Simnel cake is a light fruit cake with two layers of almond paste or marzipan, one in the middle and one on top, that is toasted, and traditionally eaten at Easter but will last a long time in the unlikely event it's not eaten quickly.
Simnel cake was often made for the middle Sunday of Lent, when the forty day fast would be relaxed, Laetare Sunday, also known as Refreshment Sunday, Mothering Sunday, Sunday of the Five Loaves, and Simnel Sunday – after the cake. Historically it was made by female servants of large country houses and taken to their families their rare visits home.
Decedent and delicious, this symbolic Easter cake is decorated to signify aspects of Christianity. The 11 marzipan balls placed around the circular marzipan coated cake depict 11 disciples. Although there were 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot betrayed him and is therefore omitted.
The meaning of the word "simnel" is unclear: there is a 1226 reference to "bread made into a simnel", which is understood to mean the finest white bread, from the Latin simila – "fine flour". This tradition developed late in the Victorian era, altering the mid Victorian tradition of decorating the cakes with preserved fruits and flowers.
Line the base and sides of a 9 inch (23cm) round, or a 8 inch (20.5cm) square tin with brown paper and greaseproof paper.
Wash the cherries and dry them. Cut in two or four as desired. Blanch the almonds in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, rub off the skins and chop them finely. Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon rind. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.
Next make the almond paste:
Sieve the castor sugar and mix with the ground almonds. Beat the eggs, add the whiskey and 1 drop of pure almond essence, then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste. (You may not need all the egg). Sprinkle the work top with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.
Cream the butter until very soft, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Whisk the eggs and add in bit by bit, beating well between each addition so that the mixture doesn't curdle. Mix the spice with the flour and stir in gently. Add the grated apple to the fruit and mix in gently but thoroughly (don't beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake).
Put half of the cake mixture into the prepared tin, roll about half of the almond paste into an 8 1/2 inch (21.5cm) round. Place this on top of the cake mixture in the tin and cover with the remaining mixture. Make a slight hollow in the centre, dip you hand in water and pat it over the surface of the cake: this will ensure that the top is smooth when cooked. Cover the top with a single sheet of brown paper.
Put into the preheated oven; reduce the heat to 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3 after 1 hour. Bake until cooked, 3 - 3 1/2 hours approx., test in the centre with a skewer - it should come out completely clean. Pour the rest of the whiskey over the cake and leave to cool in the tin.
NOTE: When you are testing do so at an angle because the almond paste can give a false reading.
Next day remove the cake from the tin. Do not remove the lining paper but wrap in some extra greaseproof paper and tin foil until required.
When you wish to ice the cake, roll the remainder of the almond paste into a 9 inch (23cm) round. Brush the cake with a little lightly beaten egg white and top with the almond paste. Roll the remainder of the paste into 11 balls. Score the top of the cake in 1 1/2 inch (4cm) squares or diamonds. Brush with beaten egg yolk, stick the ‘apostles’ around the outer edge of the top, brush with beaten egg. Toast in a preheated oven 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7, for 15-20 minutes or until slightly golden. Decorate with an Easter Chicken. Cut while warm or store for several weeks when cold.
NB: Almond paste may also be used to ice the side of the cake. You will need half the almond paste again.
This cake keeps for weeks or even months, but while still delicious it changes both in texture and flavour as it matures.
Names of the Apostles
(1). Simon (also known as Peter)
(2). Andrew (Simon Peter’s brother)
(4) John (James’s brother)
(8). Matthew (tax collector)
(11). Simon the Cananaean