Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Simnel Cake: For My Mum With Love
You can take the girl out of England...but you can't take England out of the girl!!  A few days ago it was Mothering Sunday in the UK, which is different to Mother's Day everywhere else.  So I looked up the origins and...(now for a very quick bit of the liturgy):  Lent is the 40 day period immediately before Easter, and Mothering Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent.  In centuries past, children were often sent away into service.  The tradition was that you attended the parish church closest to where you lived (this would be the 'daughter' church) but once a year you returned to your home church - which would be the 'mother' church.  Children who had been sent away to work were granted the day off to return to visit their mothers and mother church, the two events collided and this once-a-year reunion became Mothering Sunday.  Happily, the traditional Lenten Fast was relaxed for the day so a celebration cake was definitely in order.  Now, with Mothering Sunday being so close to Easter, Simnel Cake has become traditional for either or both celebrations.  The only difference being the mode of decoration - crystallised flowers for Mothering Sunday and moulded marzipan for Easter.  And all of that brings me to today's recipe: this is the kind of cake my Grandma used to serve with a cloth on the table, a big pot of tea, and the best china.  I should point out that the marzipan in the photo below has NOT been toasted or burnished, so it looks a wee bit pasty.  Unfortunately I can't fit a cake under my grill and my kitchen blowtorch picked the least convenient moment run out of gas.  It still tastes gorgeous though...I've just finished a piece! 

For the cake:
150g / 6oz unsalted butter, softened
150g / 6oz soft light brown sugar
3 large eggs
zest of 1 lemon
2 tblspns milk
200g / 8oz plain or all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsps cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp powdered ginger
400g / 14oz mixed dried vine fruit (any combination of currants, sultanas, raisins)
100g / 4oz craisins...this is not traditional but it makes the cake so yummy!
400g / 1 lb marzipan or almond paste**
Small amount of cornflour/constarch for dusting the kitchen bench
  1. Preheat the oven to 160 C / 320 F.  Grease and line an 18cm or 7 in round cake tin.  I prefer a spring clip tin but please use whatever style of tin you're happiest with.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together, they don't need to be light and fluffy but they do need to be well blended.
  3. Add the eggs to the mixture, one at a time, and beat well between each addition.  When they're all combined add the lemon zest and the milk, beat well.
  4. Next add the flour, the spices, and the baking powder.  Mix thoroughly but don't overwork the mixture or it will become tough.  Finally, add the dried fruit and mix again.
  5. Now, place roughly half of the mixture in the prepared cake tin and smooth the surface.  Dust the kitchen bench (or a rolling mat) with a small amount of cornflour.  Roll out the marzipan/almond paste until you have a circle which is about the same diameter as the cake tin, then place it on top of the cake mixture in the tin.  Spoon the remaining cake mixture into the tin, level the surface then make a slight dent in the centre, you want the cooked cake to be as level as possible.
  6. Bake for 20 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 140 C / 280 F and bake for a further 70 minutes.  The timings will depend on your oven - in any event the cake should pass the clean skewer test.  Allow the cake to cool completely in the tin, then remove it and place it on a serving plate.
For the decoration:
400g / 1 lb marzipan or almond paste
Small amount of cornflour for dusting the kitchen bench
1 tsp jam or jelly - anything without seeds will do
Small fresh flowers (optional)
Piece of wide ribbon (optional)
  1. First, cut about 100g / 4oz of the marzipan from the block and reserve it.  
  2. Gently warm the jam or jelly by placing on a saucer and microwaving for about 10 seconds.  Brush it all over the surface of the cake.
  3. Dust the kitchen bench or a rolling mat with a small amount of cornflour.  Roll out the larger piece of marzipan until it is the same diameter as the cake - if you used a spring clip tin, you can use the loose bottom plate as a template.  Place the disc of paste on top of the cake and gently press down to ensure that it sticks to the surface.
  4. Next, either pinch off 11 equal sized pieces of marzipan from the remaining piece - or - roll the smaller piece of marzipan out flat on the kitchen bench then take a small cookie cutter and cut 11 identical shapes, discarding (or eating!!) any trimmings once this step is complete.  Roll the 11 pieces into balls and arrange them evenly around the edge of the cake.  Once you are happy that they are all evenly spaced, dab the underside of each ball with a little of the jam/jelly and press lightly onto the surface of the cake.
  5. At this point you have a choice: you can either place your cake under the grill / broiler for a couple of minutes to toast the surface of the marzipan; or you can gently burnish the entire surface with a kitchen blowtorch.  I prefer the blowtorch option - I find the heat is much more easily controlled.
  6. Finally, If you are using fresh flowers (please make sure they're edible ones!), arrange them in the centre of the cake and tie a wide ribbon around the edge, finishing with a generous bow at the front. 

** I choose to use the natural colour marzipan, i.e. there are no colours added.  However, the marzipan of my childhood was a somewhat violent yellow colour and there are times when I get all nostalgic for it.  So, if you prefer the yellow variety please go right ahead and use it...I would if I could get it!

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