It’s Mother’s Day in the UK on Sunday so I thought I’d be traditional and make a Simnel cake. I knew two things about Simnel cake before I made it. First, it’s the cake that girls in service used to make to take home to their mothers and second, it’s topped with eleven marzipan balls that represent the apostles (not including Judas). Was it a sponge cake, a fruit cake, who knew?
I found two recipes. One in Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, and the other in Delia Smith’s Delia’s Cakes. I discovered that Simnel cake is the fruitiest of fruit cakes with marzipan inside as well as on the top. I decided to go with Delia Smith. Partly because I haven’t made any of Delia’s recipes for Let’s Bake the Books yet, and partly because the cake involved making marzipan, and I haven’t quite got over the disaster that was my interpretation of Mary Berry’s recipe.
I made the marzipan first. Delia Smith’s method was completely different to Mary Berry’s. I had to mix icing sugar and caster sugar with beaten egg and whisk it over a pan of simmering water for ten minutes, or until the mixture was thick and fluffy. My pan kept slipping off the heat and the hob, which is an induction hob, beeped at me each time the pan slid off the hot plate. Ten minutes of constant hob beeping almost drove me mad. To add to this, my whisking arm nearly fell off after two minutes. Ten was agony. I wished I had Mrs Patmore’s right arm or, at the least, an electric whisk. Given that Mrs Patmore isn’t a real person, and I don’t own an electric whisk, I was stuck with my own arm and a balloon whisk. I don’t know whether the mixture was thick and fluffy enough when the ten minute timer went off, but I do know that I’d had enough.
I took the bowl off the heat and whisked in a few drops of almond extract and a couple of teaspoons of brandy. I added ground almonds until the mixture came together as a paste. I found that adding the dry ingredients to the egg mixture worked much better than adding the wet to the dry as I had done when I tried to make marzipan before. At least I ended up with something I could work with this time.
With a successful batch of marzipan ready to go, I started on the cake. The ingredients list itself required a bit of work; cutting 225g marzipan into cubes and coating them with flour, roasting and chopping some unblanched almonds, and rinsing, drying and quartering 50g of glace cherries.
The marzipan bit was easy. Next for the almonds. I’m going to have a bit of a grumble about the recipe here for a couple of reasons (sorry Delia). The first is that it didn’t explain what “unblanched” almonds are. I know that they are unskinned almonds, but only because I’d read it in a different recipe book a few weeks ago. The second is that the recipe cross-referred to a pistachio and cardamom cake for details of how to roast them. Would it really be that difficult to add a couple of lines on roasting almonds to the Simnel cake recipe? After all, unskinned almonds are very different to skinned pistachios, and it is a comfort to the inexperienced baker to be told exactly what to do. I was in such a huff about it that I totally forgot about the cherries.
At last, I started to make the cake. I mixed plain flour, baking powder, mixed spice, butter, caster sugar and eggs in the KitchenAid and mixed to a creamy consistency (the recipe says to mix for about a minute with an electric whisk). Then I mixed in some milk. The next step was to fold in the fruit (currants, sultanas and glace cherries), the almonds, candied peel, orange and lemon zest, and marzipan into the mixture. This was when I remembered the cherries. I couldn’t be bothered to rinse and dry them. I chopped them up and threw them in.
Once everything was folded in, I put the mixture into a lined cake tin, put some baking paper with a hole in it on top of the tin, and put it in the oven at 150 degrees for the required two hours and forty minutes. I had some lunch, did some chores and went to sit down for five minutes. I was woken up by the beep of the oven timer. I dashed into the kitchen and pulled my over-cooked Simnel cake out of the oven. How long the timer had been going off I had no idea. I decided to carry on and decorate the cake. Even an overcooked effort will get eaten in our house.
Delia uses sugared primroses to decorate her Simnel cake instead of the traditional marzipan balls. I wanted the traditional decoration so, at this point, I turned to Mary Berry and the Baking Bible and found out that, according to Mary, my oven temperature had been too high. It should have been 130 degrees because I use a fan oven. I know that the temperature for a fan oven should be 20 degrees lower than the conventional oven temperature. I know this, so why I didn’t set mine to 130 I have no idea. I didn’t feel quite so guilty about my cheeky nap now anyway. The cake would have been over-cooked even if I hadn’t been asleep.
Once the cake was cool, I brushed the top with warm apricot jam and covered it with marzipan and my eleven apostles. I put it under the grill for a few minutes and it came out looking like this.
Perhaps it could have done with a couple more minutes under the grill, and I could definitely do with a few lessons in crimping, but it didn’t look too bad at all.
The cake was a bit on the dry side, but I knew it would be because of the oven temperature (and the rest). My homemade marzipan was good although it could have taken a bit more almond essence. Compared to my last batch, it was a triumph. I think, if baked at the right temperature, this cake would be great, especially for a celebration. It’s absolutely loaded with fruit and other lovely stuff. I probably will try again and, next time, I’ll remember that Delia’s oven temperatures are for conventional ovens and I’ll at least try to stay awake.