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.

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Eggs for Easter

April 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

Two simple egg dishes for Easter. The first is a beautiful looking quail egg, pea and ham salad, the second a simple dish of baked eggs with cream and herbs.

They would work equally well as a starter before your Easter Sunday meal or as a lunch or supper dish.

Recipe for quail egg, pea and ham salad

This is hardly a recipe, more a culinary improvisation based on idea on the Ocado online grocery shopping website. I didn’t like the idea of hearty fried bacon in this delicate little salad so replaced it with slivers of ham. Airfreighted fresh peas and mangetout didn’t appeal either so I used lightly cooked British frozen peas which are sweet and good and bulked out the salad with some crisp Little Gem lettuce instead of the mangetout. I simplified the salad dressing too, making it light and lemony.

Ingredients

1 pack 10 quail eggs
2 generous handfuls frozen petit pois, cooked for 1 minute in boiling water and drained
4-6 slices Parma ham, torn into artful shreds
1 bag peashoots
2 little gem lettuces, washed and separated into individual leaves
For the dressing:
2-3 tablespoons of your favourite salad oil (olive, hazelnut or pistachio if you can get hold of it)
Generous squeeze of lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
snipped fresh soft herbs (optional)

Hardboil the quail eggs following the timings specified on the pack. Cool, peel and slice carefully in half lengthways.

Make the dressing in the usual way in a pretty serving bowl. Add the peas while still warm and leave to soak up the dressing for 5 minutes.

Then add the lettuce and peashoots and toss all together gently. Add a little more dressing if the salad needs it.

Strew the eggs and ham artfully over the top of the salad and your done.

Recipe for baked eggs in cream with fresh herbs

Otherwise known as Oeufs en Cocotte, a French classic. I use Julia Child’s instructions in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, a book I refer to very often (even before the film!).

For each serving

1 teaspoon butter
2 tablespoons double cream
1 egg
1-2 teaspoons mixed fresh parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon (use whatever combination you have to hand – I particularly like tarragon)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

You will also need a ramekin for each person and a deep tray containing 3/4 inches simmering water. I use a loaf tin if I’m just cooking for one or two people.

Butter the ramekin saving a dot for later. Add 1 tablespoon cream, half your herbs and a little seasoning and set the ramekin in the simmering water over moderate heat. When the cream is hot, break your egg into it. Pour over the remaining tablespoon of cream, season and scatter over the remaining herbs. Top with the reserved dot of butter.

Place in the middle of a moderate oven and bake for 7 to 10 minutes. The eggs are done when they are just set but will still tremble slightly.

Serve with fingers of your favourite lightly toasted bread to dip into the runny yolks and cream.

After such a light lunch, you will have plenty of room to tuck into your easter chocolate:

Happy Easter!

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