Updated: Mon, 22 March, 2021
Traditional English Easter Simnel cake is a rich sponge full of dried fruit and candied peel, with a marzipan layer and - in my version - cheerful yellow glossy icing on top.
Easter baking tradition is the all-out, splash-away end of Lent, saying goodbye to its austerity and fasting. And Simnel cake is the ultimate Easter blow-out.
What is Simnel cake?
It is to an extent a version of English Christmas cake, lavish with dried fruit and syrup again, after the Lent abstinence. It might seem slightly lighter without the booze soaking the sponge but that's before you count in the marzipan.
Traditionally it has marzipan inside, marzipan on top and even features eleven little marzipan balls to boot, apparently meant to represent the eleven apostles, Judas excluded. You can have the twelfth ball in the middle for Jesus.
Without the symbolic marzipan balls it often appeared also on Mothering Sunday, baked for mothers or - more likely - by mothers.
It is a lovely cake but it is almost impossibly rich. Various regional versions feature plums, cherries, sugar crust baked around boiled centre, sugar balls on top or marzipan in the middle.
I was mostly inspired by The Guardian's How to cook the perfect Simnel cake but, pleased to see the relative flexibility in the recipe interpretations, I added my own twist and take.
My version of Simnel cake
I make my own marzipan - I don't touch the shop-bought sugary bricks, that's one spot where I am vehemently snobbish.
I usually make the German version of marzipan which is no more than an honest almond paste but since Simnel means no holds barred, I made the marzipan according to the English recipe for my cake: with egg yolks and lemon.
This is the marzipan that needs to be cooked which is why I only put a layer in the middle of the cake rather than one on top, too. Instead, there's the most wonderful, cheerful and yellow, glossy icing layer on top.
What does it taste like?
I must admit I didn’t trust this cake up till the moment of the first forkful in my mouth. At a glance the recipe was too close to Christmas cake for comfort, which is not my favourite, to say the least.
But this is a lovely cake, not stupidly overloaded with fruit. It is rich, exceedingly so, but in a nice way.
There is also a version of the cake leavened with yeast and the recipe for that is to be found here. I honestly don't know which I like better - but you might be swayed by the fact that the yeasted, teacake version has the full assortment of marzipan apostles on the marzipan layer topping.
simnel cakeServings: 12-14Time: 3 hours
- For the marzipan:
- 100g (1 cup) ground almonds
- 100g (just under 1 cup) icing sugar, plus extra to dust
- 2 free-range egg yolks
- 2 tbsp. lemon juice
- For the cake:
- 5 tbsp. milk
- a good pinch of saffron
- 150g (5oz.) raisins
- 150g (5oz.) sultanas
- 40g (3 tbsp.) brandy, vin santo or white rum
- 50g (2oz.) whole bleached almonds
- 175g (11⁄3 cup) plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 45g (1⁄2 cup) ground almonds
- 1⁄2 tsp fine salt
- 2 tsp mixed spice
- 180g (11⁄2 stick) butter, at room temperature
- 180g (1 cup) soft, light brown sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 tbsp. golden syrup
- zest grated off 1 lemon and 1 orange
- 50g (2oz.) glacé cherries, halved
- 50g (2oz.) mixed peel, chopped
- apricot jam, to brush over the cake
- For the icing:
- 30g (2 tbsp.) caster sugar
- 25g (2 tbsp.) butter
- 20g (11⁄2 tbsp.) lemon juice
- 110g (1 cup) icing sugar
- yellow food colouring
1. Put the raisins and sultanas in a mixing bowl or a small zip lock bag. Heat up the spirits to almost boiling, pour it into the fruit and mix well. Seal the bag or cover the bowl and leave for at least an hour to soak.
2. Make the marzipan: put the ground almonds, icing sugar and egg yolks in a bowl. Mix with a spoon, gradually adding the lemon juice, until the marzipan is smooth with a doughy consistency. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate.
3. Butter and line with parchment a 20cm (8 in.) deep cake tin. Prepare another disc of parchment the size of the tin to place on top of the cake, to stop it from burning. Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/gas 2.
4. Warm up the milk and put the saffron strands into it to soak. Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan or in hot oven on a baking tray for 10-15 minutes until they turn golden. Cool and chop roughly.
5. Mix the flour with the baking powder, ground almonds, salt and mixed spice and put to one side.
6. Beat the butter in an electric mixer, add the sugar and beat well until the mixture turns pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating continuously, alternating with a little flour mix. Beat in the rest of the flour, golden syrup, zest and the milk with saffron.
7. Drain the soaked fruit if necessary but all the liquid should have been absorbed. Stir them into the cake batter together with the chopped almonds, peel and glace cherries.
8. Take the marzipan out of the fridge and roll it out on a surface dusted with icing sugar to a disc the size of your tin. Spoon half the cake batter into the tin, place the marzipan disc in and spoon the rest of the cake mix on top.
9. Smooth the surface with a spatula and place the parchment disc on top. Bake the cake for about 1¾ - 2 hours until a skewer inserted in the middle (not too deep because of the marzipan layer) comes out clean.
10. Cool in the tin, unmould and brush the top and sides with the apricot jam warmed up slightly in a small pan.
11. To make the icing, bring the butter, caster sugar and lemon juice to the boiling point then pour it over the icing sugar. Whisk to a smooth paste, add some yellow food colouring for extra Easter cheer. Spread the icing over the top of the cake with a palette knife, making sure no crumbs mix into the icing and spoil the effect.
12. Leave to set before cutting.