Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Easter baking: Simnel Cake

"After last year’s Colomba Pasquale, I had considered going even further afield in search of an Easter recipe: a Russian kulich for example. On reflection though, I decided that you can’t beat a good old simnel cake..."

As Easter draws closer, another far more important anniversary is also approaching fast. The blog is almost two years old! While Gastrolad might not be the number one ranked blog on the internet just yet, I have managed to earn a few feathers for my flat cap. I am writing features and reviews for two other highly-ranked websites, Foodepedia and The Arbuturian; I managed to get a couple of essays in Fire and Knives (an award winning food magazine edited by Tim Hayward); and finally, I am on the cusp of getting my first paid-for piece of writing in a national food magazine!

Paid-for writing is the holy grail of any aspiring blogger these days, so if that does come off I will be very happy indeed. I don’t want to jinx things, so you will excuse me for keeping most of the details close to my chest. However, I will say that I am currently on the search for stories of conflict, rivalry and disharmony in the kitchen, so if you have any of these up your sleeve please let me know via the contact details page or just leave a comment at the bottom of the post.

Boasting over, I should turn to the subject of today’s post. The last couple of Easters have seen me post an Easter baking recipe on the blog and I saw no reason to deviate this time around. I might not be Paul Hollywood (my hair isn’t grey and I don’t have a goatee or a paunch), but I am as able as the next man to knock up a decent cake or loaf of bread. And with the weather as it is, the Easter weekend looks to be the ideal opportunity to spend a bit of time in the kitchen.

After last year’s Colomba Pasquale, I had considered going even further afield in search of an Easter recipe: a Russian kulich for example. On reflection though, I decided that you can’t beat a good old simnel cake: along with hot cross buns and roast leg of lamb it forms the holy trinity of our own Easter culinary repertoire.

For those not in the know, a simnel cake is similar in concept to Christmas cake, but with a couple of important differences. There are regional variations of a simnel, but the one I was brought up with is essentially a fruit cake with a layer of marzipan in the middle and topped with more marzipan and eleven marzipan balls to signal Jesus’ twelve disciples minus the traitor Judas!

My mother’s version is an absolute classic and something I genuinely look forward to every year. Therefore in honour of the blog’s second birthday, I have made the decision to give the family jewels away and share it here. Just don’t tell everyone else!

Simnel cake

24oz mixed dried fruit
8oz self-raising flour
6oz soft brown sugar
6oz butter, cubed
8oz chopped walnuts
1 tsp mixed spice
2 eggs, beaten
1tbsp black treacle dissolved in 1 tbsp milk

10oz ground almonds
5oz golden caster sugar
5oz icing sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
juice of 1 lemon
2tbsp apricot jam

Heat the oven to 150c and grease and line an 8 inch cake tin

  1. To start with make the marzipan. This is easily done by sieving together the almonds and icing and caster sugar into a large bowl. Then combine the egg, vanilla and lemon juice in a small bowl and pour this into a well in the middle of the dry ingredients.
  2. Using a wooden spoon or spatula combine the wet and dry ingredients thoroughly, by which time you should have a sticky, beige coloured mass.
  3. The only slightly tricky bit comes now when you have to knead the marzipan, almost as you would with a bread dough. The easiest way to do this is to dust your surface with some icing sugar and work quickly to ensure it doesn't stick. A minute or two's kneading is usually sufficient to bring it all together.
  4. Shape the marzipan into a ball, wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for later on.
  5. You can now move on to the cake itself, which is very much the standard procedure for any fruit cake. Combine the flour and sugar in a bowl then rub in the butter as if you were making pastry. Then add the rest of the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.
  6. To this dry mix add the beaten eggs, treacle and milk, and combine until you have a fairly stiff batter, but one which which is still of a pourable consistency. If you are worried it is too stiff you can loosen it up with a drop of milk.
  7. Spoon or pour half the mixture into your cake tin. Then taking the marzipan from the fridge, roll out one third of it into a disc of the same radius as your cake tin and place this disc of marzipan into the cake tin on top of cake batter. Quick tip here - I rolled out the marzipan between two layers of cling film to stop it sticking to the work surface. This seems to be far the easiest method of doing this.
  8. Now pour the rest of the cake batter into the tin and using a spatula level off the top and remove any mix clinging to the sides of the tin as it will burn in the oven.
  9. Place the cake in the hot oven and cook at 150c for approximately 1hr 30mins - 1hr 45mins. I can't be too prescriptive regarding the cooking time because all oven are different and the cake could take up to 2 hours to bake. 
  10. The key is to test with a skewer from about 1hr 20 mins into the cooking period and keep doing this every ten minutes or so until you think it is cooked. It is cooked when the skewer comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake - remember there is a marzipan layer though.
  11. Remove the cake from the oven and leave to cool out of the tin before topping with the marzipan.  
  12. Heat the apricot jam gently in a small saucepan and while it is warming roll out another third of the marzipan into a disc the same radius as the cake. Using a pastry brush, brush the top of the cake with the warm jam and gently place your disc of marzipan over the top, smoothing out any lumps or bumps.
  13. The final step is to make your marzipan apostles. Rather cheffily I weighed the marzipan and divided it into 11 equally sized portions, but feel free to wing it if you are so inclined. In any case you need to roll each of the portions of marzipan into a ball and using a blob of jam stick these around the outside edge of the cake.
  14. Finally, put the cake back in a hot oven for 10-15 minutes just to give the marzipan a bit of colour.
Kept in a tin or wrapped in foil your simnel cake will last through to the Easter weekend and beyond. Happy baking and happy Easter!

p.s. the observant will notice imperial not metric measurements in the recipe. Mother doesn't do metric and so I have been faithful to her recipe. 

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