Before I started “this journey” I had never come across a Simnel cake before. Maybe I had a sheltered upbringing, ummmm – no couldn’t be that, so maybe they’re just not that well-known of anymore.
I certainly don’t think I’ve ever seen them on bakery racks of Tesco. But after tasting one recently, I would say that bakeries and the big nasty supermarkets are missing a trick.
Simnel cakes are a beautiful, light, spiced fruit cake. Traditionally made by servicemen for their mothers on Mother’s Day, they really herald the advent of Spring. They can also be known as Easter Cakes.
As both my grandfathers were in the Navy, and in fact as one of them worked as a Navy Baker*, how fitting to give these cakes to my mother and grandmother on Mother’s Day?
Simnel cake roots stretch back to the Romans and Athenians. In Britain, known as the Shrewsbury Simnel, it is simply made using white flour, fragrant spices and is generously studded with dried fruits and pungent peel. Like a Christmas cake, it is covered with pale sweet marzipan. The decoration for Easter time is plain; eleven little balls of smooth marzipan which represent the apostles (omitting Judas).
For Mother’s Day, you can add some femininity with some pretty crystalised flowers and tie some yellow ribbon around the sides to make a perfect gift; or like mine, simply a few mini marzipan flowers.
They are an enjoyable cake to bake. Just from the aroma alone. I was salivating as I waited. The smell was of true home baking. Rich and sweet.
So, the recipe. This recipe makes 12 mini cakes or one large 20″ cake. Cooking times would of course vary. I haven’t made a large cake, but it would probably take 1.5hrs to bake through. Whereas these mini delights, only 40minutes. And what’s great about this recipe is that, although you can make these fruit cakes with brandy, which gives a richer flavour, I think a) that is too Christmassy for me; and b) these are therefore a cheaper alternative as the depth of flavour comes from the orange and just smells divine.
- 150g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
- 150g dark soft brown sugar
- 3 medium eggs
- 200g plain flour
- 1.5 tsp baking powder
- 1.5 tsp mixed spice
- half tsp ground cinnamon
- 350g mixed dried fruit (or 200g raisins, 100g currants, 100g sultanas, 50g mixed peel)
- Handful of glace cherries
- 50g ground almonds
- Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
- 100g marzipan cut into small round discs or cubes
For the decoration
- 1 tbsp Apricot Jam
- Icing sugar, to dust
- 400g Marzipan
- Food colouring or paste of your choice
How to make mini simnel cakes
- Preheat the oven to 160°C/fan140°C/gas 3 and lightly grease a 12 x 125ml muffin tin.
Sift the flour, baking powder and spices into a bowl. Place the dried fruit (except cherries) into another bowl and add the orange juice.
- Beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the orange rind, almonds and eggs one at a time, beating well after each one.
- Fold in the flour a few spoonfuls at a time.
- Fold in the orange juice soaked fruit and now add the cherries. The mixture should have a dropping consistency
Pour the mixture evenly into the prepared muffin tin.
- Push a few small cubes or one disc of marzipan into the cake mix within each mould, which will give the cakes a little surprise from within.
- Bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown and firm.
- Cool for 20 minutes, then remove from the tin and set aside on a wire rack.
- To decorate, dust a work top with icing sugar. Thinly roll out 250g marzipan (you could make your own, but that’s just too much work and the cost of almonds is ridiculous). Press out 12 rounds with a 7cm plain cutter (re-roll the trimmings).
- Quickly melt the apricot jam – which will be your glue. Using a pastry brush, brush each cake with a little melted jam and then press on a marzipan round to each cake and crimp the edges (if you so wish).
- Colour the remaining marzipan with food colouring – all different colours, kneading to evenly distribute. Roll out the marzipan and cut out as many flowers as you deem suitable with a flower cutter (from cake decorating shops) or using a small knife. Roll small balls from the trimmings for the centre of each flower.
*To end with a beautiful story. My Grandad, the Navy baker, whilst at sea, baked his own wedding cake. Each time he returned to port, he would drop off a beautifully rich, fruit cake tier with my Nan, ready to be iced just before the wedding. The cake was absolutely stunning – fit for royalty. How romantic! And, of course, the top-tier was reserved for their first born’s Christening. Click here for more including wedding pics.