Some cakes are so iconic, they simply cannot be claimed as yours.
Let me explain what I mean. Every now and again, I come up with something I think it truly original but the reality is, there is nothing new under the sun and as all practised bakers know, an awful lot of cake is a variation on a central theme. Once you’ve managed to turn out a tall and proud Victoria Sponge a few times, with predictable good results, you’ll start to think about the possible variations.
It’s only a shake of the cocoa shaker and a spreading of luscious chocolate ganache to turn it into a chocolate fudge cake or a pour of some strong coffee and a shop of some nuts to turn it into a coffee and walnut cake. You may try a few such classic variations, your confidence will grow and before you know it, you’re playing around with the proportions of sugar, flour, butter and eggs to make something entirely different.
It’s addictive and exciting – the more variations you dream up and try out to good effect, the braver you get and before you know it, you’re writing your own recipes that you may truly claim as your own.
Rich fruit cakes, the sort which regally reside on welcome tables at Christmas or as part of a traditional tiered wedding cake are one of those cakes were there is a basic formula but innumerate recipes available which are essentially a variation on a theme. Some of the variations are very simple – using muscovado sugar as you like the treacly hum instead of plain old caster, using different fruits because you have a dislike of shrivelled up, sharp and unpalatable currants and prefer soft, sweet dried dates or chewy but fudgy when baked dried pears.
Fiddle too much though with the proportions of fruit:batter and the cake may crumble and fall apart or you may play hunt the sultana in between chunks of cake, but as ever, there is some wiggle room to manoeuvre. A simple variation on a rich fruit cake is a Simnel cake (Simnel coming from the Latin for fine wheaten flour), that classic cake which was originally created to celebrate Mothering Sunday but had eleven balls of marzipan added to the top by religious bakers at Eastertide, to honour the twelve disciples minus Judas (talk about bearing a grudge ;) ).
Moving swiftly on, whatever your reason for making this delicious bake, go rummage about in your dried fruits supply and get the wherewithal out to make it pronto. This is the cake to convince those who believe fruit cake is dry and crumbly that it can be fudgy, moist and utterly delicious to eat.
The thing with Simnel, beyond the addition of interior and exterior marzipan, is it often has citrus juice and ground almonds added to the mix which give extra moisture. It is a looser batter than a lot of traditional fruit cakes are and that’s ok here. I add lots of my stem ginger and extra spices and also, I use ginger preserves rather than apricot jam which is more traditional to secure the marzipan top to the cake with. Simple tweaks but it’s a classic bake and I’m not going to fiddle too much.
I don’t brush with egg before popping under the grill briefly to bronze it up as it’s not necessary and I don’t like to open a whole egg for such a job, such as it were. Easter is something I look forward to immensely as it is my annual chance to crack open my cupboard of fluffy, technicoloured chicks – I just adore them, they make me happy just by looking at their fuzzy little faces. Feel free to decorate with extra marzipan or quite frankly, anything else you like. A few mini eggs attached with a small blob of icing would be my second choice and they, like these adorable little chicks are ubiquitous at this time of year.
I hope I’ve convinced you this is a cake you need to bake. It’s a great make-ahead project as you can split the tasks up over a couple of days and of course, with all that fruit it keeps splendidly. I had a very large Kilner jar filled with mixed dried fruits leftover from my Christmas cake making and they have been steeping in dark rum for 6 months before I made this Simnel cake. This isn’t necessary nor traditional – most recipes don’t have alcohol in but it does work very well.
You could always soak them overnight or do my favourite trick of either blasting the fruits in the microwave with the booze or in a pan on the hob then covering and leaving until cool enough to use in the batter, by which time they will have sucked up all the juices and become lovely and plump. However you choose to do it, I hope you love this recipe and if you do make it, please leave me a comment. I love to hear from readers – it’s one of the best bits of blogging.
- 225 g soft butter
- 225 g light muscovado sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 25 g ground almonds
- 250 g self-raising flour
- 1 tbsp mixed spice
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 500 g dried mixed fruits*
- 50 g stem or candied ginger chopped
- Zest and juice of a lemon
- Zest and juice of an orange
- 200 g marzipan
- 150-200 g marzipan
- 2 tbsp apricot jam or ginger preserves
- Mini eggs chocolate eggs or fluffy chicks to decorate
- *= use whatever you have whatever you like. Sultanas, chopped glacé cherries, cranberries, currants, raisins all work well. Also, I often soak mine in booze for quite some time before using – it adds to the moisture and flavour of the cake but of course, you don’t have to do this extra step.
Grease and line a deep 20cm loose bottomed cake tin. If your oven has fierce heat, fold up a long length of baking paper once or twice to make a collar to tie around the outside of the tin to act as insulation from the direct heat.
Preheat oven to 160°C.
Cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy.
Crack in the eggs and ground almonds then beat until smooth – you can add a spoonful of the flour if you’re worried about curdling.
Add the flour and spices, beating in until the flour is almost fully incorporated then add all the fruits, zest and juice and beat this in.
Spoon in half the cake mixture to the prepared tin, level it flat. The mixture is looser than a traditional Christmas cake recipe – this is a good thing!
Roll the marzipan out to a round slightly less than 20cm and place on top of this mixture.
Spoon on the rest of the cake mixture and flatten the surface.
Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 2 hours. Now, I put mine low down in the oven but I have my thermometer on the same shelf so I know it is at the correct temperature. The higher the shelf, the hotter the oven gets (as hot air rises) and a cake that bakes for 2 hours needs to cooked a little more gently or it will catch and burn around the edges.
I would check at 90 minutes to see if the cake is done – just remember that a skewer has to go through the marzipan layer so it will feel a little soft inside but there shouldn’t be any batter clinging to the skewer and the cake should be risen, browned and spring back when pressed gently.
Cool in the tin – I usually do this overnight.
Turn the cake out and heat the preserve of your choice and then brush over the top of the cake.
Roll the remaining marzipan to 20 cm in diameter (I stipulate 150-200g as you may like a thinner or thicker layer or want to make some balls to decorate the top with) and place on top of the jammed up cake surface. Crimp the edges between the thumb and finger of one hand and the knuckle of your first finger on the second.
Place under a grill to colour the surface of the marzipan – it will catch in places but make sure it is not too close to the grill element as it may burn or melt. This will take barely a minute so stand by the grill and watch it carefully. Remove and cool.
Decorate as you wish – fluffy, technicolour Easter chicks are mandatory in our house.
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