A wonderful spiced and fruited cake which heralds the advent of Spring, simnel cake has a fascinating cultural heritage with roots that 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 almond paste. The decoration is plain – twelve little balls of smooth paste. A specially baked simnel cake is a wonderful gift to take to your mother for Matronalia, Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday Tea Time. Decorate it with crystalised flowers and tie some yellow ribbon around the side.
For the almond paste:
- 400 g icing sugar, sifted
- 250 g ground almonds
- 1 large egg yolk, beaten lightly
- 3-4 tablespoons orange juice
- 5 drops almond essence
For the cake :
- 250 g plain flour
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 280 g currants
- 250 g sultanas
- 110 g mixed peel
- 160 g butter
- 160 g caster sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 200 ml milk, to mix
You will also need:
- a sifter,
- nest of bowls,
- food processor or electric beater,
- wooden spoon,
- 24 cm round cake tin,
- baking paper,
- brown paper and twine,
- rolling pin,
- thin metal skewer.
To make your own almond paste you will need:
- a food processor fitted with a steel blade.
- Don’t be tempted to use store-bought almond paste because it contains lots of sugar and few almonds, it will turn to liquid under the grill.
Place icing sugar and almonds in food processor bowl. Process, slowly dripping in egg yolk, orange juice and almond essence. The mixture should form a pliable paste. Set aside a small portion for balls with which to decorate the cake. Roll out the remaining paste into 2 circles which are the approximate size of the tin. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 160°C/320°F.
Use a sturdy non-stick cake tub or line the buttered base with baking paper. As the baking period is long (1-1 1/2 hours), prevent the cake drying out by wrapping a double thickness of brown paper around the pan and securing it with twine.
Sift flour, salt and spices together, then stir in fruit and peel. Cream butter and sugar thoroughly until light and creamy then beat in eggs one at a time, until the mixture is fluffy. (Reserve a drop of egg yolk for brushing over top layer of almond paste.). Stir flour and fruit into creamed mixture (you may need to add a little milk to give the mixture a dropping consistency).
Place half the mixture into a greased and lined cake tin. Place one pre-rolled round of almond paste over the top. Cover with remaining cake mixture. Before baking the cake, give the pan of mixture a sharp tap on to a firm surface. This settles the mixture and prevents holes from forming in the cake.
Bake in the center of the oven for 1-1 1/4 hours or until a thin metal skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out without a trace of stickiness. Level the cake by placing a weighted plate on top of the cooked cake while it is still hot.
Turn out cake on to a wire rack after leaving it to settle in the cake tin for between 10 and 15 minutes. Peel off paper and leave to cool completely.
Cover the top of the cake with a second round of almond paste. Roll 12 small balls of paste and place evenly around the top of the cake. Brush the top with a little beaten egg and very lightly brown under the grill until the almond paste turns light golden brown. Remove and leave to cool.
Note from someone who tried this recipe:
I did give the pan it’s tap to get rid of air bubbles but almost had a disaster when I went to take everything off so that I could set this on a cake rack to cool.. the almond paste in the middle was still liquid and was leaking down the sides of the cake at a great rate, so I quickly shoved it as neatly as I could back into the springform and let it cool completely before loosening it again. At least my baking paper helped stem the flow before I lost it all. Some of my twelve little balls slipped off while I had this in the oven the second time… so I’d advise not to put them too near to the edge of the cake.