In keeping with the Easter theme, I’ve tried to make a traditional Simnel cake, but in miniature form. To to be clear, these are miniature cakes. Let’s just not use the work “cupcake”.
A Simnel cake is an Easter tradition – a spicy fruit cake which also includes a decent amount of marzipan. You probably have to love marzipan to want to eat Simnel cake, but if you do, you’ll love it. Circular reasoning, but true.
It has a long pedigree, first appearing in mediaeval times, and was originally associated with Mother’s Day, but with time, this has come to be linked with Easter. The Easter connection is also seen in how the cake is decorate with marzipan – there should normally be eleven marzipan balls on top, representing the true apostles, minus Judas. For rather obvious reasons.
The mixture itself is really simple to make, and can also be changed depending on what you’ve got in the cupboard and your personal preferences, provided you keep the quantities the same and don’t do silly things like replacing raisins with fresh pineapple. Dried fruit can be swapped out for another type of dried fruit, but sweet, juicy fruit could do all manner of things to the mixture. By all means experiment, but you’ve been warned. I used candied peel, sultanas and raisins, but a few chopped nuts, dried cranberries, dried blueberries or even dried pineapple or mango would all work too.
The marzipan is the fun bit. Traditionally, the bright yellow marzipan is used, and by all means, go with that, but I prefer the look of white marzipan, which I think is rather more elegant.
Now, you do get a real marzipan hit with a Simnel cake. It’s not just on the cake, it’s in it too. You can either chop some into chunks and fold into the batter, or roll out a disc and place in between two layers of the uncooked cake batter, so that marzipan bakes into the cake. Then you finish the cake with another layer of marzipan and the marzipan balls, and finally – brush with egg white and pop under the grill to give the cake a lovely burnished golden look. Otherwise, use a handheld blowtorch to bring a little more finesse to the burnishing. There may be reason for this touch, but I don’t know what it is, beyond the fact that it’s traditional and looks rather pretty.
For the record, and for the curious, the recipe below can easily be scaled up to make a full cake (20cm diameter), but just be sure to adjust the cooking time accordingly.
To make mini Simnel cakes (10 mini cakes or one normal size):
For the cake:
• 300g self-raising flour
• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice or Lebkuchengewürz
• 120g butter
• 120g soft brown sugar
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• zest of 1/2 orange
• pinch of salt
• 3 tablespoons golden syrup(*)
• 300g mixed dried fruit (**)
• 50g chopped candied peel
• 2 eggs
• 100ml milk
• 200g marzipan
Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease and line a large muffin tray with paper cases.
Mix the flour and baking powder. Rub the butter into the flour using your fingers. Add the rest of the dry ingredients (spice, sugar and dried fruit) and mix well. Add the egg, golden syrup and milk. Stir well, then add until the mixture is soft but not runny, and drops easily from a spoon.
Put half the mixture into the muffin cases.
Next, divide the marzipan into pieces and roll into discs. Place one into each muffin.
Add the rest of the mixture on top of the marzipan, smoothe down, and place in the oven to cook for around 30 minutes (until an inserted skewer comes out clean). Leave the cakes to cool then decorate with the marzipan.
(*) If you don’t have maple syrup, use dark corn syrup, rice syrup, agave nectar or maple syrup.
(**) Currants, raisins, sultanas, cranberries, blueberries…whataever you want, as long as it’s dried.
For the decoration:
• 300g marzipan
• 3 tablespoons strained apricot jam or quince jelly
• 1 egg white
Use one-third of the marzipan to cover the cakes. It is easiest to use icing sugar to dust a worktop, roll out the marzipan with a rolling pin, then use a circulate cutter to cut a circle for the top of each cake.
Brush the top of each cake with jam/jelly, then put the disc of marzipan on top. Smooth the marzipan, and if you want, use your fingers or a knife/spoon/fork to make a pattern round the edge.
Next, roll out balls of marzipan and arrange 11 on top of each cake. Brush the marzipan with a little egg white, then place under a hot grill or use a blowtorch to heat the marzipan until it is lightly browned.
Worth making? Yes – provided you’ve got the patience to do the fiddly marzipan on top, this cake is simple and delicious.