Traditional Simnel cake
Updated: Thu, 1 April, 2021
The most traditional version of English Easter Simnel cake: rich and fruited yeast dough with two marzipan layers and marzipan balls symbolising eleven apostles (Judas did not qualify).
Simnel cake history
Traditional Simnel cake goes back to medieval times. As most festive bakes, it was about enriching the dough with as much fruit and spice as one could afford. 'Simnel' derives from the Latin word simila: finest wheat flour, so the bake was certainly for a special occasion.
The bready, fruity loaf was apparently then encrusted in pastry, presumably for preservation and that was subsequently replaced by marzipan layers in the middle and on top of the cake. That was possibly all that remained from the total encasing in first pastry, then marzipan - and rightly so because it is still awfully rich as it is now.
This is Simnel cake made with yeast dough, which means going back to the roots of this Easter bake, via English Bread and Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David and Dan’s Bread, Cakes And Ale blog which I based my recipe on.
I am a sucker for yeasty dough which is how the best festive concoctions are made. Panettone, Colomba Pasquale, Stollen and hot cross buns are all sweetened, enriched breads. I was also curious to see how the 'bread' version would compare to the modern variety which, basically, is just like the Christmas cake without so much booze and fruit.
This version of Simnel is like giant teacake baked in a tin. Instead of icing it is crowned with the famous eleven balls of marzipan set on a marzipan floor. Apart from fruit and candied fruit (let's be honest: just glace cherries, this is a British cake after all) there is the second layer of marzipan going across through the middle.
Make your own marzipan
I warmly encourage everyone to make your own marzipan. There is absolutely no comparison between the crumbly sugary plank of weirdly yellow or brightly white stuff bought from shops and the fragrant, pliable almond paste which it takes only a minute to make.
This recipe has the easy English version with an egg white but dive into my Stollen recipe for the instruction on German raw marzipan which is even better. A note on the egg white: with this amount of sugar for company, the raw (or lightly grilled) marzipan is perfectly safe to eat.
Rich yeasted dough
Yeast-leavened dough is definitely an easy job with the help of a standing mixer or handheld with a dough hook attachment. By hand it will be sticky, take a very long time and give you enormous artisan satisfaction. The trick to knead it briefly at ten minute intervals does help.
It proves in bulk, as yeast doughs do, then is divided in two, to be separated by the marzipan layer, and left to rise again in the tin. Caution: the middle-of-the-cake marzipan layer might go walkies a little and/or partly melt. When I first made my yeasted Simnel I thought it had collapsed in the middle, but it was only the marzipan bunched up somehow in the centre, having refused to stay in a tidy layer.
And finally the fun bit: the marzipan topping and balls. Roll them up of the offcuts that you manage to restrain yourself from scoffing. The lovely scorched appearance is best made with a cook's blowtorch but I don't expect everyone to own it since I don't: preheat the oven grill and briefly and carefully place the cake underneath it, turning and closely watching it.
traditional Simnel cakeServings: 12Time: 4 hours
- For the marzipan:
- 150g ground almonds
- 150g icing sugar
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten
- 1 tsp rose water
- For the cake:
- 180g raisins or sultanas, or a mix of both
- 40g port or sherry
- 15g fresh or 1½ tsp instant yeast
- 180ml milk
- 200g strong white flour
- 250g plain flour
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- ½ tsp salt
- 80g light soft brown sugar
- 3 medium eggs
- 125g butter, softened
- 60g glace cherries, halved
- 3 heaped tbsp. apricot jam, for brushing
- beaten egg
1. To make the marzipan, mix the ground almonds with the icing sugar and add the rose water to the beaten egg white. Add the egg white to the dry mix, little by little, mixing it well with a spoon into a thick paste – if the paste looks too sticky, add a bit more ground almonds. Form a log, wrap in cling film and chill.
2. Heat the spirits almost to the boiling point and pour into a bowl or a zip lock bag with the dried fruit. Seal or cover and leave to soak.
3. Warm up the milk to body temperature and crumble in the yeast with a spoonful of sugar. Leave it for a few minutes to foam up. Skip this point if you’re using instant yeast and just add it straight to the flour instead.
4. In a large bowl or the standing mixer mix the flours, salt, sugar and spices, plus instant yeast if using that type. Crack in the eggs and pour in the milk/milk with yeast. Knead with the dough hook attachment for at least 10 minutes. If doing the kneading by hand start it off with a spatula or dough scrapers, it will be impossibly sticky. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes then knead briefly; repeat that exercise twice more.
5. Add the diced butter and keep kneading or mixing until it’s all incorporated – it will eventually become more elastic and stop sticking to your hands or the sides of the bowl. Give it another 10 minutes’ rest and add the glace cherries and drained raisins (there should be hardly any liquid left). Mix the fruit in gently by hand, folding the dough on itself to distribute the fruit evenly but not to crush it. Place it in a bowl, cover and leave in a warm place for an hour.
6. Butter a large springform cake tin (23cm). Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and divide in two. Slip one half into the tin and pat down into a round to cover the bottom evenly.
7. Dust a work surface with icing sugar. Get the marzipan out of the fridge and divide in two pieces, one slightly larger. Roll the smaller piece out to a disc the size of your tin, dusting with more icing sugar if necessary. Carefully transfer the disc into the tin, then place the remaining dough on top and gently flatten to cover the marzipan. Place the tin in a plastic bag and leave to rise right up to the rim, about an hour.
8. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 5. Slide a baking tray on the middle rack. Place the cake in the oven on the tray and bake for 20 minutes, then turn the heat down to 180C/350F/gas 4 and bake for 20 minutes longer. Cool in the tin for 15 minutes, remove from the tin and cool on a wire rack.
9. Warm up the jam in a small pan and brush the cake all over the top and sides. Roll out the remaining marzipan and cut a disc, using the tin as a measure.
10. Transfer the disc on top of the cake and roll 11 balls out of the marzipan offcuts. Brush the top of the marzipan with beaten egg and stick the balls onto it in a circle.
11. Place the cake under the grill for a few minutes, turning it round so it cooks evenly, taking care not to burn the marzipan. Leave it to set before slicing.
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