Tag Archives: Easter

Simnel Cake

 

A Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake that contains plenty of marzipan and is eaten at Easter, although it used to be specifically associated with Mothering Sunday. When folk were fasting during Lent, Mothering Sunday, appearing in the middle of the fast, offered a respite from 40 days of religious austerity.

Mothering Sunday occurs on the fourth Sunday of Lent; a special day when people visited their mother church or cathedral. Don’t confuse Mothering Sunday with Mothers’ Day; it is only in the last century that this day is associated with showing enforced appreciation to our mums (though I assume that you met up with your mother on return to your original diocese).

Like most British food eaten during winter and early spring, the Simnel cake contains lots of dried fruit, but it is much lighter than boozy Christmas cake and contains a layer or marzipan both on top and within, and is decorated with eleven marzipan balls, each symbolising Jesus’s disciples (minus the treacherous Judas of course).

To trace the origin of Simnel cake, you need to go right back to mediaeval times where it began life as a yeast-leavened bread, which may or may not have been enriched. This doesn’t sound that much like a special bread, you may think, but what made it special is that it made out of the highest quality flour possible; simnel derives from the Latin simila – the whitest and finest of flours.

Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries, and the bread mixture had been swapped for a pudding batter, not dissimilar to spotted dick, enriched with dried fruit, spices and almonds. It would be boiled like a pudding. When cooked, it was wrapped in pastry, glazed with egg and baked until a good hard crust formed. It would be like the Scottish black bun, a traditional Christmas food north of the border.

It is only when you get to the tail end of the 19th century that it starts to look like something we would recognise as a cake, though surprisingly it is not until the 20th century that the familiar marzipan layers and decorative disciples appear.

Simnel cakes themselves seem to be disappearing from our Easter tables altogether and are getting more and more difficult to find in British bakeries. Below is the recipe I use – I can’t claim it as my own, but I don’t know where I got it from, so if you recognise it let me know, you know I always like to credit my sources!

This is a very straight-forward cake mixture made using the all-in-one method; it is very important that you use very soft butter so that the cake batter creams quickly without developing the gluten too much. If you don’t want to make your own marzipan, you can buy some ready-made, but I do urge you to make your own, it really is worth the (really quite little) effort required. The marzipan recipe below is different to my previously published one and I think much better. I shall try to remember to update the other post.

 

For the cake:

225 g softened butter

225 g caster sugar

4 eggs

225 g plain flour

2 tsp ground cinnamon

zest of 2 oranges

zest of 2 lemons

325 g mixed fruit (currants, sultanas, currants)

125 g glacé cherries, quartered or left whole

500 g orange marzipan (see below)

icing sugar for dusting

apricot jam

1 beaten egg

 

Begin by greasing and lining an 8-inch cake tin and preheating your oven to 150°C.

In a large bowl, beat together the softened butter, caster sugar, eggs, flour, cinnamon and zests. Using a hand mixer, beat together until smooth. Now fold in the mixed fruit and cherries with a spatula or wooden spoon.

Spoon half of the mixture into your tin and level it off. Take a third of your marzipan and roll it out into a circle the same size as the tin, trimming away any untidy bits. Use a little icing sugar to roll the marzipan out, just like you would use flour to roll out pastry.

 

Lay the marzipan in the tin and then spoon and scrape the remainder of the cake batter on top of that. Level off with your spatula and make an indentation in the centre, so that the cake doesn’t rise with too much of a peak.

Bake for 2 ¼ to 2 ½ hours. Use a skewer to check it is done. Cool on a rack for about 30 minutes before removing the tin and greaseproof paper.

When cold, roll out half of the marzipan in a circle slightly larger than the cake – the best way to do this is to use the outside edge of the tin it was baked in as a template.

Brush the top of the cake with some apricot jam (if it is very thick, you may want to warm some with a little water in a pan) and lay the marzipan on top, then brush the marzipan with the beaten egg. Divide the remaining marzipan and trimmings into 11 equally-sized balls and arrange them in a circle. Brush those with egg too and glaze the top using a chef’s flame torch (or a very hot grill).

 

For the marzipan:

90 g caster sugar

140 g icing sugar

220 g ground almonds

grated zest of an orange

1 beaten egg

Mix all of the ingredients except for the egg in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the egg. Using a mixer or your hand, form a dough. Knead in the bowl until smooth, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

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Hot Cross Buns

Tomorrow is Good Friday and in England it is traditional to eat hot cross buns, or rather it was;  supermarkets and bakeries bring them out as soon as Christmas is over these days. And why not? They are delicious after all. The reason that Good Friday is the day these buns are traditionally baked goes back to Tudor times, when the sale of spiced buns was illegal, except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at funerals.

The cross, people assume, is to denote the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. This is in fact nonsense; spiced buns with crosses were being produced throughout much of pagan Europe. Spiced buns have always been symbolic in worship and ones adorned with crosses were made for the goddess Eostre (where Easter get its name).

The Pagan goddess, Eostra

So that is the cross taken care of, but what about the hot? We don’t actually eat them hot that often. They were simply called cross buns, until that famous nursery rhyme was written sometime in the eighteenth century:

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns!

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

What if you have neither sons nor daughters? I suppose you eat them all to yourself like the miserable old spinster you are…

Ever since I started baking my own bread, I have sworn never to buy it again as it is just so delicious. Bought buns – like bread – are just shadow of their former selves, says Jane Grigson: ‘Until you make spiced hot cross buns yourself…it is difficult to understand why they should have become popular. Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum – no butter, little egg, too much yellow colouring, not enough spice, too few currants and bits of peel, a stodgy texture instead of a rich, light softness. In other words, buns are now a doughy filler for children.’

The recipe below asks for mixed spice, you buy a proprietary blend of course or make your own. I decided to make my own – simply because I didn’t have any. The good thing about making your own is that you can remove spices you don’t like, and enhance the ones you do. Typical spices are the warm ones: cinnamon, mace, allspice (pimento), nutmeg, cloves and ginger. I also think a little black pepper is good.

Here’s my recipe. It makes between 8 and 12 buns, depending upon how large you want to make them. The piped pastry cross is optional – cutting crosses with a serrated knife is fine, and closer to the original. I used to think the same as Elizabeth David, in that they ‘involve unnecessary fiddly work’, but that’s because I couldn’t get them right, I reckon to have worked it out now.

 

Ingredients

500 g strong bread flour

5 g dried, fast-action yeast

10 g salt

60 g caster or soft dark brown sugar

1 tsp mixed spice

50 g softened butter

250 ml warm milk, or half-and-half water and milk

1 egg

100 g dried fruit (currants, raisins, sultanas, etc.)

25 g candied peel

For the crosses:

50g strong white flour

70-80 ml water

For the glaze:

60g sugar

70 ml water

 

Mix together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar and mixed spice in a bowl, then make a well in the centre. Beat an egg into the milk, and pour it into the well, adding the butter too. If you have an electric mixer, use the dough-hook attachment and mix slowly until everything is incorporated, then turn the speed up a couple of notches and knead for around 6 minutes. The dough should be tacky, glossy, smooth and stretchy. If you don’t have one, get stuck in with your hands and knead by hand on a lightly-floured worktop. It’s a very sticky dough at first, so it’s a messy job, but it will come together.

Grease a bowl, tighten the dough into a ball, pop it in and cover the bowl with cling film or a damp tea towel. Leave to prove until doubled in size – this can take anywhere between 1 and 3 hours, depending upon ambient temperature.

 

Knock back the dough to remove any air and mix in the dried and candied fruits – again, either by using your hands or your dough hook. Divide the dough into 8, 10 or 12 equally sized pieces and roll up into very tight balls on a very lightly-floured board. This is done by cupping your hand over a ball of dough and rolling it in tight circles, takes a little practise, but is an easy technique to learn.

 

Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and arrange the buns on it, leaving a good couple of centimetres distance between each one. Cover with a large plastic bag and allow to prove again until they have doubled in size.

Meanwhile, make the cross dough. Simply beat the water into the flour to make a loose, but still pipeable batter. Put the batter in a piping bag (or freezer bag, with a corner cut away) and make your crosses. If you like, just cut crosses in the tops.

Put the tray in a cold oven, and set it to 200⁰C and bake for 20 to 25 minutes (you get a better rise if they go into a cold/just warm oven, if you have to put them into a hot over, knock 5 minutes from the cooking time).

When they are almost ready, make the glaze: boil the sugar and water to a syrup and when the buns come out of the oven, brush them with the glaze twice.

Eat, warm or cold with butter. To reheat them, bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 150⁰C.

 

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Lenten fodder

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, so today is the first day of Lent, a forty day fast that takes us right up to Easter. It came about because Jesus fasted for 40 days as he walked the wilderness prior to his death on the crucifix. Foods like meat, eggs, cheese and milk were decadent and therefore they were right out during Lent. In fact there was abstinence from any activity considered decadent, and the further back in time, the stricter were the rules. In the early days of Christian Britain some people ate only bread, whilst others ate herbaceous vegetables too. As time went on to the Middle Ages, the rules became a little slacker and fish were allowed into the diet. Thomas Aquinas was a main instigator of this move.

“By Jove, look at all the tucker Jesus has got, chaps!”

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

Fish was chosen for several reasons: It was fare that could be eaten by all classes, so in effect everyone would be eating the same types of food, nor was is associated with power, strength, hotness and richness like meat was; indeed fish were both humble  and meagre. Most importantly, it was strongly associated with Jesus himself. The 40-day long fast also symbolised a cycle of ‘purification and regeneration’ and fish were considered pure. People always find loopholes however – the rich still ate large grand dishes like roast pike. Indeed anything even closely associated with water was considered fair game during Lent: beaver, seal, porpoise, heron, even sheep found drinking from streams were eaten!

Fair game: the beever

By Tudor times, the rules had slackened even further to include fish and game, but not red or white meat (i.e. poultry). This meant one could eat bustard, curlew, pheasant, quail and red deer. Strangley, root vegetables were off the menu because they came from the soil and were a little too close to Hell for comfort for some.

In France during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were sometimes no difference between Lenten meals and regular ones, at least for the aristocracy. People would simply find excuses not to fast, complaining, according to the great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin “it irritated them, gave them headache, and prevented them from sleeping. All the troubles associated with the spring were put down to the score of the fast, so that one did not fast because he thought he was poorly, another because he had been, and a third because he feared to be.”

The late, great Brillat-Savarin

Most of the time it was enforced, though not for reasons of piety, but for economical ones. For example on a typical day, the French Royal Family in the Palace of Versailles, France, went through 900 pullets, 350 braces of pigeons and 86 goslings!

The Palace at Versailles

These days, people give up one vice for Lent, and although I am an atheist, I do see the spiritual worth in giving up something. Back in the day, when I used to smoke, I would try and forego cigarettes but without much success. These days I don’t bother, so I suppose I’m going straight to Hell; at least there’ll be plenty of parsnips and carrots down there to roast by the fire and brimstone…

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Pancake Day

Happy Shrovetide!

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day before the 40 day long fast-a-thon that is Lent, so we best have a big-old festival, no?

No.

Where do you think this is? France? America? This is Britain, and whilst the rest of the Christian world is dancing, drinking, feasting and parading, we do not bow to such vulgarities, instead we have some pancakes and a nice cup of tea.

I jest of course; though between you and me, I would happily swap Mardi Gras for Pancake Day any day.

In Britain and Ireland, we make and eat pancakes before Lent because it is a very good way of using up main staple ingredients: flour, fat, eggs and sugar before the onset of Lent. By pancakes, we typically mean crepe-style pancakes, but the UK has a wide variety of different pancakes which are all delicious. I suppose you could add the griddle/girdle cakes to the list too as they typically use the same ingredients, but they are a little hit-and-miss, in my opinion.

These days, of course, we don’t really fast for the run up to Easter, but I do like to follow traditions, at least when it comes to eating food (I happily ignore the abstinence bits). I remember as a child, my family always had pancakes for tea on Shrove Tuesday and I don’t think we ate them any other day, I remember thinking you weren’t allowed to eat them unless it was Pancake Day. I have made up for this as an adult, especially now I am living in America.

It is traditional to take part in a pancake race on Pancake Day, which involves running a course whilst flipping pancakes. I have very hazy memories of doing this when I was little, but I don’t think that I have seen nor heard anything about pancake racing in the last 20 years, maybe more. It’s a shame that these things are dying out, I know many think it’s a little naff or twee, but I love stuff like that. It enriches life. Next year I shall hold a pancake race I think.

Pancake racing in the chemistry lab of

Westfield College, London, 1963

Shrove Tuesday is really the final day of a two-day period known as Shrovetide which was part of an unofficial festival called Carnival that ran from Epiphany. It was essentially a period of time for a lot of gluttony and frivolity in order to prepare for the nightmarish 40 days of misery beginning on Ash Wednesday.

Welsh Light Cakes

I love all types of pancakes, but the best ones come from Wales. This recipe from Jane Grigson for Welsh light cakes is excellent; they are made with soured cream, which gives them a wonderful tang. I have never found a pancake recipe to beat it, so I urge you to give it a go. If you make these with British soured cream, the resulting pancake batter is thin, giving them a frothy frilly texture. If you make them with American soured cream, the batter is much thicker, making them fluffy. Either way results in deliciousness.

Ingredients:

6 rounded tbsp. flour

2 rounded tbsp. sugar

3 tbsp. soured cream

a pinch of salt

3 eggs

½ tsp. bicarbonate of soda

1 rounded tbsp. cream of tartar

4 tbsp. water

¼ pint buttermilk or milk

fat or oil

butter

golden syrup

Beat together the flour, sugar, cream, salt and eggs. Next, mix together the bicarbonate and cream of tartar with the water and as it froths, tip it into the batter and stir it in. Add the milk or buttermilk to produce the desired consistency. Less for thick and fluffy, more for thin and lacy.

Heat the fat or oil on a suitable frying pan, swirl it around so the pan is coated and pour out any excess. Add a ladelful of batter and fry until golden brown, then carefully, quickly and confidently flip the pancake and cook the other side.

Stack the pancakes on top of one another and keep them warm in the oven, adding a pat or two of butter to each one.

Cut the stack into quarters and eat with golden syrup and more butter if you like.

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