As we count down the weeks until Easter, we are sharing some of our favourite recipes.
A good Simnel cake should not just be a Christmas cake with marzipan balls on top; it should be lighter, more spring-like and most importantly, unlike Easter eggs, ideally homemade.
The perfect Simnel Cake
4 tbsp brandy, whisky or golden or dark rum
50g glacé cherries, halved
50g whole skinned almonds
175g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
45g ground almonds
½ tsp fine salt
1 tsp mixed spice
180g butter, at room temperature
180g soft, light brown sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tbsp golden syrup
Zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
50g mixed peel, chopped if necessary
Sugar syrup, apricot jam or marmalade, to top
For the marzipan (or use 500g bought marzipan)
200g ground almonds
200g icing sugar, plus extra to dust
Drop of almond essence
1 tsp orange blossom water
1 egg, separated
Heat the oven to 130C, and grease and line an 18-20cm loose-bottomed, high-sided tin, cutting an extra circle for the top of the cake with a small circle cut from the centre to allow it to rise. Warm the milk slightly, add the saffron and set aside to infuse.
Soak the dried fruit in the spirits.
Meanwhile, make the marzipan. Put the ground almonds and icing sugar in a mixing bowl or food processor and whisk or whizz together until well combined. Add a dash of almond essence, the orange blossom water and the egg yolk, and mix. Whisk the egg white with a drop of water to loosen, then add just enough to bring the marzipan together in a soft dough. Form into a ball, wrap and chill.
Put the whole almonds on a baking tray and bake in the hot oven until starting to turn golden, then remove and set aside to cool.
Put the flour, baking powder, ground almonds, salt and spices in a large bowl and whisk together to mix. Beat the butter in a food mixer, with electric beaters or a vigorously applied wooden spoon until soft, then beat in the sugar and continue beating until they are light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as required.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a little of the flour mixture between each addition, followed by the syrup and zest.
Roughly chop the almonds, then add to the mixture along with the cherries, dried fruit, saffron and mixed peel. Spoon half the mixture into the prepared tin and flatten the top. Take about a third of the marzipan and roll out on a lightly icing sugared surface to a circle the size of your tin. Place on top of the mixture, trimming as required, then spoon the rest on top. Place your extra circle of greaseproof paper on top and bake for about 2.5 hours until a skewer poked into the top (not down to the marzipan) comes out clean. Allow to cool.
If using jam or marmalade, heat a few tablespoons gently in a small pan to melt. Remove the cake from the tin and peel off the paper. Roll out the remaining marzipan on a lightly icing-sugared surface and cut a circle about 2cm bigger than the diameter of the cake, then trim to neaten. Brush the top and top of the sides of the cake with jam, marmalade or sugar syrup and lift the marzipan on top, smoothing it down the sides.
Heat the grill to medium-high, or prepare your blowtorch. Put the cake under the grill for a couple of minutes until beginning to brown, keeping an eye on it all the time, then remove. Roll the trimmings of the marzipan into 11 roughly equal-sized balls and stick them around the edge of the cake with a little jam/marmalade/syrup. Put back under the grill briefly to brown, then allow to cool before serving.