The best thing about Easter, aside from having a long, long weekend, is the food. Hot cross buns, Easter eggs, and simnel cake.
According to Larousse Gastronomique:
The British simnel cake is now traditional at Easter although it was originally it was a cake made to celebrate Mothering Sunday.
That’s all it says; Larousse is not big on non-French cuisines. Wikipedia is more forthcoming. Simnel cake is a light fruit cake, with a layer of marzipan or almond paste cooked in the centre of the cake, iced with more marzipan, and finished off withe eleven balls of marzipan on top, one for each of the apostles (Judas is persona non grata). Mothering Sunday used to fall on Laetare Sunday, the fouth Sunday of Lent, which was supposed to be a somewhat lighter day in the grimness of 40 days penance and privation before Easter. Daughters would make this cake for their mothers. Over time, the cake-making was shifted to Easter Sunday instead. Read into that what you will.
There are some very elaborate confections around, but I prefer a quieter cake.
First, prepare the fruit. Put 125 grams butter, about 400 grams of dried fruit, 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon of baking soda into a large saucepan. You can buy dried fruit mixes, or make them up yourself. I tend to use roughly even amounts of raisins, currants and sultanas, and a small amount of mixed citrus peel. If I have them on hand, I add a few cherries too. Add about a teaspoon of spices – a mix of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice is good. I also add a teaspoon of instant coffee, or a tablespoon or so of very, very strong espresso coffee, to round out the flavour, and make the cake darker. Bring the fruit, butter and sugar mix to the boil, let it simmer for a minute, then put it aside to cool down.
Pause for a moment or two. Have a cup of coffee, read the paper, talk to your children, leave a tendentious comment on a blog, take a walk, whatever. You need to let the fruit mix get quite cool.
After you’ve had a break, get your cake tin ready. I use a 21cm round cake tin for this recipe. Line the bottom of the tin with baking paper, and grease the sides with butter.
Next, make some marzipan (or get the marzipan you have already bought out of the cupboard). You need about 250 to 300 grams of marzipan. You can use almond paste instead, but I prefer the sweeter taste of marzipan. To make marzipan, mix 100 grams of almond meal, 1/2 cup of caster sugar, 1/2 cup of icing sugar, and one beaten egg into a stiff paste. If the paste is too stiff to work with, thin it down using a little lemon juice, and if it is too sloppy, add some more icing sugar. You can use all icing sugar instead of using some caster sugar, if you prefer a less granulated paste. Make sure you use almond meal instead of grinding up almonds yourself; freshly ground almonds are too wet.
Put about 1/3 of the marzipan aside (wrap it in tinfoil, and put it in the fridge). Press the remaining marzipan into a round just smaller than the cake tin you will be using. The easiest way to do this is to draw a circle around the base of your tin on some baking paper, and then press the marzipan out so that it is a centimetre or two short of the line.
At this stage, you should start warming your oven up, to about 160 degrees celsius (about 300 Fahrenheit).
Beat two large eggs and add them to the fruit mix. Then stir in 1 cup of wholemeal flour, and 3/4 cup of plain flour. This is a very wet cake mix, so it is quite sloppy.
Spread about 1/2 the cake mix into the prepared tin. Then carefully place the marzipan round into the tin, and spread the remaining mix over it.
Bake it in the oven for about 1 and 1/2 hours, turning the heat down towards the end if you need to, so that the top doesn’t get too crispy. Take the cake out, and leave it in the tin until it is quite cool.
Once you have taken the cake out of the tin, you can decorate it by covering it with more marzipan (you will need extra mazipan to do this). I don’t ice mine, because I just don’t like all that sweetness, but I do put the marzipan balls on top. Using the remaining marzipan, make eleven small balls, and dot them around the edge of the cake. Then, put the cake under the grill until the marzipan balls have browned. If you have put marzipan over the cake as well, it will protect the cake, but if not, put some tinfoil over the centre of the cake while it is under the grill. Watch it like a hawk – it burns very, very easily.
I dust my cake with icing sugar. Much easier. And not nearly so over the top to eat.
When you slice into the cake, you will find that the internal layer of marzipan has mostly melted into the cake, making a beautifully moist cake, so much so that you don’t need to add anything in order to serve it as a dessert. We had ours as part of a picnic lunch at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.
What delicious food have you been eating this Easter?