Saturday, 4 April 2015

Easter Simnel Cake

Rich fruit cakes seem to have gone a little out of fashion in recent years, with modern tastes tending towards lighter cakes. Where once rich fruit cakes were the norm for celebration cakes, now you see a variety of different cakes such as carrot cake, chocolate biscuit cake etc. being used instead for weddings and other special occasions.
 
I love ALL cake, but I do have a special place in my heart for a good fruit cake and I always make one for Christmas every year. I recognise the fact that not everyone is a fan of them, but I honestly believe that is because so many of them are dry and heavy and tend to sit on the stomach.  Also in order to develop their flavour, rich fruit cakes should be made a few weeks in advance and allowed to ‘mature’ to allow the flavours to develop. It is also advisable to ‘feed’ a maturing rich fruit cake from time-to-time by pricking it all over with a fine skewer and sprinkling over a couple of tablespoons of your chosen spirit (I favour brandy).  Provided you store the cake in a cool dark place, securely wrapped in a layer of greaseproof and then a layer of aluminium foil, the cake will not go stale. This is due to the sugar, dried fruit and, of course, the alcohol which all help to preserve the cake.
 
Whether I am making a rich fruit cake or a lighter version, wherever a cake includes dried fruit, I always pre-soak the fruit in a little alcohol or some fruit juice. The helps the fruit to plump up and produces a lovely cake that is not dry. It’s very easy to do… just weigh out all the dried fruit, put it into an oven proof bowl and add the chosen soaking fluid and give everything a good stir. Cover the bowl with some aluminium foil and place in a low oven (e.g. 100C) for about 30 minutes. Remove, give another good stir and allow to cool completely before using.
 
This is a great cake and lighter than a traditional rich fruit cake, which makes it perfect for Easter which brings with it a sense of hope and the prospect of warmer weather and longer days.
 
Traditionally simnel cakes were made by young girls in service who would bring the cakes home to their mothers for Mothering Sunday, having been gifted the ingredients by their wealthy and often titled employers, but it is also a cake that is often associated with Easter and in my opinion it makes a nice change from all the cakes and foods containing chocolate that seem to prevail at this time of year.
 
A layer of marzipan is baked into the centre of the cake and after it has cooled it is topped with another layer of marzipan and 11 balls of marzipan, said to represent the faithful apostles. You sometimes, see the cake topped with 12 balls to include Judas, but I am quite a traditionalist in this regard and only use 11!
 

Ingredients:

Marzipan:
250g ground almonds
200g caster sugar
60g icing sugar, sifted
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ tsp almond extract
Cake:
150g raisins
125g sultanas
75g currants
50g chopped candied orange peel
25g glacé cherries, halved (optional)
50ml Cointreau (or orange juice)
175g butter
175g light brown Muscovado sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
175g plain flour
½ tsp ground mixed spice
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
Finely grated zest of ½ lemon
To finish:
2tblsp apricot jam
1 large egg, beaten
 

Method:

Marzipan:
1. Place the ground almonds and caster sugar in a large mixing bowl and add the sifted icing sugar. Mix together so that everything is well distributed. Add the beaten egg and almond extract and work into the almond mixture using a wooden spoon to create a ‘dough’ with a softish consistency.
2. Turn out on to a clean work surface lightly dusted with a little icing sugar and knead for 1 minute until the marzipan is smooth. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate until required.
To pre-soak the fruit:
3. Place the raisins, sultanas, currants, candied orange peel, glacé cherries and Cointreau in an oven-proof bowl and give everything a good stir so that the dried fruit is coated in the liqueur. Place in the oven at approximately 100C for 30 minutes, checking on it after 15 minutes and giving it a stir. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
Cake:
4. Preheat oven to 140C/Fan Oven 120C/Gas Mark 1. Grease and line a 23cm round, deep cake tin with non-stick baking parchment and set aside.
5. Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer, cream together until light and fluffy. Gradually add the beaten eggs, mixing well after each addition. Sift the flour and mixed spice together and fold into the creamed mixture along with the grated orange and lemon zests. Add the dried fruit and stir into the cake batter, making sure that everything is well distributed.
6. Take one third of the marzipan and roll out to a 23cm circle about ½ cm thick (This will be the centre layer of the cake). Set aside for the moment and return the rest of the marzipan to the fridge.
7. Spoon half of the cake mixture into the prepared cake tin, smoothing the surface with the back of a metal spoon. Place the prepared marzipan circle directly on top of this, pressing down slightly. Spoon the rest of the cake mixture on top, again smoothing out the surface.
8. Bake in a preheated oven for 90-100 minutes until slightly risen, a deep golden brown and a thin skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. (As with all cakes that require a long time baking, check after more than half of the baking time has elapsed and if browning too quickly cover with a little tin foil to protect it).
9. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes, before removing from the cake tin. Transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling completely.
To finish:
10. Heat the apricot jam with 1 tablespoon of water in a small saucepan. Bring up to bubbling point and allow to simmer for 90 seconds. Pour the hot jam through a sieve into a small clean bowl, discarding any solids that collect in the sieve. Allow to cool a little before using.
11. Brush the top of the cooled cake with the sieved apricot jam and set aside.
12. Take one half of the remaining marzipan and roll out into a circle large enough to cover the top of the cake. (You can also create a lattice pattern as I have done). Place the circle on top of the cake. Use the remaining marzipan to create 11 small balls and arrange on top of the cake around the edge.
13. Brush the marzipan with a little of the beaten egg. Using a cooks blow torch lightly heat the marzipan until it just colours. Alternatively place the cake on a baking tray and colour under a preheated grill for a minute keeping a close eye on it.

Serves 10.