As Easter approaches, it’s a relief to know that I haven’t missed the boat when it comes to Easter baking. I always find myself caught short at Christmas: by the time I’ve started thinking about gathering ingredients, those around me have already baked their Christmas cakes, and been diligently feeding them with a variety of alcohols for several weeks.
Easter, thankfully, is much lower pressure: simnel cakes, the traditional Easter fruit cake, don’t need the long lead time that Christmas fruit cakes do. Simnel cakes are a light fruit cake: lacking the treacle or darker sugars of the rich fruit cake favoured for Christmas and weddings. The simnel cake is softer than those cakes: softer in texture, softer in flavour, without the dense boozy hit, or the dark, treacly mass. But the real advantage is that there is no need to mature them, to feed them. You can comfortably make a simnel cake the day before you wish to serve.
The topping too is softer than the Christmas version, with just a layer of marzipan, as opposed to the hard royal icing we tend to use in December. Simnel cake also has a secret weapon: a second layer of marzipan, running through the centre of the cake, baked into it. As well as a ripple of almond through each slice, its an injection of moisture, making the sponge tender and yielding.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an English cake without some kind of dispute over the ‘proper’ way to do it, and simnel cake is no different. From the late Victorian time, marzipan balls were placed on top of the cake, replacing the previously traditional preserved fruits and flowers. These marzipan balls are supposed to represent the disciples, except Judas. Or the disciples with Judas. Or the disciples without Judas but with Jesus. I say do what you want, have as many or as few balls on there as you like. Or, like me, you could plan to follow the tradition of eleven balls, miscount in your baking excitement, and end up with twelve. Style it out: it’ll still taste fantastic.
Easter simnel cake
225g plain flour
2 teaspoons mixed spice
1 teaspoon baking powder
175g light brown sugar
3 tablespoons milk
250g mixed dried fruit
50g glace cherries
2 tablespoons apricot jam
1. Butter and line the base and sides of a 20cm round cake tin. Preheat the oven to 150°C.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and increased in volume. Mix in each of the eggs, one by one, adding a spoonful of the flower if it looks like it might split.
3. Fold in the flour, baking powder and spice.
4. Fold through the cherries and mixed dried fruit, and loosen with the milk.
5. Roll out a third of the marzipan and cut into a circle about 18cm, just slightly smaller than your cake tin. Reserve the rest in clingfilm so that it doesn’t dry out.
6. Spoon half of the cake batter into the base of the tin, and then carefully place the marzipan disc on top of the batter. Spoon the rest of the batter onto the marzipan and jiggle the tin gently to even out the level.
7. Bake for 1 hour 30, or until golden brown; the sponge should spring back when pressed gently with a finger. Check the cake at the one hour mark, and if it’s looking a little too brown, cover with tin foil for the final 30 minutes.
8. Cool the cake in the tin for the first 15 minutes, and then remove from the tin, and leave to cool completely.
9. Using half of the remaining marzipan, roll out a circle the same size as your cake, 20cm. Brush the top of the cake with apricot jam – you can warm it up briefly on the hob if it’s too stiff. Carefully place the marzipan on top of the cake, and slightly crimp the edges between your thumb and two fingers. Divide the rest of the marzipan into 11 (or 12!) pieces and roll into even balls. Stick these onto the cake at regular intervals with the apricot jam.
10. Heat the grill to medium-hot. Place the cake under the grill until the tops of the balls and the scalloped edges are golden brown – be eagle eyed. Remove the cake and allow the marzipan to set and cool before serving.