Simnel Cake – a British Easter tradition. A light fruitcake with a layer of marzipan baked into the centre, then topped with a traditional marzipan decoration.
A Simnel Cake is something I hear about practically every year on the British cooking shows but I’d never made one until now. A quick search online shows that almost every one of the TV chefs over there from Nigella Lawson to Jamie Oliver to The Hairy Bikers all have their own recipes that they’ve featured at some point over the years. The traditional Easter treat popped up again this year, just the other night as I was watching Mary Berry’s Easter Feast, her latest short cooking series on BBC. At that point I said, this will be the year to try this traditional British favourite.
The Simnel Cake has a very long history dating back to Medieval times. It’s also known as the cake young women who were in service at the country houses and manor houses of the upper classes, would bring home on Mothering Sunday, held on the middle Sunday in Lent. The 11 balls of marzipan are meant to symbolize the 11 Apostles of Jesus, with Judas, the traitor, being left off the cake. In Victorian times, sugared edible spring flowers came into fashion to replace the balls of marzipan, but still only 11 were welcome to adorn the top of the cake.
I read quite a few recipes online and they are all quite different; some had apricots, some didn’t, some had spices, some didn’t, some had fruit soaked in whisky or brandy, although most did not soak the fruit. Most of the recipes did have that common layer of marzipan baked right into the centre of the cake.
As I often do, I pick and choose my favourite elements and make my own personal favourite version, so that’s exactly what I did here. I did keep the traditional cherries, citrus peel, currents and sultanas but threw in the apricots as well because they are my favourite dried fruit. For background flavours, I added a little vanilla extract and kept the citrus zest that many of the recipes I’d read included. I carefully converted the measurements to cups and not weights and I then scaled the recipe for a 9 inch pan because many of the recipes had smaller sized pans that aren’t all that common in North America; at least not in a baking pan deep enough for a fruitcake. I figured many people have 9 inch springform pan for cheesecakes, so I went with that size.
Marzipan is always a bit of a challenge to find in these parts. A couple of stores that I tried, said that they only carry it seasonally around Christmas, so I went with a homemade version that’s really simple to make. The texture of the marzipan turned out pretty well and it was quite easy to roll and to form into the shapes needed. It also tasted excellent. I love the smell of almond extract and that scent permeates the cake too, after the marzipan is baked into the centre.
Many of the recipes called for an egg wash over the marzipan topping but I tested torching just the marzipan first and it worked extremely well without an egg wash so I left that out altogether.
I must say, the result of this baking experiment was extraordinary. The marzipan at the centre melts into the cake and makes a sort of sticky, delicious core that’s irresistible. The toasting of the marzipan added a nice touch to the topping as well. A Simnel Cake is definitely on the Easter cards from now on. I’ll be thinking of a recipe to incorporate that baked marzipan centre in one of my Christmas cakes this year too. That was my favourite part of discovering this British classic for the first time.
- 2 cups finely ground blanched almonds
- 2 2/3 cups icing sugar powdered sugar
- 1/2 cup corn syrup
- 3 tsp pure almond extract
- 1 cup chopped glace cherries cut in quarters
- 1 cup chopped dried apricots
- 1 cup currents
- 3/4 cup candied citrus peel
- 1 1/2 cups sultana raisins
- 1 1/4 cups butter
- 1 1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 5 large or extra large eggs
- zest of one medium orange finely grated
- zest of one large lemon finely grated
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- tablespoons A few of apricot jam
Note: You can use store bought marzipan. You'll need about 1 1/2 pounds.
In a food processor blend together the almonds and icing sugar.
Stir together the corn syrup and almond extract.
With the food processor turned on, slowly add the corn syrup mixture in a slow stream throughout he feeder a the top of the machine. When all of the mixture has been added the marzipan should hold together with the consistency of firm play dough. If it is a little too dry add corn syrup a tablespoon at a time until the proper consistency is reached. Separate the marzipan into three equal portions and wrap each one in plastic wrap until ready to use. No need to refrigerate.
Dust a cutting board with icing sugar and using the bottom of a 9 inch springform pan as a guide, roll one portion of the marzipan, (about 8 -10 ounces) into a 9 inch circle. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to add to the middle of the cake as instructed later in the recipe.
Grease a 9 inch springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
Chop the cherries and apricots and measure the other dried fruits so they will all be ready to add at the end.
Cream the butter and brown sugar well. Add the vanilla extract.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Fold in the grated orange and lemon zest.
Sift together the flour and baking powder and fold into the creamed mixture.
Add all of the dried fruits and fold them in well.
Spread half of the cake batter evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan.
Take the rolled circle of marzipan and lay it on top of the batter then add the second half of the batter and spread it evenly over the marzipan.
Bake the cake in the preheated 300 degree F oven for about 2 hours or until wooden toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack.
When the cake has completely cooled, turn it upside down on a serving plate and brush the top with apricot jam. This will help to anchor the marzipan topping.
Roll another portion of marzipan into a 9 inch circle and lay on top of the cake. Flute the edges with your thumb and forefinger. You can also just use the handle of a wooden spoon to make indentations all the way around the cake.
Divide the remaining marzipan into 11 equal portions and roll them into small balls. Place the balls equally apart around the edge of the cake.
At this point you can leave the top as is or torch it to brown it. I use a butane kitchen torch like the one you'd use for creme brûlée. It takes a light touch wight he torch. Don't get too close or the sugar in the marzipan will burn easily.
(Alternatively, you can place the cake under the broiler until the tops of the marzipan balls begin to get golden brown. Watch this continuously and don't walk away or else you risk burning the marzipan.)