth side of the tops with sieved apricot jam and leave to set for a few minutes. Feather-ice the tops by piping 3 parallel evenly spaced lines of dark chocolate across the freshly applied thick water icing layer and immediately drawing a wooden skewer through the chocolate lines at right angles. The chocolate is easily piped from a small piping bag made from a folded triangle of greaseproof paper with a tiny hole snipped off at the pointed end. Each draw of the skewer should be evenly spaced and parallel to form the feathered pattern. Three or four draws of the skewer should be about right for these small cakes. The feathering technique is more easily explained with diagrams and pictures so I’d suggest looking first at a detailed cake decorating book or at some of the videos available online (search terms marbled or feathered icing) if you’re trying this for the first time.

Leave the iced tops to set for a couple of hours before final assembly.

Assemble the cakes by piping a disc of buttercream onto the cake base. Use a disposable piping bag fitted with a 1cm nozzle. Set the iced layer on top and press gently to adhere.

Recipe for stone fruit compôte

Ingredients

800g-1kg ripe but not overripe stone fruit (eg apricots, peaches, nectarines or plums) peeled, stones removed and sliced
750 ml water
375g golden granulated or caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, split in half
2-3 strips lemon peel
juice of a lemon

Make a syrup by bringing to the boil the sugar and water. Add the vanilla pod, lemon peel strips and lemon juice.

Poach the prepared fruit for 5-10 minutes until tender but not too pulpy. You may need to do this in batches.

Remove the poached fruit from the syrup with a slotted spoon. Purée about half of the poached fruit in a food processor or liquidiser. Cut the remaining poached fruit into bite sized chunks. Combine the fruit purée and chunks adding a little more poaching syrup if needed.

Chill until ready to serve. Don’t throw the deliciously scented poaching syrup away – keep it in the fridge and use as the base for a soft drink or cocktail.

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