Saturday, April 23, 2011

Apparently an Easter thing

It was some months ago that, in the course of Edmonds-related Googling, I found some information on simnel cake (p69). Simnel cake is a fruit cake with a marzipan layer in the centre, and a second layer on the top. It also has a distinctive decoration of eleven marzipan balls in a ring on the top of the cake.

I was quite surprised to find that simnel cake is a traditional Easter cake. More specifically, it seems to be a British tradition, which might explain why I'd never heard of it. I had wondered why the recipe should particularly specify eleven balls on top, but this is quite readily explained - one for each of Jesus's loyal disciples, i.e no marzipan for Judas.

I was a bit concerned about where I could get some proper marzipan. The place of marzipan in icing cakes has largely been taken over by the flavoured substitute, almond icing. I hadn't noticed proper marzipan on sale anywhere. Googling "where to buy marzipan" got me no results except other people asking the same question. I was almost certain I'd have to substitute almond icing until I actually went to the supermarket and found marzipan with no trouble at all. Guess I should have tried looking before I started worrying about where to find it!

On the morning of Good Friday, I began by rolling out one-third of my marzipan into a circle the size of my cake tin. This done, I started on the cake: to the usual creamed butter/sugar mixture, I added four eggs, beating them in one by one. Then, in a separate bowl, I sifted the dry ingredients, then added fruit: sultanas, currants, mixed peel and glacé cherries.

Next, I mixed the contents of the two bowls together, and spooned half the resulting mixture into the bottom of a lined cake tin. On top of this, I placed the circle of marzipan, before spooning the rest of the mixture over the top.

The cake was in the oven at 150 degrees for two hours, then another half hour at 130. During this time, I rolled out another circle of marzipan, and used the remainder to fashion the requisite eleven balls for on top. The cooking time I've described was the minimum indicated in the recipe, but the top of the cake was looking quite dark by the time I got it out.

I topped the cake with the marzipan and arranged the balls in a ring around the top. This was more difficult than I expected, as the surface of the cake was not flat, and the balls kept rolling away from where I placed them. When they looked like they were finally going to stay put, I stuck the cake back in for another fifteen minutes. 

The marzipan was supposed to brown a little bit, but when the timer went off, I saw no sign of it. I risked another few minutes in the oven, but no luck. Not wanting to overcook the cake itself, I gave up and took the cake out to cool.

An hour or two later, Mum, Dad and Nana arrived, having detoured to Christchurch on their way to Akaroa, so I offered them a slice of cake with their cuppas. The cake looked quite good when I took it out of the tin, and on the whole, it tasted pretty nice. Unfortunately, it was overcooked, and was quite dry on the bottom and sides.

I was a bit disappointed by the marzipan, really. I quite liked the slightly gooey layer in the middle of the cake, but the bits on top seemed more to serve a decorative purpose than actually add any flavour. I suppose I'm just used to the stronger, artificial flavour of almond icing.

So on the whole, not a bad cake, but not a particularly wonderful one either. If you're going to make this one, take particular care not to overcook it. But in all honesty, unless you have a particular attachment to the Easter tradition of simnel cake, I'd suggest it's not really worth the effort.

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