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Simnel Cake/British-Style Moist Fruit Cake

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Daisy_A's picture
Daisy_A

Simnel Cake/British-Style Moist Fruit Cake

Simnel Cake/British-Style Moist Fruit Cake

 

Easter passed so quickly, but where we live it brought bluebells in the woods, wisteria blooming on the walls of the nearby manor, bright blossoms in our own garden and Simnel cake. Although the festival is gone we are still enjoying this as a regular moist fruit cake by using the recipe below but leaving out the marzipan. It is delicious with a slice of good British cheese.

 

 

Over the past few months I've been baking as I imagine some of my forebears might have done - special breads for festivals and in between a tried and trusted mixed grain sourdough to feed the household in good times and bad. 

I've loved attempting festival breads from other cultures. Making panettone was particularly enjoyable and I still hope to attempt colomba. However this Easter I chose Simnel cake for a number of reasons: we normally buy a slice to celebrate the season; it is one of my husband's favourite cakes and it is one of the few typically British festival cakes that is special to its time, that you can't buy all year round. 

I've thought about trying Simnel cake before but lacked the confidence to try it. It's testimony to the support I've had on TFL that I felt confident enough to tackle it this time round. Thank you all.

Legend has it that Simnel cake was made traditionally by mothers and daughters together on Mothering Sunday. I can see why it would be good to have more than one pair of hands on the job. It's quite a complex cake and the baker would  probably benefit from having someone else to turn the spoon, mop their fevered brow when the going got tough and share in the final feast!   

We have benefited from the brilliant cake making skills of friends and family in times past and it was so good to finally feel confident enough to return the gift, Thanks D, D and J for all your wonderful cakes and for being patient about the delayed cake love on our part!  Here it comes now…

I am not good at making more conventional celebration cakes with icing or frosting, as I have the piping skills of a pterodactyl, or some other creature without opposable fingers and thumbs. I also love almonds and fruit cake, so Simnel cake, with its fruity body, marzipan covered top and middle and toasted marzipan balls is my kind of festive cake. 

The account below is more or less the story of my first Simnel cake. I haven't done this enough times to advise on the best way to approach each part, but simply offer this as a record of a 'cake journey'.  

The cake I made was an fusion of two recipes gleaned from the Internet. I needed the mixture to fill our cake tin so took the general ingredient amounts from Recipe 1 but added almond flour and an internal marzipan layer, as in Recipe 2. I preferred the more detailed method outlined in Recipe 2 so followed that. The idea of soaking the dried fruits in sherry also appealed:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/simnelcake_792

http://www.jennybristow.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/SimnelCake.pdf

The whole cake making journey nearly ground to a halt at the start, however. We had no high sided cake tin when I gamely started the process by plunging my hands into the butter and sugar. This mixture was half way up my arms (and I was missing my uplifting music to hand mix to because the cd was jammed, itunes was stuck and our city lacks the amazing strolling Tuna bands I used to listen to when living in Granada), when my husband rang to say there were no 7" cake tins at the homewares store, not even for ready money… All was saved, however, when he spotted a little 7.5 inch beauty at the very back of the shelf. This depth tin also fitted the only deep decorative ribbon we had in the house - serendipity!  

So the measurements and method I give below are for a 3 egg cake suitable for a 7 or 7.5 inch high sided cake tin. There are also some reflections on the marzipan making and on baking. 

Cake Ingredients

  • 175g/6oz muscovado sugar
  • 3 free-range eggs, beaten
  • 175g/6oz plain flour 
  • 175g/6oz butter
  • 50g almond flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 1/4 tsp/1/2 coffee spoon ground mixed spice
  • 350g/12oz mixed raisins, currants and sultanas
  • 55g/2oz chopped mixed peel and glacé cherries
  • Grated zest of 1/2 lemon. 
  • 50ml of light sherry (I used Hidalgo La Gitana 
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Glaze

1-2 tablespoons apricot jam

Marzipan - see below

Method

  • At least 12 hours before baking, soak the raisin mix plus any glacé fruit and candied peel in 50ml of  dry sherry. I found it easiest to do this in a kilner/mason jar.
  • On baking day:  Prepare the cake tin by buttering it. Line the bottom and sides with [buttered] parchment, if required. (I did this).
  • Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. It is important to create a light mixture and this may take a few minutes. By hand it can take 10 minutes or more.
  • Mix the salt, baking powder, lemon rind and mixed spice into the flour .
  • Gently fold alternate amounts of flour mix and egg into the creamed batter, until all is incorporated. 
  • Stir in the fruit mix (some bakers dust the fruit lightly with flour).
  • Let the mixture sit, covered, for 10 minutes.
  • Spoon half of the mixture into the cake tin and smooth gently.
  • Cover the first half with a marzipan circle. Try not to press down too hard as this will compress the batter underneath. 
  • Cover the circle with the remaining cake mixture.
  • Smooth off the top.

Baking

I found when looking into the baking of Simnel cakes that instructions for baking a 3 egg cake differed wildly, from just 1 3/4 hours at 140C/275F to 2 3/4 - 3 1/4 hours at 150C/300F. I am also sure that this is a recipe that will bake differently in different ovens so the notes below are a rough guide only. 

Baking in my simple gas oven I have gone for a middle path, baking the cake in a preheated oven for 2 1/4 hours. 

If I want a moist cake (because I am preparing the cake in advance or am baking it to mail and will need a cake that cake that can mature without drying out), I bake at 150C/300F for 1 3/4 hours 45 minutes, 150C/300F for 15 minutes and then leave the cake in the oven with the heat off for another 15 minutes.

I have also baked this mixture without the marzipan as a medium, moist fruit cake to eat straight away and in that case I have baked for the whole 2 1/4 hours at 150C/300F.

If your oven is particularly strong you might consider tenting the cake with silver foil in the last stages to avoid burning the top before the middle is cooked. 

Leave the cake to cool in the tin from anywhere to 15 minutes to an hour depending on preference, then turn onto a cooling rack. 

Once cool, glaze the top of the cake with apricot jam and place the second marzipan circle carefully on top. 

Glaze the top of the marzipan with apricot jam also (or egg if you prefer), and place the marzipan balls in a circle on top. 

Toast the cake briefly under a preheated grill until the top just begins to turn golden.  My husband gamely assisted with this, taking it out at just the right moment! This took less than 2 minutes under our grill.

Marzipan

I knew from the start that I wanted to make my own marzipan and that I wanted it to be egg free, as not everyone in our family can eat raw egg. I also wanted the cake to be good to eat after posting.

Moro's Sam and Sam Clark note that when making marzipan with fresh Spanish almonds they don't need to add egg as the oil in the almonds acts as the binding agent. This fits with what I have found when using almonds from a friend's Spanish finca and have struggled to find such fresh almonds in the UK. However, I also discovered that in the Middle Ages British marzipan was made in this way, with rose water added to some versions, and that this is the way it is still made in many Asian cultures. 

I had also read that one common problem with Simnel cakes is that the marzipan layer simply melts during baking. As sugar has a high boiling point I reckoned that using an eggless marzipan with a high sugar content would help to stop this happening, which it did.

I followed a formula that uses sugar syrup taken to soft ball stage. If you prefer not to use sugar syrup (which can burn badly if you accidentally touch it or spill it on yourself), recipes on links below give formulae for egg free marzipan with unmelted sugar. {Trust me I know about the burn part, having followed a recipe that suggested you 'roll the sugar ball between your finger and thumb' to test its consistency. I did this and watched my thumb blow up to something that resembled a barley sugar in its size and translucent orange colour. After that it was no touching the sugar and gloves all the way…)

The day before baking, I prepared 550g of marzipan using proportions in the formula below. Another time I would prepare more, to make thicker marzipan layers and to leave more for the decorative balls. The formula as I give it below makes about 730g.

The marzipan produced by this sugar syrup method is quite crumbly, like the lovely marzipan found in German and Austrian sweets. For the Simnel cake, however, it needed to be more malleable, in order to be rolled out. Therefore, on baking day I hydrated the marzipan by adding sunflower oil, little by little, until the marzipan was soft enough to roll without cracking. That took about 8 tablespoons of oil. Glycerin can also be used. Having prepared almond paste again to fill an ensaimada, and finding that I needed far less oil, I'm even more convinced that the amount of oil used is closely linked to the freshness of the almonds. So in this case be guided by your own nuts, as it were. 

I prepared one marzipan layer before baking and one while the cake was cooling. However, another time I would prepare both together, as the un-oiled marzipan began to stiffen again when returned to the fridge.

Marzipan/Almond paste with sugar syrup

  • 190g sugar 
  • 236g water 

Cook this to the end of the soft ball stage, or 240F 

Then add:

  • 250g ground almonds: (add these first if the mixture is still hot or it will spit
  • 30g water
  • 15g rose water
  • Small capful (approx. 1/2 coffee spoon), of natural vanilla essence
  • Small capful (approx. 1/2 coffee spoon), of natural almond essence

Mix thoroughly

If using for Simnel cake, add oil or glycerin little by little until the paste can be rolled out without cracking

Link to a recipe for egg free marzipan with unmelted sugar:

http://jeenaskitchen.blogspot.com/2008/08/marzipan-recipe.html

  • Pushed down too hard at the right hand side but marzipan makes it through baking, phew.
  • More even marzipan on the other side but where is the rest of the cake?
  • Cake before grilling
  • DH pulls the cake out at just the right time
  • Crumb shot
  • All done and dusted: cake in the once sunny garden. 

Marzipan balls

Legend has it that the balls on the top of the Simnel Cake represent 11 disciples, excluding Judas. Poor Matthias elected after Judas' departure seems not to have been granted a ball!

I am quite nervous of cake decorating and it soon became apparent that the British 'turn out a hearty dollop' approach to making scones and rock cakes was not going to work with the marzipan balls. Decoration on this cake is minimal so If the balls are not similar in size the overall effect can be a bit odd. I really have to thank Akiko for pointing me to a biscuit making technique that helped to get the balls more even. This involves rolling the dough into a long rectangular or circular roll, chilling it for 15-20 mins and then cutting it carefully into even sections using a tape measure or ruler. I followed this up by weighting the segments, until I had 11 of  10-11g each, which I palmed into a ball, as a baker shaped buns. (Pictures below for marzipan roll and square biscuits). My apologies to experienced cake makers for whole making decorative balls is second nature! I thought it worth including for beginners such as myself, as many recipes just say 'put the balls on the top of the cake', which is a bit baffling if you are new to all this. 

 

Again this is a record of my first marzipan ball making journey. It is not a 'how to do it' instruction, although it worked quite well. There are likely to be ways of improving on this and I look forward to finding them out.

If you make this as a Simnel cake or regular moist fruit cake I do hope you enjoy it.

 

© Daisy_A 2011 FIrst published on The Fresh Loaf, June 17, 2011 at 17.32 GM time. I love to share bread stories and read other bakers' posts about bread. If you republish this page for 'fair use' please acknowledge authorship and provide a link to the original URL. Please note, however, I do not support the unauthorized and unattributed publishing of my text and images on for-profit websites.

 

Comments

RonRay's picture
RonRay

Daisy, you even have my considering eating the flower ROFL

You really did a great job on that cake!

Ron

Daisy_A's picture
Daisy_A

Hi Ron,

Many thanks!!

The flower is choisya ternata Aztec Pearl. It really did a great job this year because its blooming coincided with lots of light and really high temperatures. Must have thought it was back in Mexico, until it saw the Simnel cake...Mind you I do also make tortillas...

Best wishes, Daisy 

varda's picture
varda

Daisy,   Even before we get to your cake, your pictures are just gorgeous.   As for the cake itself - Wow!    -Varda

Daisy_A's picture
Daisy_A

Thanks Varda - much appreciated, Daisy

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

Daisy,

What a great write up!  I loved reading the history behind this cake and what a lovely history it has.  I imagine that if any daughter can bake this formula she can bake just about anything!  All baking lessons wrapped into one. *-)

Thanks for posting and including all the pictures - love the flowers too!  

I alway learn something when I read your posts.  Part of my geography lessons but much more enjoyable than the ones I endured in school.  I have decided that TFL is kind of like home ec. classes combined with geography, history, chemistry and biology!  You learn something useful and have a tasty snack at the end!  Thanks for including all the extra tidbits.

Take Care,

Janet

Daisy_A's picture
Daisy_A

Hi Janet,

Many thanks indeed for your kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

I've had so much generous support here and been able to make far many more different breads and pastries than I thought possible and it's good to use that to also look at something from my own tradition, like so many bakers here do.

I love the way you describe TFL. I do agree - there is so much to learn about different breads and different cultures and then something delicious at the end!

Best wishes, Daisy

ananda's picture
ananda

..and a Great Cake too Daisy_A!

I have also read that the cake was prepared on Mother's Day to be eaten at Easter.

Good tricks and tips on using egg-free marzipan too; not something I've tried before.

I've been busy excommunicating Glycerine from our College stores in an attempt to encourage students to demonstrate their skills without having to use such additives.   Commonplace as Glycerine is; it seems to be as accepted in sweet formulae as L-Ascorbic Acid [Vitamin "C"] is in dough formulae.   Sunflower Oil seems like the best alternative.

Easter was so late this year that my students' practical work was almost at an end.   I think this is the first year for some time when we haven't made Simnel Cakes to sell in the College bistro.   I really like making them too; maybe next year, who knows?

Oh yes, and fruit cake with cheese!   This has long been part of our family custom in our Yorkshire home, with say, Wensleydale, or, even a blue cheese.   Occasionally, friends of mine have ridiculed this combination.   I'm really glad to read that we share similar taste here; great combination.

All good wishes

Andy

Daisy_A's picture
Daisy_A

Hi Andy,

Great to hear from you! Many thanks for your kind comments.

Good to know that you bake Simnel cakes at College also. We try to support our local College students by eating at their restaurant  from time to time. I hadn't thought to see if they also sold baked goods. 

I understand your standpoint on Glycerin. I think my mother used to use it sometimes in icing but we don't have any at home. I did think hard about the emulsifier. I can understand how fresh almonds need little emulsification. The Spanish ones I tasted more or less straight from the tree were like almonds from another planet compared to even the very best I can get at the Wholefood Cooperative here.

I worked out that if oil is the natural binder then what was needed was replacement oil, rather than more sugar. Sunflower worked well, because of its high boiling point and low, slightly nutty odour and taste and because it was a good colour. The overall taste was very different to regular shop bought marzipan. Much more complex and almondy. I've used this formula also in the ensaimada posted on freerk's thread and it survived baking well again. Am thinking of trying it in croissants.

Fruit cake and cheese is a top combination! I've had some odd nods over this also but I don't see it as any different to other similar pairings, such as Spanish manchego and membrillo. One of my fondest memories of this combination is from one New Year, when exhilarated, exhausted and slightly damp after much sledging in deep snow in Swaledale, some friends, Peter and I staggered into a nearby hostelry. We settled ourselves in the snug and ordered up local stout, a huge pot of Yorkshire tea and some whisky-infused fruit cake with Swaledale cheese. My that was a grand Yorkshire restorative :-)

Take care, best wishes, Daisy

teketeke's picture
teketeke

  Great cake with a labor of love, Daisy!

I have ever tried marzipan by myself, but I 'd like to give a try when I make your cake.  I have been interested in rose water, I will tell you when I have it. : )   That is a great idea to use the biscuit making technique for making perfect equal sized marzipan balls~!   

I like the flower as well as your wrapping ribbon :)  Very lovely!

Happy baking!

Akiko

Daisy_A's picture
Daisy_A

Dear Akiko,

Lovely to hear from you! Thank you so much for your kind comments. 

Yes it was a labour of love but so satisfying, as before we had only ever bought them :-).

Thanks for your kind remarks about the flowers and ribbon also. I hoped the ribbon would look springlike!

I thought of you when doing the box to send cake in, as I made it by folding only, which reminded me of Japanese paper folding. I got the template from this site but made it more rectangular. Doing the conversion stretched my maths, but it was great fun also!

http://www.ruthannzaroff.com/mirkwooddesigns/index.htm

Very best wishes, Daisy

nicodvb's picture
nicodvb

really speechless! I find it marvellous, it musty be delicious.

Thanks for posting it.

Daisy_A's picture
Daisy_A

Hi nico,

Many thanks for your kind comments: I was touched by them.

I have to say that it is delicious. However I think that is down to the richness of the tradition, rather than my baking.

I also wouldn't have got started on cakes and pastries at all without support from TFL members, in particular those who have commented here, so I have to thank you all!

Very best wishes, Daisy

ananda's picture
ananda

Hi Nico,

I see that sweet tooth of yours is getting the better of you; temptation!

All good wishes

Andy

nicodvb's picture
nicodvb

resistence is futile:-)

or non-existent in my case.

    Nico