Sweeter and more spring-like than Christmas cake, with marzipan disciples assembled on the top, does this feast-day favourite merit a comeback, or will you be sticking to hot cross buns?
Simnel cake is one of the few Easter treats that doesn’t appear on shelves the day after St Valentine’s and vanish on Good Friday. Less popular these days than Creme Eggs or the shamelessly adulterated hot cross bun, these rich, fruity cakes have survived with their dignity largely intact.
Similar cakes have been baked in these isles since medieval times; the name is likely to have come from the Latin simila, meaning fine wheat flour, and though for a time they were associated with Mothering Sunday – when servants were given leave to visit their homes, cake in tow – they make more sense at the end of Lent, when people could be free again with the butter, sugar and pricy dried fruit.
A good simnel cake should not just be a Christmas cake with marzipan balls on top; it should be lighter, more spring-like: the 19th-century Chambers’ Book of Days describes it as saffron hued, and “filled with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things’. And, most importantly, unlike Easter eggs, it should be homemade.
Fruit cakes start, as so many good things do, with butter, sugar, flour and eggs. Some use raising agents, too. For Leiths Baking Bible, Geraldene Holt’s Cakes, and pastry chef Roger Pizey’s World’s Best Cakes this comes in the form of baking powder, while Elizabeth David gives a Victorian recipe for a yeast-raised version in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Because I’m after a lighter cake, I’m also going to use a raising agent – baking powder rather than yeast, on the basis that it produces a softer, more delicate crumb (and is considerably easier).
Pizey also replaces a portion of the flour with ground almonds. I’m initially worried this might be almond overkill, given the marzipan topping, but it makes the crumb sweeter and slightly more moist. Leiths does the same with rice flour, presumably for its soft, pleasingly sandy texture, but I can’t pick this out here.
Sugar, I think, should be the soft brown variety for maximum flavour, but I don’t like the bittersweet edge of Annie Bell’s treacle; it does make the crumb more tender, but it’s too heavy and Christmassy for my liking, especially in conjunction with the dried fruit. Gary Rhodes’s golden syrup in the recipe in New British Classics seems a safer bet.
Not all the recipes use milk, but a looser batter gives a more moist result.
The batter is just a vehicle however; mere scaffolding for the fruit. A mixture of sweet and sour currants and juicy sultanas, soaked in booze (which, puzzlingly, no one suggests for a simnel cake, but which seems appropriately festive to me) proves the best combination. Pizey and Holt’s raisins don’t offer much extra.
Candied peel is a must (Bell’s marmalade peel is a clever idea, but again, too bitter for the lighter cake I’m after) and I find some fans of Jo Wheatley’s crystallised ginger, though to my mind this tastes a little too much like Christmas. Decent glacé cherries (it’s worth paying more for the darker ones that actually taste like cherries rather than the sugary ones) add both colour and extra juiciness, though if you’re not a fan, leave them out.
Pizey uses whole almonds as well. Toasted before use, these add quite a different, and very welcome flavour and texture.
Orange and lemon zest are popular additions, as is mixed spice, though some recipes use cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger separately. I’m going to keep the spicing quite subtle as befits a more delicate fruit cake, but, inspired by the Chambers quote above, I am going to infuse mine with yellow saffron, as seems to have been traditional; a ray of spring sunshine. Pizey, curiously, adds cocoa powder and coffee essence to his cake. I can find no precedent for this, and while his cake is richly flavoured and quite delicious, it’s not a simnel.
Most recipes call for ready-made marzipan, but it’s simplicity itself to make at home; Bell’s recipe is much easier than the Victorian one supplied by David, though I am going to nod to the latter by popping in a little orange flower water (which works better with the other ingredients than the original rosewater), as well as a drop of bitter almond essence, as used in the commercial stuff.
David explains that the marzipan was originally confined to the centre of the cake; the 11 disciples are a fairly recent innovation, but one I rather like. Toasting the marzipan, as Bell, Pizey, Leiths, Holt and Rhodes recommend, brings out its flavour, though my photos should act as a cautionary tale about how easily it burns if neglected for more than a second.
Leiths puts a circle of glacé icing in the middle of the cake. No doubt this looks good if you are a dab hand with the stuff, but my efforts look distinctly amateurish, especially after I’ve tried to improve matters with a scattering of crystallised violets.
A low, slow bake like Bell’s seems to yield the most moist results; the Leiths version, which spends two hours at 180C and a further half-hour at 150C comes out burned on top, and rather dry, despite my careful wrapping of the tin in newspaper to protect the cake from the heat. Covering the top, as Bell recommends, is essential.
David bakes hers for a mere 30 minutes at a very high heat, but this seems to work better with a less fruity yeast-based dough than it does with Pizey’s cake, which, even after an hour at 160C, comes out distinctly gooey in the middle.
As Bell suggests, this is a cake that can be happily left to mature for a few weeks, or, alternatively, tucked into immediately. It’ll still be going strong long after the hot cross buns are gone for another year.
The perfect simnel cake
4 tbsp brandy, whisky or golden or dark rum
50g glacé cherries, halved
50g whole skinned almonds
175g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
45g ground almonds
½ tsp fine salt
1 tsp mixed spice
180g butter, at room temperature
180g soft, light brown sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tbsp golden syrup
Zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
50g mixed peel, chopped if necessary
Sugar syrup, apricot jam or marmalade, to top
For the marzipan (or use 500g bought marzipan)
200g ground almonds
200g icing sugar, plus extra to dust
Drop of almond essence
1 tsp orange blossom water
1 egg, separated
Heat the oven to 130C, and grease and line an 18-20cm loose-bottomed, high-sided tin, cutting an extra circle for the top of the cake with a small circle cut from the centre to allow it to rise. Warm the milk slightly, add the saffron and set aside to infuse. Soak the dried fruit in the spirits.
Meanwhile, make the marzipan. Put the ground almonds and icing sugar in a mixing bowl or food processor and whisk or whizz together until well combined. Add a dash of almond essence, the orange blossom water and the egg yolk, and mix. Whisk the egg white with a drop of water to loosen, then add just enough to bring the marzipan together in a soft dough. Form into a ball, wrap and chill.
Put the whole almonds on a baking tray and bake in the hot oven until starting to turn golden, then remove and set aside to cool.
Put the flour, baking powder, ground almonds, salt and spices in a large bowl and whisk together to mix. Beat the butter in a food mixer, with electric beaters or a vigorously applied wooden spoon until soft, then beat in the sugar and continue beating until they’re light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as required.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a little of the flour mixture between each addition, followed by the syrup and zest.
Roughly chop the almonds, then add to the mixture along with the cherries, dried fruit, saffront and mixed peel. Spoon half the mixture into the prepared tin and flatten the top. Take about a third of the marzipan and roll out on a lightly icing sugared surface to a circle the size of your tin. Place on top of the mixture, trimming as required, then spoon the rest on top. Place your extra circle of greaseproof paper on top and bake for about 2.5 hours until a skewer poked into the top (not down to the marzipan) comes out clean. Allow to cool.
If using jam or marmalade, heat a few tablespoons gently in a small pan to melt. Remove the cake from the tin and peel off the paper. Roll out the remaining marzipan on a lightly icing-sugared surface and cut a circle about 2cm bigger than the diameter of the cake, then trim to neaten. Brush the top and top of the sides of the cake with jam, marmalade or sugar syrup and lift the marzipan on top, smoothing it down the sides.
Heat the grill to medium-high, or prepare your blowtorch. Put the cake under the grill for a couple of minutes until beginning to brown, keeping an eye on it all the time, then remove. Roll the trimmings of the marzipan into 11 roughly equal-sized balls and stick them around the edge of the cake with a little jam/marmalade/syrup. Put back under the grill briefly to brown, then allow to cool before serving.
Simnel cake: forgotten for a reason (more damn marzipan, as an American friend observed) or a hidden gem of British baking? And which other less-celebrated Easter foodstuffs deserve to steal some of the limelight from the chocolate eggs and fruity buns?