The festival of the spring equinox speaks of freshness and youth, of excitement and endless possibilities. Nature begins to quicken and early flowers open to the warmth of the strengthening sun, bringing the colours of lemon and yellow into our lives on the wings of a March wind.
- Carole Carlton
Being part English and feeling a certain pride in the fact that I am of British descent*, it is impossible for me to imagine celebrating the spring equinox without baking Simnel cake. Along with the inescapable roast leg of lamb, this marzipan-covered fruit cake is compulsory to any traditional English Easter menu and makes a wonderful centrepiece for your festive table. As a matter of fact, I cannot envision ending my Ostara feast differently.
This delicacy is quite similar to a Christmas cake, yet it is much lighter, more elegant and a lot less boozy than the latter. Its daintiness and immaculateness very much reflect the season. Simnel cake is the perfect treat to eat out in your bloom-filled garden (alternatively on your flowery balcony) while sipping on a cup of tea, sitting on a white cane chair and enjoying the mad chirp of birds. A great way to greet spring!
Simnel derives from simila, the Latin word for the best and finest sort of flour. Lancashire alone has three types of simnel cake: Barn simnels are a yeast-raised bun, Bury simnels a rich biscuit and this very grand cake, which is often sandwiched and topped with marzipan. Today one often sees it decorated with marzipan balls, fluffy chickens and nests, which turn it into an Easter cake.
- Jane Grigson "British Cookery"
My late Nan, who was a WI lady (Belper branch, Derbyshire) and excellent cook, used to bake the most fabulous pastries, and Simnel cake was no mystery to her. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to taste hers as my family and I generally visited my grandparents during the summer holidays. And to my biggest regret, my granny didn’t pass down her recipes to me before she left this world, thus I would never be able to know how she prepared hers...
Anyway, internet is a boon for people like me who love to hunt for long-lost heirloom recipes. If you do a little research, you are most likely to find what you are looking for. Well, that’s exactly what happened two years ago when Regula Ysewjin at Miss Foodwise posted a highly interesting as well as informative in-depth article about Simnel cake. Since then, her foolproof recipe has become a favorite at my place; even if I'm not a Christian, this divine cake is now a must on Good Friday.
So, with Regula’s kind permission, I am delighted to share with you today that top-notch recipe (I’ve adapted it slightly) and I hope you’ll treasure it as much I do…
* Not in a political or monarchy-loving manner as both are not my cup of tea (I am absolutely no political enthusiast and definitely not a monarchist - I told you, I'm a non-conformist!)… It is the blood and spirit of my Pagan ancestors from the North (the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and probably the Vikings too) that I am proud of having running through my veins! Besides, I am also extremely happy to originate from a land that is undeniably beautiful and culturally rich.
Adapted from Miss Foodwise.
250g Unsalted butter, at room temperature
230g Turbinado raw cane sugar
4 Free range eggs
320g Plain white flour
1 Tsp Mixed spice (recipe here)
1 Tsp Orange zest paste
A pinch of salt
60g Candied lemon peel, chopped
750g Marzipan (recipe here or there)
Orange marmalade, a few spoonfuls
The day before, soak the currants, sultanas and raisins in the sherry.
Preheat your oven to 160° C (320° F).
Line the bottom of a 21cm round spring form with baking parchment, butter the sides and then flour them.
Roll out 1/3 of the marzipan and use the spring form as a guide to cut out a circle of the same size. Set aside.
Cream the butter and the sugar together, then add the eggs, one at a time.
Beat in the mixed spice, orange zest paste and salt. Then add the flour and incorporate well.
Now fold in the currants, sultanas, raisins and candied peel.
Scoop one half of the batter into the spring form and place the rolled marzipan circle on top. Now pour in the remaining batter and smooth the surface.
Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Leave to cool in the baking tin.
Meanwhile, roll out half of the remaining marzipan and cut out another round the same size as your cake, then roll the remaining marzipan into 11 equal balls.
When the cake is completely cool, smear the top with the orange marmalade, place the second rolled marzipan circle and decorate with the balls.
Egg wash your balls and use a cook's blowtorch to brown the balls (or turn the grill to a moderate heat and place the cake underneath for a few minutes, until the marzipan is lightly browned).
If possible, try to use homemade marzipan and marmelade. It is really worth the "trouble" and besides it is a lot healthier (no glucose syrup or additives) than what you can find in mainstream supermarkets.
All the ingredients I use are certified organic, fair trade and humane.
Serve with a cup of tea or a glass of sherry.