It’s astonishing, how some recipes survive (almost) intact through times. I find it rather fascinating, that having a recipe from few centuries back allows us to recreate people’s favourite foods, from as far back in time as Middle Ages or Antiquity. Of course, the taste won’t probably be the same as thousand years ago, due to many factors (i.e. the ingredients are different, the environment has changed, too), but still – there is something thrilling about cooking or baking from a thousand year old recipe.
What is Simnel cake?
Simnel cake is a light fruit cake associated with Easter and springtime in the United Kingdom and Ireland. It is much lighter than the traditional Christmas fruit cake, and it’s distinguished by two layer of almond paste or marzipan: one in the middle (baked with the cake), and one on top (added after baking). The 20th century addition to the cake’s appearance are 11 marzipan balls on top, which are then lightly browned under the grill (of with a kitchen blow torch, much recommended). They 11 marzipan balls symbolise 11 disciples (minus Judas, poor guy has fallen out of glory). An early reference to decorating the cake with marzipan balls appears in May Byron’s Pot-Luck Cookery (1914), but without the mention of the modern story of the 11 apostles.
How old is Simnel cake?
Simnel cake has been known since at least medieval times, bread regulations from the period suggest that the cake was boiled and then baked, which sparked the invention of the myth supposedly explaining an odd technique. Legend has it that a couple, called Simon and Nelly fell out in the process of making the cake, after failing to agree on the cooking method: boil or bake? Not being able to come to the consensus, after reportedly quite a physical fight involving kitchen and household implements, the couple decides to compromise: the cake will be boiled and then also baked. According to this myth, the name of the cake was derived from the names of the couple, joined together. People’s curious endeavours to explain the origin of things often leads to strangest stories, don’t you think?
It’s Simnel Cake Sunday, everyone!
Initially, the cake was a specialty prepared for the middle Sunday of Lent, when the forty day long fast would be relaxed and consuming non-lenten foods was allowed. It is then, the cake was baked to celebrate the Refreshment Sunday, which was also sometimes called Simnel Cake Sunday. Nowadays, hardly anyone fasts throughout the Lent period, at least not as devotedly as the medieval pious Christians, and the tradition of having a mid-Lent fast relaxation has disappeared with time. Simnel cake, too, became to be associated with pre-Easter and Easter period.
The meaning of ‘simnel’
The word simnel is argued to have derived from the Latin word simila, meaning fine wheat flour. The text from 1226 mentions “bread made into simnel”, which is understood to mean finest white bread. Simple, everyday cakes called simnel breads have been known in England at least since the 13th century, and are usually described as being boiled as well as baked. The cakes came to be associated with springtime during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – fancy simnel cakes would sweeten the celebrations of Mothering Sunday, Easter or Mid-Lent Sunday (Refreshment Sunday).
Although it’s already past Easter, I have decided to share this beautiful British bake. Even Żubrek, who hates all kinds of fruit cakes, raisins and other dried fruits, seemed to have fallen in love with this spiced yet light springtime bake. Apart from the lengthy baking time (two and a half hour!), the cake is relatively easy to prepare, especially if you opt for a shop-bought marzipan instead of the homemade almond paste.
SPRINGTIME SIMNEL CAKE
for the cake
50g mixed peel
juice of 1 lemon
juice of 1 orange
225g soft butter
225 light muscovado sugar
225 self-raising flour
100g glace cherries, rinsed in hot water, dried and quartered
grated ring of two lemons
2tsp mixed spice
(you can use ready made marzipan instead)
200g ground almonds
90g caster sugar
90g icing sugar
few drops almond extract
1 large egg
3tbsp apricot jam
HOW TO MAKE?
1. Two days before planned baking, place the sultanas, currants and mixed peel in a bowl with the lemon juice, orange juice and brandy. Mix well, wrap the bowl tightly with cling film (or place the dried fruit with juices and alcohol an an airtight container) and place in the fridge. The fruit will then soak up the liquid, which will result in a much softer, aromatic cake overall. Alternatively, soak the fruit for only few hours before baking. Don’t drain the juices, we will need them later.
2. Make almond paste. Bare in mind that almond paste should be chilled for at least 3 hours in the fridge. To get the best results, make the paste and soak the fruit in the morning, and bake the actual cake in the afternoon. To make the paste, add ground almonds, icing sugar and caster sugar to a bowl and mix together. Beat the egg lightly, together with rum/brandy and almond extract. Add the beaten egg to the bowl with almonds and sugars and mix them together. Transfer the paste into dusted with icing sugar pastry board and knead until smooth. Form a ball, wrap in cling film and place in the fridge for 3 hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees. Grease the 20cm deep round tin with butter and line it with baking parchment. Set aside.
4. Beat the butter in the bowl until fluffy. Start adding sugar, gradually (a few tablespoons at the time). Keep mixing until all the sugar is incorporated. Add 1 egg at the time, with a little flour. Mix after each addition. Add the rest of the flour, mixed spice, glace cherries, grated lemon rind and the soaked fruit. You can add the juices from the soaked dried fruit, too.
5. Pour out half of the cake mixture into previously lined tin, even out with a spatula. Divide the almond paste into three equal parts. Roll out one part into a circle 20cm diameter and put it on the top of the cake mixture. Return the rest of the almond paste to the fridge.
6. Gently add the rest of the cake mixture to the tin, on top if the almond paste. Level the surface with a spatula, delicately.
7. Place the cake in the preheated oven. Bake for about 2 and a half hour or until brown and firm to touch. Take out of the oven and let the cake rest for about half an hour. After this time, take the cake out of the tin and let it cool completely on a wire rack.
8. When the cake is cool, brush the top of the cake with warm apricot jam. Take the almond paste out from the fridge and roll out one of the parts. You should roll out a circle to the size of the top of the cake and place it on top. You can now make the wavy pattern of the edges of the marzipan top or leave the top plain and levelled.
9. Using the third, last part of the almond paste create 11 even balls. To achieve the even size of the balls, weigh the remaining almond paste and divide by 11. Then weigh 11 equal pieces of the paste and roll them into balls. Place the balls on top of the cake, around the outside of the marzipan.
10. Place the whole, decorated cake under the hot grill to add the golden colour to the marzipan balls. But that’s only the option for those who have a trustworthy, working grill. If you’re not the lucky one (I am), do not try to get the golden marzipan colour in an hot oven. That will melt the marzipan, which will then run down the cake. It doesn’t look pretty (yes, I saw it). It is much more advisable to use a kitchen blow torch or even a lighter, to add this beautiful golden touch to the marzipan balls.
11. All done! The cake tastes great with a cup of tea with milk and sugar (surprise, surprise!), as it is not overly sweet, like many fruit cakes. But I think it tastes even better with a cup of black, unsugared coffee or with a cup of green tea. Happy eating, people!