“I’ll go to thee a Simnel bring, ‘Gainst thou’ go’st a Mothering, So that when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give to me.” ~ Robert Herrick, 1648
Simnel cake is one of those things bearing a gastronomic heritage shrouded in mystery and myth. Its basic make-up, however, is widely accepted: a rich spiced fruit cake, lighter than a Christmas cake, with a vein of marzipan running through the centre and another layer on top, which is toasted (if you're smart/a pyromaniac, you'll use a cook's blowtorch for this...if not, you'll use the grill, and probably end up scorching it to cinders, as I've done on several occasions). It's usually decorated with eleven marzipan balls, said to represent the disciples of Jesus - eleven because, of course, Judas didn't really earn his place on the cake. More fool him.
Simnel cakes have been around since medieval times. They are associated both with Easter and with Mothering Sunday, where young servant girls would apparently make one to take home to their mothers on their day off. Whether any of this is true, no one seems to know. What is clear is that this has now become as traditional Easter fare as the humble hot cross bun, and I would hate to let a year pass without baking a Simnel cake.
I think perhaps it's the pleasing resemblance it bears to a Christmas cake, in form at least, but simultaneously the subtle differences involved. For one, I'm likely to be making and eating this cake in the pleasant balmy spring weather, when it's not getting dark at three o'clock and I'm not so inflicted with SAD that I feel like impaling myself on the Christmas tree decorations. It's more cheery in appearance than the dark, dense Christmas cake; that lively covering of toasty marzipan is just perfect for spring, reminiscent of daffodils, sunshine and Easter chicks. It's lighter in flavour, perfect for enjoying with a cup of tea, maybe even to be tentatively enjoyed al fresco, should we be blessed with some unusually warm spring weather.
However, making a big fruit cake is a commitment. It needs love. It needs time. It needs strong arms to stir all that stiff dried fruit into an equally stiff buttery batter. It needs patience to decorate with marzipan, and nerves of steel to dare to place it under the grill and risk all that hard work literally going up in smoke.
You know what doesn't really need all that? Mini Simnel cakes.
These are wonderful. They combine all the best bits of a Simnel cake - dried fruit, citrus, spice, marzipan - but are diminutively lovely and require very little effort. Although they lack the wow factor of their more grandiose cousin, I think these beauties possess a little charm of their own. Particularly with their cute little marzipan decoration.
Part of the reason for making these is that I was recently invited to try Mich Turner's new range of Silver Spoon cake decorating products. These include Madagascan Vanilla White Icing (ready to roll), Finest Quality Marzipan, and three 'lustres' for brushing onto cake decorations to give a gorgeous shimmer (bronze, pearl and gold). Designed by Mich Turner, master cake baker and owner of the Little Venice Cake Company, these are essentially an upmarket, extra-special version of Silver Spoon's existing range - the marzipan, for example, has 40% more almonds than standard marzipan.
Always a fiend for almonds, I was pleasantly surprised by the marzipan - it had a lovely almond flavour while lacking the cloying sweetness you get in a lot of commercial marzipan. It also had a lovely soft texture, ideal for stirring into my mini cakes so it would melt and ooze into the batter. I know a lot of people who claim to hate marzipan (my father included), when really what they detest is that thick, tooth-judderingly sweet layer between the Christmas cake and its icing.
Cut marzipan into small cubes, fold through cake batter, and blast in the heat of the oven, and you have an entirely different product - something melting, pleasantly chewy, sweet and luxuriant. Add dried fruit, spice, and citrus zest, and you have something truly special.
I couldn't resist having a play with the decorating lustres. They're little tubes of metallic liquid that you can brush onto cake icing for extra oomph. I used them to decorate the little marzipan balls that I put on top of my cakes, in a nod to the traditional Simnel decoration. I didn't have a proper cake decorating brush, so I just used a pastry brush...carefully. The bronze was most effective for this as it showed up best against the marzipan, but I imagine the gold and pearl would look gorgeous on a white icing. It gave the marzipan balls that 'toasted' look...without having to go anywhere near a grill or get out a blowtorch (although I am sad about the lack of need for the latter).
I was going to have one bite of these cakes just to test they were OK and worthy of my wonderful readership. Just one bite, maybe two - I ate rather a lot over the weekend and am attempting a 'healthy-ish eating' week in preparation for my holiday to Tuscany at the end of March (quick aside: YAY OMG I CAN'T WAIT). But when they came out of the oven and I spooned a little lemon icing over the top and finished with those tiny nuggets of bronzed marzipan...and I broke one open to photograph it...that was the beginning of the end.
They are so good. Incredibly light and fluffy, more so than you'd ever believe possible for a fruit cake (I suspect this was due to me allowing my KitchenAid mixer to give the batter a thorough beating for about eight minutes, on high speed...), with a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon and a dash of orange zest, and that plump, juicy fruit, and those molten cubes of almondy goodness. The contrast between the rich, buttery, crumbly cake and the light, zesty icing is amazing (especially while everything is still slightly warm).
They are sweet and delightful. Plus I think they look beautiful, too - that bronze lustre lends a certain je ne sais quoi. (Although I do, of course, sais exactly quoi it is - it's Silver Spoon bronze cake lustre). The crumb is really light yet moist at the same time, and there's a perfect fruit-to-cake ratio - not too sugary and crunchy, but not too bland and buttery either. Perfection.
So there you have it: Easter, made bite-size and easy.
Mini Simnel cakes (makes 15):
(Barely adapted from this BBC recipe)
70g dried mixed peel
Zest and juice of one orange
175g soft butter
175g caster sugar
300g self-raising flour
1 1/2 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
5 tbsp milk
150g icing sugar
Bronze Silver Spoon cake lustre, for decorating (optional)
Add the orange zest and juice to the fruit and leave to soak for an hour, or microwave for 2 minutes on medium power. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/170C fan oven and prepare two muffin trays with 15 paper cases.
Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, spices and milk - keep going for about 5 minutes, until it's really light and fluffy. Take 180g of the marzipan and chop it into 1cm cubes. Fold into the cake batter along with the soaked fruit. Spoon into the paper cases and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and firm to the touch. Cool on a wire rack.
Break small pieces off the remaining marzipan and roll into little egg or ball shapes, about 1-1.5cm diameter. Mix the icing sugar with enough lemon juice to form a fairly thick icing - stir vigorously to get rid of any lumps. Spoon the icing on the middle of the cakes and top with the marzipan balls - two or three per cake, depending on how many you've made.
To decorate, place a little bronze lustre on a plate and dab with a pastry brush. Apply the pastry brush to the balls of marzipan, dabbing a little of the lustre onto each.