The Best Traditional Easter Simnel Cake
Last year, in typical organised fashion, I managed to post a recipe for a traditional British Easter Simnel Cake a week after Easter. So this year I'm posting it up again, BEFORE the actual date, to give you a chance to actually make one for yourselves. Don't say I don't love you.
So, Simnel Cake.
I know I should have posted this last week but I actually wanted to try the cake and see if this recipe was worth sharing with you. And wow it really is. Suffice it to say that four days after Easter this cake is already but a distant memory. Do yourselves a favour and bookmark this recipe for next year.
First up a bit of history. Apparently Simnel Cakes go back at least to medieval times when they were traditionally served on Laetare Sunday, a day in the middle of Lent when the Lenten fast was relaxed (sounds like cheating to me). Since this day coincides with Mother’s Day in the UK, it was apparently the thing in Victorian times for daughters in service to bake a Simnel Cake to take home to their mothers.
Nowadays it’s thought of as an Easter cake, though it’s not very often made. I think this is the third one I’ve made in my life. Which is a shame, as it’s extremely delicious and not at all difficult.
Traditionally it’s a light fruit cake, stuffed full of vine fruits and spices, with a layer of marzipan baked into the cake and more toasted marzipan placed on the top. There are always eleven marzipan balls placed on the top to represent the Apostles minus Judas Iscariot. I also like to add a puddle of icing and some Cadbury’s Mini Eggs (they’re in the Bible somewhere, right?), but anything Easter-y such as chicks or flowers would do. I think it’s safe to say that if you don’t like marzipan you will not like this cake. If you do, though (and as far as I’m concerned marzipan should be a separate food group) then this tastes a little like a fruity, squidgy, non-bready stollen.
If you live in the UK or anywhere where it is possible to get hold of good marzipan, then you need to buy around 450g/1lb of the stuff. However, making your own marzipan is very quick and easy and it certainly tastes infinitely better than the peculiar canned almond paste I’ve found in the US.
I’m afraid I haven’t had time to convert to cup measures. Time to get out those weighing scales!
This recipe is a combination of two or three recipes I found on the BBC website. Most traditional Simnel cake recipes are very similar though.
For the marzipan/almond paste
250g/9oz caster/baker’s sugar
250g/9oz ground almonds/almond meal
2 free-range eggs, beaten
1tsp almond essence or to taste
Mix the sugar and almonds in a large bowl and add the almond essence and enough beaten egg to turn the mass into a soft, sticky ‘dough’. Knead everything together for one minute or so, until it becomes smooth and pliable. If it is too sticky add a little more sugar and almonds. You want a workable mixture that is possible to roll out. The marzipan will happily wait a day or two in the fridge.
For the cake
110g/4 oz raisins
110g/4oz sultanas/golden raisins
110g/4oz glacé/candied cherries (in the UK use those delicious undyed ones, I’ve yet to find a supplier of non-HFCS, undyed cherries in the US, if you come across such a delight please let me know)
110g/4oz currants/Zante currants
50g/2oz chopped candied peel (in the UK, you can buy pots of mixed peel, in the US I mix my own from orange, lemon and citron peel)
225g/8oz butter, softened
110g/4oz light muscovado sugar/soft brown sugar
110g/4oz caster/baker’s sugar
4 large eggs
225g/8oz self-raising flour (or 8oz all-purpose flour with 1 tsp baking powder)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 lemons, grated zest only
2 tsp ground mixed spice (or 1 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice, 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1/4 tsp ground cloves. You could also use pumpkin spice but it will taste a little different).
For the glace’ icing
225g/8oz icing sugar/powdered sugar
Enough water to mix to a pouring consistency.
Cut the cherries into quarters, put in a sieve and rinse under running water. Drain well then dry thoroughly on kitchen paper. Do the same with your peel if it is sticky with HFCS.
Weigh out all the fruit into a large bowl. Essentially you need around 500g/18oz of mixed dried fruit, so if you want to make some substitutions (pineapple, dried cherries or cranberries might be nice) or play around with the proportions then be my guest. This mix is the traditional one for a Simnel cake though. If you’re feeling fancy then you can soak the fruit overnight in some amontillado sherry, but I didn’t with this cake.
Preheat the oven to 150C/280F/Gas 2. Grease and line a 20cm/ 8in Springform cake tin.
Cream the butter and sugars together in the stand mixer until very pale and soft.
Beat in the eggs one at a time with a tablespoon or two of flour between each egg addition to stabilise the mixture and prevent curdling. If it curdles a little it’s not a big deal.
Stir in the rest of the flour and salt, the lemon zest and the spices. Mix until fully combined.
Stir in the dried fruit with a wooden spoon until it’s fully distributed through the mixture. The mixture should be of a soft ‘dropping’ consistency. If it is too dry then stir in a tablespoon or so of milk.
Spoon half the cake mix into the prepared cake tin
Take one-third of the marzipan and roll it out to a circle the size of the tin and then place on top of the cake mixture.
Spoon the remaining cake mixture over top and level the surface. I like to create a slight indentation in the centre so the cake doesn’t get too domed.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 2 1/4 hours, or until well risen, evenly brown and firm to the touch. A skewer or stick of spaghetti stuck into the centre of the cake should come out clean.
Cover with aluminium foil after one hour if the top is browning too quickly. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out, peel off the parchment and finish cooling on a wire rack.
When the cake is cooled, turn it upside down. If you want brush the top with a little warmed apricot jam and roll out half the remaining marzipan to fit the top. Press firmly on the top and crimp the edges to decorate. (My marzipan was sticky enough not to require jam).
Make a stubby snake with the remaining marzipan third and cut it into 11 equal pieces. Form the marzipan into 11 balls.
Brush the marzipan with beaten egg and arrange the marzipan balls around the edge of the cake. Brush the tops of the balls with beaten egg and then carefully place the cake under a hot grill/broiler until the top is lightly toasted or, as I did, use a chef’s blowtorch. If you’re using the grill be careful not to set fire to the cake.
Mix up the icing sugar and water to a pouring consistency and pour a puddle onto the surface of the cake. When set, decorate with Easter-y things.
This is what your cake should look like inside. The layer of baked almond paste makes it all juicy, succulent and not at all dry, unlike many fruitcakes of my acquaintance.
Happy belated Easter!