Friday, 22 April 2011

Easter Simnel Cake

Simnel Cake

Now I know I alerted you to Leila's Italian Easter Cakes - Colomba - recently, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate our own English specialities.  Simnel cake is traditionally baked for Easter and is a lighter version of Christmas fruit cake.  Dating from Medieval times, it was baked by daughters in domestic service as a gift to take home on the fourth Sunday in Lent.  This day was known as Mothering Sunday, now more commonly referred to as Mothers Day.  Simnel is believed to derive from the latin word Simila - fine wheaten flour with which the cake was made.
From its orgin as a cake baked to mark a holiday over 400 years ago, it took on more Christian religious connotations.  In Simnel Cake almond paste (marzipan) is layered between the fruit mixture before baking.  Traditionally, after cooling, it is topped with another layer, and eleven balls of marzipan are placed around the edge to symbolise Christ's faithful apostles (Judas being omitted).  The cake is then toasted under a grill to lightly brown the topping. 

I am particularly fond of ground almonds.  They add so much to the taste and texture of cakes yet produce so many different results - from English fruit cakes to Italian "Torta di Mandorle", Spanish "Tarta de Santiago", French "Financier", and many more.  With Simnel Cake, I love the almond paste which is sandwiched between the fruit cake mixture, but the paste decoration never appeals to me.  Unless you plan to eat the cake straight away, the topping hardens and dries out.  My version (recipe below) keeps better, and satisfies my appetite for the almost toffee-like quality you get from baking the almond paste inside the cake.  Unless you are concerned to have the cake look traditional, I recommend two layers of marzipan sandwiched by fruit cake mix.  Yes you may get a little sinking in the middle and have no way of disguising the fact, but I'd rather have a tasty cake than a perfect looking one.  This is how I like fruit cake.

Simnel Cake
(for an 18cm round tin)

170g plain flour
1½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon mixed spice
Pinch of salt
140g butter (very soft)
140g Muscovado sugar
2 medium sized eggs, mixed well
380g of currants, raisins and sultanas in roughly equal measure
40g candied peel
Grated zest of  1 orange and 1 lemon
Juice of half an orange
300g Marzipan (almond paste)

Heat the oven to 150C/Gas 2.  Butter an 18cm round cake tin and line the bottom and sides with parchment or greaseproof paper.  Sift together the first four ingredients.  Cream the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy.  Add the eggs in four lots beating well with each addition (add a tablespoon of the flour mixture if it starts to curdle).  Fold in the sieved flour mixture, then the dried fruit, peel and the orange and lemon zest.  Loosen the mixture with the orange juice.  Spread one third of the mixture in the cake tin.  Divide the marzipan in half, roll into two balls and flatten each with the palm of your hand into roughly18cm rounds.  Place one round in the cake tin, top with another third of cake mix, and repeat.  Smooth the top and bake in the oven for 1½ hours.  Cool in the tin.  Turn out and wrap in foil.  This cake benefits from keeping a day or two.