Tag Archives: religion

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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Filed under Britain, cake, Easter, Festivals, food, Recipes, Uncategorized

Our Daily Bread…

Recently I have very much gotten into bread-making so I thought I would try to tackle a post on its history. Within about 3 minutes of researching, I realised that there is quite literally volumes off stuff and there is no way I could do it any justice in a single post. But I have to start somewhere, so I thought the symbolism of bread and its early beginnings might be a good place to start…

Bread was the one food that everybody depended upon, and it has been the focus of our daily lives for hundreds of years. We talk of ‘earning a crust’ and ‘dough’ is a slang word for money. When taxes get too high, we complain that we are having ‘the bread taken from our mouths’. Bread itself meant food.  Our lives are so linked with bread that many of our words have roots in bread or bread-making: the word lord is from the Anglo-Saxon hlaford, meaning ‘loaf ward’ and lady from hlaefdige, or ‘loaf kneader’; companion and company come from the Latin companio which means ‘one who shares bread’. Jesus’s flesh is bread, and when we pray, we ask Him to give us ‘our daily bread’ and should we get it, we’re ‘truly thankful’.

The Infant Jesus Distributes Bread to Pilgrims by Murillo 1678

I am not a religious person and don’t say Grace or anything like that. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does, but I remember as a child when we had to say the Lord’s Prayer at assembly, thinking that it was strange that we wanted bread (‘Give us this day our daily bread’). Surely there were much better things than boring old bread like cakes and fizzy pop. Plus we would get dinner anyway, so what was the point?

The Georgian essayist, George Lamb, brings up this very point:

The indigent man, who hardly knows whether he shall have a meal the next day or not, sits down to his fare with a present state of the blessing, which can be feebly attached to the rich…The poor man’s bread is his daily bread, literally his bread for the day. Their courses were perennial.

Do such people exist still today? I don’t think so. I’m not suggesting that there is no poverty of course, but the food of the poor is no longer bread. There is certainly more variety of food if you are poor in this modern age, but cheap food is pretty bad. Is it best to spend your money on a load of insipid flavourless food full of additives, or to buy the ingredients for a few loaves of proper bread? I actually don’t know the answer to that question.

You need only four ingredients to make bread: flour (though not necessarily wheat flour), water, salt and yeast. The first three ingredients were not that easy to come by; producing flour was a labour-intensive activity, salt was expensive and good quality fresh water might not even have existed in your town or village. Yeast, however, was easy, it could be found happily residing naturally on wheat. When dough is left for a certain amount of time it will begin to naturally ferment and rise as the yeast grows and anaerobically respires to produce bubbles of carbon dioxide. The earliest evidence for making leavened bread comes from Egypt and dates 4000BC, though it didn’t reach Europe until 400BC in Greece where barley flour was used over wheat. According to Aristotle barley bread was bread so white that it out does the ethereal snow in purity. Tone it down, ‘Totle.

Baking Bread by Helen Allingham, 19th Century

Bread wasn’t always sustaining; in the cities, we have been guilty of baking notoriously bad bread. Its peak was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bakers were displaying very fraudulent behaviour. Additives for whitening were very common; London bread was a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution. One pamphlet author even accused the bakers of using ground human bone! We reached this level state because flour wasn’t available to everyone and so there was no choice. Today there are food standards, but for the main part, most of the bread we consume is in no way near what bread could be. However, perhaps we shouldn’t expect it – millions of people need mass-produced foods, so perhaps this is the best, and only way, to do it.

Peel’s Cheap Bread Shop, Punch cartoon from 1846

According to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, the French food historian, there were four evolutionary steps that led toward the ‘invention’ of leavened bread.

  1. Pounded grains: raw or fire-roasted grains were eaten crushed or whole.
  2. Decoction, mash or porridge: the raw or cooked grains were pounded or ground and mixed with water to make a dough. The mixture was then either eaten or drunk.
  3. Maza: a thick dough is moulded into the shape of a flat cake and baked on embers, a griddle, an oven or in a glass dome. These were common in the Stone Age and their little-changed descendants still exist today in the form of pitta and chapatti.
  4. Bread: cereals suitable for bread-making are used such as wheat, spelt, oats, rye and buckwheat. Left over dough from a previous baking – the leaven – is added and the dough is left to rise and improve in flavour and texture. It is then cooked in a preheated oven or a glass dome.

So bread is what one’s world revolved around, and it has – in the most part – become a flabby mass-produced pre-sliced affair that somehow turns back into dough when you squash it. In the past, a huge amount of effort was required to bring together the four ingredients and bake them. Future posts will tackle those ingredients and the ways they were cooked, the machines built, the microbes or chemicals used to flavour or leaven, the holy days they were often baked for, and how village and city life depended on the producers of the ‘staff of life’.

Bread recipes added so far:

An Everyday Loaf

Coburg

Hot Cross Buns

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Filed under baking, bread, food, General, history, Teatime