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The Ultimate Simnel Cake by Val Stones

Our talented baking expert Val Stones, best known as a former Great British Bake Off 2016 contestant and the Cake Whisperer, shares a tasty twist on the traditional Simnel Cake – enjoyed at Easter, but yummy all year-round!

This recipe holds a special place in my heart as my mum-in-law taught me how to make this cake when I first married. It’s traditionally an Easter bake, but we used to enjoy it in packed lunches, afternoon teas and always with a cuppa!

I like to make the cake in a loaf tin as it’s easy to portion up for packed lunches. It also makes an excellent round cake for a celebration.

The history behind Simnel Cake

Simnel cake is a fruit cake decorated with marzipan and eleven marzipan balls – each one represents Jesus’ disciples, with the missing one being Judas. The tradition of making this cake comes from the fourth century and was made more popular from the 1700s onwards when a Simnel cake was given to mothers on Mother’s Day.

My tasty twist on tradition

A common method involves adding a layer of marzipan in the middle of the cake. However, this often affects the way the cake rises, so I cube up a quantity of marzipan and fold it into the mixture with the flour. Then, when the cake is cut you see yummy chunks of marzipan. Delicious!

Equipment:

  • A 15-18cm round deep cake tin. Line and grease the cake tin (I buy grease proof cake liners which save a lot of time). If you decide to use double the recipe, I recommend using a 20cm deep round tin.
  • A large microwaveable bowl if you are using the microwave method, or a large pan of you are going to boil the ingredients.

 Tip – you may wish to invest in a round silicone liner and sides.

Ingredients:

  • 300g mixed dried fruit (I use equal quantities of sultanas, raisins and currants)
  • 2 cups of port, for soaking the dried fruit
  • 140ml water
  • 100g light soft brown sugar
  • 100g unsalted butter/ soft tub margarine
  • Two medium eggs, lightly beaten
  • Zest of half an orange.
  • 200g self-raising flour, sifted
  • 50g glacé cherries chopped into quarters
  • 150g marzipan cut into cm cube
  • 1 rounded teaspoon of mixed spice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons of whisky or brandy (optional) for adding when the dried fruits have been boiled

Tip – for the everyday loaf and round cake, I don’t soak in port. Instead, I opt for two cups of freshly squeezed orange juice. Or, one cup of orange juice and one cup of cider.

For the marzipan topping:

  •  800g golden or white marzipan
  • 4 tablespoons brandy for adding to and brushing the cake.
  • 2 tablespoons of sized apricot jam to which is added 1 tablespoon of boiling water.
  • Cornflour for rolling out
  • A selection of small chocolate eggs, chocolate bunnies
  • Fresh violas or primrose heads or other spring flowers to decorate

Method:

  1. Place the dried fruits in a bowl (excluding the glace cherries).
  2. Pour over two cups of port and stir well. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave overnight to plump up the fruit, stirring occasionally.
  3. Set the oven at 150ºC fan assisted, 300ºF, gas mark 2.
  4. Place the fruit, sugar, margarine / butter and water in a microwaveable bowl. Microwave on medium for five minutes. Stir well to combine all the ingredients. Repeat this twice more until the mixture is bubbling. Alternatively, you can bring these ingredients to the boil in a large pan and simmer for 15 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat and stir in two tablespoons of alcohol. Allow the fruit mixture to cool.
  6. When the fruit mixture is cool, add the beaten egg, zest, spices and vanilla extract; combine well.
  7. Fold in the flour, followed by the chopped cherries and cubes of marzipan.
  8. Turn the mixture into the baking tin and smooth the top with a spatula. Make a hollow in the middle of the cake to ensure that, when rising, it will not have a peak.
  9. Bake for 1½ hours. When one hour has passed, place a skewer into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, the cake is baked. Your bake should be golden and firm to touch.
  10. Whilst the cake is still warm, brush with two tablespoons of brandy. Allow the cake to cool in the tin and then place on a wire rack until completely cold.
  11. Once cool, store in an airtight container for 2-3 days to mature before decorating.

To decorate:

  1. Spoon a small amount of apricot jam onto a cake board. Place the cake upside down on the board, centre it and press firmly. Brush the top and sides with two tablespoons of brandy.
  2. Take 600g of marzipan and form it into a ball. Dust your worktop and rolling pin with corn flour before rolling out the marzipan into a circle to fit the top of the cake. Use the cake tin base as a guide.
  3. Brush the top of the cake with the sieved apricot jam, then lift the marzipan circle onto the cake top with the rolling pin. Once in place use the rolling pin to gently roll the marzipan to secure it in place. If you wish, crimp the edges of the marzipan.
  4. Divide the remaining marzipan into 11 sections and form each piece into a ball, using a little apricot jam secure the balls around the cake.

Tip – Use the end of the rolling pin (I use a small silicone one for cake decorating) to gently make 11 round indents to place the marzipan balls in.

5. Set the grill to half, then place the cake under it and watch carefully. The marzipan balls will begin to caramelise and turn golden, as will the top of your cake a little. Remove from under the grill before they burn.

6. When the top of the cake is cool decorate with chocolate eggs, bunnies and flowers.

Simnel Cake is a timeless and I hope you enjoy my tasty twist on the recipe!

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