Easter Treat - Traditional Simnel Cake

Chocolate seems to have taken over everything at Easter, including cakes, and the traditional Simnel Cake has become an endangered species - but it’s one of my favourite cakes and anyone who likes almond paste (marzipan) will probably agree. A tradition well worth bringing back!

Simnel Cake was originally associated with Mothering Sunday – quite the opposite of the ‘Mother’s Day’ that it has now become, it was a day when young girls in domestic service were allowed to go home and visit their families (and be ‘mothered’). The employer provided the ingredients, then the girl baked the cake herself, to take home and help feed the extra mouths of family members who would assemble for a get-together on that day. In recent times it has become an Easter speciality and is often decorated as below, with eleven marzipan balls to represent the twelve apostles, less Judas.

My mother was a great cook (and a cookery teacher). She passed on many family recipes to me and, as she was an especially good baker, many of them are bakes of various kinds. I am often asked if I’ve ever considered running a restaurant – the answer is ‘no way’ but, until they started popping up everywhere again, I was often tempted by the idea of a small bakery and old-fashioned tea rooms... This traditional Simnel Cake recipe is from my mother, and a family favourite – everyone loves the layer of gooey almond in the centre of the cake.
The name ‘simnel’ is thought to go back to the name of the fine flour used to bake the cake; today it is still important to use the best ingredients – choose good plump fruit, for example, and be careful about the dark brown sugar. The ‘dark soft brown sugar’ most usually available is just coloured white sugar, and this affects the texture and flavour. For best results use an unrefined molasses, which gives a lovely moist texture and rich flavour. Like most fruit cakes, this simnel cake keeps very well in an airtight tin.

For the marzipan:
8 oz/225g caster sugar
8 oz/225g icing sugar
l lb/450g ground almonds
2 eggs (or 4 yolks)
3 teaspoons lemon juice
l teaspoon almond essence
For the cake:
8 oz/225g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
l saltspoon each nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice
6 oz/175g butter
6 oz/175g soft dark brown sugar (Barbados, preferably Billingtons unrefined)
3 eggs
l lb/450g currants
8-12 oz/225-350g sultanas
4 oz/100g chopped candied peel
Scant ¼ pint/150 ml milk
l level tablespoon black treacle.
A little apple jelly or apricot jam; ½ egg yolk beaten up with a little oil to glaze.

First make the marzipan: Mix the sugars and almonds together in a large bowl, make a hollow in the centre and drop in the lightly beaten eggs (or yolks), lemon juice and almond essence. Mix to a stiff paste, first with a wooden spoon then with hands dusted with icing sugar. Knead well until smooth and free from cracks. (Or do all this very quickly in a Kenwood Chef or similar, using the K beater.) If possible, leave the ball in a polythene bag in the fridge overnight, then leave to reach room temperature again before use; it will then be easier to handle.

For the cake:
Butter and line a deep 8"/20 cm round cake tin, preferably loose-based.
Preheat a slow oven, 300'F, 150'C, Gas mark 2.

Sift the flour, salt and spices together.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the lightly beaten eggs, a little at a time, including a spoonful of the sifted flour and beating well after each addition.

When the mixture is thoroughly beaten, lightly stir in the remaining flour and then the fruit. Add just enough of the milk to make a fairly stiff batter (like a Christmas cake) and the treacle.

Divide the marzipan unevenly in half and roll the smaller piece to the exact size of the inside of the cake tin.

Turn half of the cake mixture into the tin, level it out and cover with the circle of marzipan.

Cover with the rest of the mixture, smooth down with the back of a tablespoon and bake in the centre of the preheated oven for about 3½ hours, or until the top is springy to the touch and the cake is shrinking slightly from the tin. [A skewer should come out of the cake clean, but the marzipan in the centre makes this method less reliable than usual, so be careful not to put the skewer through it.]

Cool the cooked cake in the tin. When cold, turn out, remove papers and brush the top with a little warmed apple jelly or apricot jam, sieved if necessary, and place the second circle of marzipan on top, pressing down well.

Using a sharp knife, mark the top into squares ½ -1"/2-2.5 cm wide. Make eleven small balls from the marzipan trimmings and arrange these around the edge of the cake, then brush the marzipan lightly with beaten egg and put the cake into a hot oven or under the grill for a few minutes until toasted to a deep golden brown.

Alternatively, another traditional finish is to run a small pool of pastel coloured icing, preferably yellow, into the centre of the marzipan. In either case, it can also be decorated with a few tiny marzipan or foil-covered chocolate eggs and/or Easter chicks - children love these.

[From “Meals For All Seasons” Wolfhound Press 1992.]

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