A rich, fruited cake at Christmas is traditional: crammed with dried fruits, candied peel and spices, and liberally doused with alcohol, before being encased in the equally traditional marzipan and white icing.
But there’s a huge elephant in the room when it comes to Christmas Cake recipes which no-one ever seems to mention – and that is the lengthy, fretful and agonisingly nerve-wracking extended baking time. And it IS just as stressful as it sounds, because the cake ingredients are not cheap, and so any mishap is going to prove expensive. If the oven is too hot, the outsides of the cake will burn and any exposed fruit will char to bitterness. If the oven is too cool, there’s a real risk of the inside of the cake ending up anything from gummy underdone-ness to out and out raw – and this is only likely to be discovered when the first slice is cut. And even if it is baked properly, failure to maintain sufficient moisture in the form of soaking it in alcohol between baking and consuming will result in an overly dry cake of sawdust texture. Not to mention the expense of having the oven on for so long.
So here I am, not just mentioning the elephant in the room, but naming/shaming/kicking it out.
Because this recipe requires no baking at all, and will only take maybe 15 minutes of your time.
Essentially, this is a fridge cake, with the wonderfully festive mix of fruit, spices and alcohol held together with biscuit crumbs and a little butter. It certainly looks the part and, as the photo demonstrates, it cuts beautifully – I do so love a clean, sharp slice! The biscuits should be Rich Tea – the rest of the ingredients need their dryness and plainness in order their flavours to shine. Sidebar: how much of a misnomer is Rich Tea? They’re the un-richest biscuit out there, just one step up from a water biscuit, and no hint of the taste of tea at all. Nevertheless, when you need a plain ‘canvas’ on which to display your more exotic ingredients, they can’t be beaten. NB Although breaking the biscuits into pieces is fine for recipes such as Chocolate Salami, the biscuits here should be blitzed to fineness in a food processor. This fineness is key in ensuring your cake holds together well with no unsightly air pockets, so please take the time over this one detail. Be more Edna.
Back to the cake. The texture is actually very close indeed to that of a well-moistened traditional cake, but the taste is extraordinary. In bypassing the hours and hours in the oven, the flavours of the fruit, peel and nuts are bright and fresh with no hint of dryness or burn. The alcohol is also more prominent, so if you’re planning on it being offered to children, perhaps reduce the quantity and substitute apple or pear juice to make up the overall amount of liquid.
There is also the freedom to make the mix of fruit, peel and nuts just to your liking. I don’t like angelica – or at least, the lurid dyed-green angelica found in the shops, so I don’t add it in. Glace cherries might be your absolute bête noir, in which case leave ’em out. As long as the overall weight is observed, the proportions can be made up of whatever you like. The mix below gives a ‘traditional’ flavour, but you could also choose a mix of, for example, dried mango, pineapple, papaya, coconut ribbons and white rum for a tropical flavour. The same goes for the spices. You might like them to be a little more robust that the quantities given. You’re only limited by your imagination. Go wild.
No Bake Christmas Cake
These quantities make a small, round, family-sized cake of diameter 15cm and a depth of around 5cm. A tin of larger diameter will result in a shallower cake. If you’re catering for only a few, consider halving the recipe and perhaps using a square or loaf tin for easier slicing, or even pressing the mix into cupcake or deep tart tins for mini individual portions.
For a Gluten-Free version, substitute GF Rich Tea biscuits.
For Vegans: Substitute the butter for the fat you prefer. It should be one that is solid at room temperature.
60g prunes – chopped
60g mixed, candied peel – chopped
75g glace cherries – halved or quartered
1/2 nutmeg – grated
½ tsp mixed spice
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 rounded tbs liquid sugar
80g unsalted butter
75ml alcohol – a mix of cream sherry and brandy is nice, or 25ml each of these plus dark rum. Substitute fruit juice if preferred.
75g walnuts – chopped
250g fine Rich Tea biscuit crumbs
- Put everything except the nuts and the crumbs into a pan.
- Heat, gently stirring, until the butter has melted and the fruit is warmed through.
- Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside to allow the fruit to plump up (30 minutes-1 hour).
- Put the nuts and crumbs into a bowl.
- Add the cooled fruit mixture and toss to combine. The mixture should now resemble damp sand, and stick together when pressed. Adjust spices if necessary, and add more crumbs/alcohol/juice if required.
- Line your tin with plastic film.
- Pour in the mixture and press flat. I find the base of a glass tumbler is excellent at achieving a smooth surface.
- Cover the top with plastic film and chill thoroughly, preferably overnight.
- Decorate with almond paste and icing as per a traditional cake.
 Ooh, a footnote! Haven’t done one of these in ages! The liquid sugar can be whatever you have to hand: honey, golden syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup, treacle or molasses if you’d like a dark cake, glucose if you don’t want to add another flavour to the mix.
Mention fruit cake in conversation and many people’s eyes will glaze over at the image of dark, heavy, dried fruit cakes of wintertime, but with this recipe you can make a light, fresh, sponge cake with a burst of freshness in every bite.
Regular listeners will recall my long quest for the perfect Apple Cake, as detailed in (shameless plug) MY FIRST BOOK – and the proportional recipe I found proved not too wet or heavy, lightly cakey, and with a real flavour of the fruit shining through.
This is the soft fruit version of that cake and has the added versatility of being able to be used as a base recipe for lots of different kinds of soft fruit.
It is adapted from a recipe for Blackcurrant Cake in Mrs C.F.Leyel’s Cakes of England (1936)¹. The original recipe called for fresh blackcurrants, but in the 21st century, not as many people have their own fruit bushes, or even access to a PYO fruit farm.
What we DO have access to is frozen fruit, picked and preserved within hours to maintain their quality. As well as bags in supermarkets, many farm shops also have ‘scoop your own’ fruits and berries in their freezers, to which you can help yourself to as much or as little as you like.
Whilst the cake in the above photograph is, indeed, made with blackcurrants, my experiments have confirmed that this recipe can be used with a whole range of soft fruits, and those fruits can be fresh, frozen or even canned.
The fruit makes this cake lovely and moist, and the sweetness of the cake itself contrasts deliciously with the sharp bursts of flavour from the berries. Due to the high levels of moisture, it is not a cake that should be baked in a deep tin, as this runs the risk of being undercooked and having soggyness in the middle. A relatively shallow square tin, or traybake is ideal.
A further insurance against a soggy cake is to toss the fruit being used in a little cornflour. During baking, the cornflour will thicken any fruit juices that are released and prevent them from flooding the rest of the cake, and the cunning division of the dough means that your fruit will be evenly distributed throughout the finished cake, no matter how plump and juicy it might be.
Bonus: This cake is delicious as is, but can also be served warm as a pudding with a little cream or custard.
Frozen Fruit Cake
Mrs Leyel’s instructions begin ″Take equal quantities of flour, sugar and fresh blackcurrants. Rub the butter into the flour″, thereby being both unhelpfully vague and omitting mention of butter in the ingredients altogether. Nevertheless, after some experimentation, these quantities make a reasonably-sized cake. If you decide to increase the quantities, then increase the cooking time appropriately.
150g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
150g caster sugar
150g fruit – fresh, frozen or if canned, drained
2 large eggs, whisked
A little milk (maybe)
caster sugar for sprinkling
- Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
- Grease and line a 18-20cm square tin with parchment.
- Put the flour, baking powder and butter into a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
- Tip into a bowl and stir in the sugar.
- Stir through the beaten eggs to form a dough. If the mixture seems a little dry, add enough milk to make a soft, scone-like dough.
- Add HALF of this mixture to the tin and spread out.
- Sprinkle the cornflour over the fruit and toss gently to coat.
- Fold the fruit and any remaining cornflour into the remaining dough and transfer to the tin. Smooth over lightly. It should be about 4cm deep. NB This dividing of the dough wll help ensure the fruit is evenly distributed through the cooked cake. As demonstrated more familiarly with cherry cake, fruit has a tendency to ‘slide down’ through the cake mixture and congregate on the bottom of the tin. Adding a layer of fruitless mix in the bottom of the tin will not prevent this, merely slow the downeard progression of the fruit long enough for the cake around the fruit to cook and thus hold it in position.
- Bake for 50-55 minutes, turning the tin around after 30 minutes. NB Don’t be tempted to remove the cake too early. As already mentioned, the fruit lends quite a lot of moisture to the mix, so be sure that the cake is thoroughly cooked through before removing it from the oven by testing with a cocktail stick that the cake mixture is cooked and observing that the cake as a whole has shrunk away from the sides of the tin and is nicely browned on top.
- Sprinkle with caster sugar and allow to cool in the tin. NB The moistness of the cake means that it is very fragile when first baked, and trying to remove it from the tin whilst warm runs the risk of it breaking apart.
¹ A fantastic collection of national and regional cakes. Recommended!
In case you missed it: Orange & Walnut Garland Cake on DejaFood.com
It’s been a while since I posted a cake recipe, so I thought I’d cheer up the chilly weather with a cakey treat.
And it’s fabulous!
I was initially a little conflicted about this cake: on the one hand it tastes amazing, but then it also falls into the category of my pet hate of ‘food looking like something that isn’t food’, even though it is achieved almost by accident. In the end the ease of baking/construction, coupled with the amazing flavours persuaded me to bend my own rules and I hope you’ll be as delighted with the result as I am.
It’s very straightforward, based on a chocolate sponge, and takes almost zero skill to put together. Huzzah!
I found it on a Romanian version of Pinterest, and it appears to be something Romanians can create from a Dr Oetker box cake mix.
However, there’s no need to resort to box cake mixes, no matter how convenient they might be. Hands up anyone who has eaten one and thought “Oh my! This tastes so convenient!”.
So this is a hand-made version, which is only marginally less convenient but with added fresh, natural ingredients. I call it the very best kind of clean eating. I might start a food trend…..
Requiring just 2 bowls – one if you rinse it out after mixing the cake – it also requires practically zero washing up! Bonus!
The cake is my go-to, one-bowl chocolate yogurt cake, so easy you could mix it with just a spoon – although I recommend a balloon whisk. Once baked and cooled, the cake is hollowed out and the bottom filled with whole (or as whole as possible) bananas, then a creamy filling mounded on top. The cake that was hollowed out, plus any excess you cut off to level the top, are blitzed to crumbs and patted onto the mound of cream and voila! Something that resembles a molehill but with a much more appetising taste!
You can make one large cake, or, as I managed, one large and several small, individually-sized versions.
The filling can be as simple as sweetened, whipped cream, a custardy diplomat cream (crème patissière + gelatine + whipped cream) or, my favourite, a combination of cream cheese, crème fraiche and double cream, whipped to firmness with a little vanilla paste and icing sugar.
Also optional is whether or not to include some chocolate in your creamy filling. My daughter voted for chocolate chips in an earlier version (she also preferred diplomat cream), however I went for hand-chopped chocolate. Other options might be pure chocolate sprinkles or indeed none at all.
The comforting combination of the richness of the chocolate sponge, the freshness and sweetness of the banana, the creamy topping and the novelty of the overall appearance have immediately shot this cake into my top five list. In fact, the only downside of this cake is the time spent waiting for the cooked cake to cool down before you can fill it!
Chocolate Sponge Cake
150ml vegetable oil
150ml plain yoghurt
60ml golden syrup
170g caster sugar
3 large eggs
225g plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
- Preheat the oven to 160°C, 140°C Fan.
- Line the bottom and sides of a deep 20cm cake tin with baking parchment.
- Put oil, yoghurt, syrup, caster sugar and eggs in a bowl and whisk together until well mixed.
- Sift flour, cocoa, bicarbonate of soda and salt into the bowl. Mix well.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.
- Bake in the oven for 60-75 minutes, until the cake has shrunk away from the sides, no bubbling sounds can be heard and a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Yes, it does seem a long time, but the low temperature means it really needs the full allowance. The result is a beautifully-textured cake that actually improves on keeping, if you want to make it ahead. Additionally, the low-and-slow cooking means it is invariably gently and perfectly rounded on top and without any cracks.
- Cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
300g cream cheese at room temperature
300ml low-fat creme fraîche
1-2tsp vanilla paste
2-3tbs icing sugar
300ml double cream
100g good quality chocolate – white, milk or plain – chopped fine
- Mix the cream cheese, vanilla paste and creme fraîche thoroughly.
- Add icing sugar to taste.
- Add the double cream and whisk until firm.
- Stir through the chopped chocolate.
- Cover with plastic and chill until required.
- Cut the cake horizontally at a height of 4cm. If the cake has risen a lot, you might be able to cut it in half and make 2 large molehill cakes. Alternatively, you can cut out circles of sponge from either one or both halves using a baking ring to make individual-sized portions.
- Cut a circle 2cm deep around the edge of the cake, 2cm from the edge.
- Hollow out the middle of the cake so that the remaining sponge resembles a tart case. Be careful not to cut through the bottom of the cake. Reserve the cake scraps.
- Lay whole bananas in the hollow, making sure they cover the whole of the bottom of the cake.
- Pile the cream filling on top, using a palette knife to shape it into a tall mound.
- Blitz the cake scraps to crumb and press lightly onto the sides of the cream until completely covered.
- You can serve the cake immediately, but it does benefit from being wrapped in foil and thoroughly chilled in the fridge for at least 4 hours. Overnight is ideal.
- Remove from the fridge 30 minutes before serving.
The recipe I have for you this week is more a set of guidelines that can be adapted to whatever takes your fancy or whatever you have to hand in the cupboards.
These individual cakes were inspired by a picture I saw of a Swiss cake, the Zuger Kirchetorte, which looked delightfully neat and elegant, as one might expect of the Swiss. I tried several recipes, but became increasingly frustrated by my own ham-fistedness in reproducing the elegance: the sponge was too thick, or the meringue too thin, or too soft or too fragile. In addition, it had a LOT of alcohol in it, which is nice for a special occasion but a bit much during daylight hours.
So I abandoned that idea for something smaller, which owes its composition to the Zuger Kirchetorte, but is also much more adaptable: you can dress it up or down, depending on whatever is to hand, even improvise with ready-made components if time or patience is short.
Essentially, these individually-sized cakes are sandwiches, with a dacquoise (hazelnut meringue) as the ‘bread’ and sponge cake as the ‘filling’, all stuck together and decorated with the sandwich ‘glue’ of your choice. The look substantial, but are very light to eat.
The possibilities for variation are endless:
- Meringue: I’ve used a hazelnut dacquoise but you could swap those out for pistachios, almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamia nuts. You could even use plain meringue, or meringue shells from the supermarket. Alongside this, you can choose to flavour the meringues by adding in freeze-dried fruit powder to complement your other ingredients.
- Sponge: literally any sponge will do, plain vanilla, rich madeira, moist almond, fatless, genoise, joconde, flavoured however you like.
- Syrup: to make your sponge luscious and tender, you can soak it in a syrup of some kind. If you don’t want to have too many flavours, then a simple sugar syrup of half sugar, half water is fine. Or you can add flavouring to the syrup such as coffee, tea infusions, fruit juices, spirits such as Kirch, Maraschino, Disaronno, mead, madeira, rum, brandy, etc.
- Filling: I’ve used a dark chocolate ganache, to be honest, because I had some in the fridge left over from something else, but milk, white and caramelised are all good choices too, as are all flavours of buttercream. For simplicity, you can also use chocolate hazelnut spread, peanut butter (smooth or crunchy), spekuloos spread, even thick, smooth jams or fruit spreads.
- Garnish: for the outsides of the cake, something that will stick on easily and match your other flavour choices. I chose nibbed and toasted hazelnuts, because I used them in the dacquoise, but you could use flaked or slivered nuts, feuilletine, crumbled biscuits, freeze-dried fruit, chocolate sprinkles, meringue crumbs, chocolate shards.
I used baking rings made from small tinned food tins (5cm diameter tins from mushy peas, in case you’re wondering) opened at both ends, but these quantities will also make one large, 24cm cake if you prefer.
Dacquoise Sandwich Cakes
Makes 8 individual sandwiches or 1 large 24cm cake.
For the Sponge
You can choose your own favourite sponge recipe if preferred. This fatless sponge recipe also happens to be gluten-free.
2 large eggs
60 g of caster sugar
a pinch of salt
1 tbsp hot water
50 g Green & Black’s cocoa
30 g of cornflour
- Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
- Grease and line your tin(s) with baking parchment. Butter the parchment.
- Sift the cocoa and cornflour together.
- Whisk the eggs, sugar, water and salt together over a saucepan of hot water for 3-4 minutes, until light and frothy.
- Remove from the heat and whisk until billowy and increased in volume (about 5 minutes).
- Gradually fold in half the cocoa and cornflour, then add the remainder and fold in.
- Transfer to your tin(s), filling each about half-way.
- Bake for 10-15 minutes (20-25 minutes for a large cake) until firm and springy and slightly shrunk from the sides.
- Cool on a wire rack.
For the Dacquoise
You can grind the hazelnuts finer, but I like the texture the slightly larger pieces give.
2 large eggwhites (80ml)
2 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp icing sugar
1 tbs cornflour
60 g chopped, toasted hazelnuts
- Turn the oven to 120°C, 100°C Fan.
- Draw 16 circles using your baking rings as a guide onto a sheet of parchment, 2 for each sandwich.
- Turn the paper over and lay onto a baking sheet.
- Whisk the egg-whites to soft peaks, then sprinkle in the caster sugar and whisk until the meringue is firm and glossy.
- Sift the icing sugar and cornflour together and fold into the meringue.
- Sprinkle in the nuts and briefly mix.
- Spoon the dacquoise onto the prepared baking parchment and spread into the marked circles. Make sure it at least reaches the edges of the circles. It doesn’t have to be too accurate, as they can be trimmed after baking. Smooth over.
- Bake for 1 hour.
- Switch off the oven and allow the meringues to cool in the oven for 15 minutes, then prop the oven door open and allow to cool completely.
- When cold, remove from the parchment and store in a ziplock bag until required.
For the Ganache
300g plain dark chocolate
150ml double cream
- Chop the chocolate into small pieces.
- Pour the cream into a small pan and bring to a boil.
- Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and set aside for 5 minutes.
- Stir gently with a whisk until the chocolate is fully melted and the ganache smooth and glossy.
For the syrup
50g caster sugar
flavouring to suit
- Put the sugar and water into a small pan and stir over low heat until sugar is dissolved.
- Add any flavouring to taste.
- Select the eight meringues with the smoothest bases and set aside. These will be used for the top of the sandwiches, for a neat finish.
- Put the remaining meringues on a tray and spoon over a layer of ganache.
- Trim the cakes level and set onto the ganache.
- Soak with the sugar syrup. It’s almost impossible to use too little. You can see from the photograph the syrup I used only soaked a little way into the sponge, so more is better.
- Add a second layer of ganache.
- Add the remaining meringues, turning them upside down, so that the smooth bases are uppermost.
- Sprinkle your decor into a tray.
- Spread the remaining ganache in a smooth layer around the sides of the sandwiches then roll in your chosen decoration. Set aside. If you’ve made one large cake, then hold your cake on one hand and lift up handfuls of your decoration and press into the sides.
- When all the sandwiches are coated, transfer to a dish and cover with clingfilm. This will keep the meringues from absorbing too much moisture.
- Chill in the fridge for at least 3 hours to firm up.
- When ready to serve, dust the tops liberally with icing sugar and use a hot skewer to caramelise the sugar in an abstract design.
This week’s recipe is a variation on a meringue cake, where sponge and meringue are baked at the same time, on top of one another, and then sandwiched together with any of a range of fillings.
I discovered this German version in a rather roundabout way, on a Croatian cooking site. Loving both the name (Himmel und Hölle Kuchen) and the striking appearance, I decided to try my hand at it, since there was suitable fruit in the freezer and I needed some space for this year’s harvest. It’s a cake of contrasts – my favourite kind of cake: sharp, red fruit in jelly, smooth sweetened cream, crunchy meringue and moist sponge. Delightful!
I didn’t actually get as far as the fruit, initially, because the sponge and the meringue required a bit of work: the original sponge was too dry and the meringue went soggy within an hour. So I opted for recipes that I have more faith in, viz: the cream cake recipe of a few weeks ago, and a French meringue recipe from a professional French patisserie site. One of these days I shall compile a chart of how various sugar and egg-white ratios perform with the different meringue methods but, as a famous Braavosi once said, not today.
With the cake and meringue sorted, I could turn my attention to the fillings. The name Heaven and Hell comes (I’m assuming) from the contrast between the red ‘hell’ of the fruit and the white ‘heaven’ of the cream. The red fruit is a mixture of raspberries and redcurrants and is set with gelatine. The white cream was originally a sweet Chantilly, but for the above cake design, I felt it needed something a little more robust, so I’ve substituted a variation I used to fill my mille feuilles in the GBBO.
Which reminds me – the above cake design – don’t. I decided to make the cake/meringue as a tray bake and then cut and constructed it in a rectangular, spring-form tin. It makes for an elegant slice, but, on reflection, it would have been much less complicated to use two sandwich tins and then construct in a regular spring-form tin. Additionally, you’d only have to pipe one layer of meringue ‘kisses’ for the top layer, and make the second layer just smooth meringue, thus allowing the cakes to get into the oven more quickly. So I highly recommend that course of action.
Although the red and the white form a great contrast, I think an equally great combination would be blackberries and blackcurrants – one which I shall be trying shortly – and this time in round tins!
Heaven and Hell Cake
There are four elements to this cake: sponge, meringue, fruit filling, cream filling. Once all four elements are ready, the cake can be constructed. The slightly tricky part is the meringue mixture and the cake mixture need to be ready at the same time. Whilst practicing, I made the cake first, then the meringue, but I think for future reference, making the meringue first might be the better way to go, hence the following recipe order.
150g egg whites
20 g caster sugar
125 g caster sugar
125 g icing sugar
- Put the egg whites into a bowl and whisk until soft peaks.
- Add the 20g caster sugar and whisk until firm.
- Mix the remaining sugars together and gradually add to the egg-whites.
- Whisk until firm, at least 5 minutes.
- Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 1.5cm plain tip.
- Set aside while you mix the cake.
Vanilla Cream Cake
150g caster sugar
2 large eggs
125ml cream – double or clotted
150g plain flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
1tsp vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan.
- Grease and line 2 sandwich tins with baking parchment – the size can be small – 20cm – for an impressively tall final cake, or up to 24cm for a lower-level affair.
- Crack the eggs into a bowl and add the sugar. Beat with a balloon whisk (or by hand or stand mixer) until the eggs are frothy and the sugar dissolved – about 5 minutes.
- Add the cream and vanilla and whisk in.
- Sift the flour and baking powder together and stir into the rest of the ingredients
- Divide the mixture evenly between the baking tins. Smooth over.
- Pipe meringue ‘kisses’ onto the top of the cake mixture in one tin, and pipe an even layer of meringue over the cake mixture in the other tin.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes until the cake is risen and cooked and the meringue lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
Red Fruit Filling
150ml redcurrant juice 
450g fresh raspberries
sugar to taste
1 sachet powdered or 4 leaves gelatine
- Put the juice and 300g of the raspberries into a pan and warm gently over a medium-low heat, mashing the raspberries into the juice.
- Taste and add enough sugar to take the edge from the sharpness.
- Soak the leaves of gelatine and then add to the pan, or sprinkle over the powdered gelatine and stir until dissolved. NB The quantities given normally set a whole pint of liquid, and you might therefore think it a bit excessive. The reason behind this is that gelatine isn’t overly fond of acidic mixtures, so a little extra concentration is helpful in encouraging it to set up properly.
- Set aside to cool.
200ml double cream
200g cream cheese
200g low-fat creme fraiche
1 tsp vanilla extract
icing sugar to taste
- Put the creams, cheese and extract into a bowl and whisk together until firm.
- Add icing sugar to sweeten. It won’t need much – 2-3 tablespoons is about right.
- Set aside.
To assemble the cake
- If available, line the spring-form tin you’re using to construct the cake with food-grade acetate around the edge. This will allow the fillings to form clearly defined layers and not smudge when you remove the cake from the tin for serving. Alternatively, use clingfilm, and cover the whole of the bottom/sides.
- Lay the cake with the flattened meringue into the bottom. There are two options available: meringue up or meringue down. Meringue up makes it easier to move/serve, meringue down might be more aesthetically pleasing, being a mirror of the top meringue/cake layer. You also need to bear in mind the effect the fruit layer will have on either the meringue or the sponge.
- Once the fruit mixture has cooled a little, it will start to thicken. Fold in the remaining raspberries, trying to keep them as whole as possible, then spread in an even layer over the bottom sponge/meringue layer.
- Put the cream mixture into a piping bag fitted with a 1.5cm plain nozzle and pipe a thick line of cream all around the edge of the cake tin, then fill in the middle. Strictly speaking, the piping bag isn’t compulsory, but I find it’s the best way of getting the filling nice and even around the edge.
- Place the top layer of sponge and meringue on top of the cream and press gently.
- Chill in the fridge until the gelatine has completely set.
- When set, remove the cake from the tin and place onto your serving dish. Allow the cake to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, then dust with icing sugar and serve.
 I thawed 400g of redcurrants and then sieved the softened berries. It doesn’t need to be all juice – a mixture of pulp and juice is fine, just so the gelatine has something to dissolve into.
We’re back to the history books this week, with an original Simnel recipe from the 1650s. And yes, I’m exactly a week late, since they were originally enjoyed on Mid-Lent Sunday, which has, over the years, segued into Mothering Sunday/Mothers’ Day. Still, they were popular throughout the Easter celebrations, so there’s still time to rustle some up if you feel inspired.
Three regions of Britain lay claim to strong Simnel traditions: Devizes in Wiltshire, Bury in Lancashire and Shrewsbury in Shropshire. The Devises Simnel is recorded as being star-shaped and without a crust, and the Bury Simnel is traditionally flat, but the Shrewsbury Simnel was the most popular and which went on to develop into the Easter cake we know today.
The Shrewsbury Simnel of 350 years ago was much different to the traditional almond-paste-filled cake made today. Originally, it was an enriched and fruited yeast dough wrapped in a plain, yeasted dough,and then boiled before being baked, in a method similar to the way modern bagels are made. There are similarities with today’s Scottish Black Bun, the difference being both the use of unleavened pastry and the much richer filling of the northern version.
Whilst descriptions and images of what Simnels looked like are well known, recipes have, to a great extent, been either extremely vague or pretty much guess-work, as all the original recipes have vanished over the years.
For, as I was browsing through the digitised 17th century manuscripts of The Wellcome Library, I found a recipe for a Simnell. It’s made in the traditional manner of first boiling then baking, and someone has subsequently crossed it out, but it’s still legible and much older than anything I’ve been able to find until now, so in terms of authenticity, that’s good enough for me.
It’s a little sparse on quantities and details such as cooking times and temperatures, but there was enough for me to muddle along with my own interpretation. Interestingly, there’s no mention of the traditional saffron flavouring, these cakes being ‘gilded’ with egg-yolk glaze only, so maybe the use of this spice was a later development.
It also fails to mention what size these festive cakes were. There’s anecdotal evidence from several 19th century sources, that claim Shrewsbury Simnels were made in all sizes from miniature up to cushion size, and also of them being sent all over the country as gifts. One account tells of a bemused recipient using hers as a footstool, not being aware that there was a delicious cake within the double-cooked crust. I opted for pork-pie-sized cakes for a couple of reasons:
- The recipe says to “take it upon the back of your hand and pinch it” – difficult for a large sized cake.
- The baking instructions are “bake them as cakes or small bread” – so bread roll size rather than loaf sized.
- Mention I found of cymlings or simnels in the notes of early American settlers on the local vegetation.
- In 1690, the Reverend John Banister recorded in his Natural History [of Virginia]
We plant also Cucumbers & Pompions, the common, & the Indian kind with a long narrow neck, which from them we call a Cushaw. Of Melopepones or the lesser sort of Pompions there is also great variety, all which go by the Indian name of Macocks; yet the Clypeatae are sometimes called Simnels & because these others also from the Lenten Cake of that name which some of them very much resemble.
- Earlier, in A Description of New Albion (1648), Beauchamp Plantagenet (what an AWESOME name!) observed “strawberries, mulberries, symnels, maycocks, and horns, like cucumbers” on Palmer’s Isle (now called Garrett Island) at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay.
The vegetable they both refer to is nowadays more commonly called the pattypan squash.
The recipe below will make four, individual-sized Simnels. Feel free to enrich the filling for the dough even more by adding extra fruit, spice peel, sugar, butter and eggs. The mix below, however, will make a delicately spiced and fruited tea bread that is delicious on its own as well as spread with butter and/or toasted. Provided your Simnels don’t burst their seams during baking, the hard outer dough will ensure that they keep very well for a couple of weeks.
For the plain dough:
250g white bread flour
1/2 sachet easy-blend, fast-action yeast
warm water to mix
- Sift the flour, salt, spices and yeast into a bowl.
- Slowly add enough warm water to bring the ingredients together into a firm dough.
- Knead for 10 minutes.
- Put into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic film.
- Set aside to rise for 1 hour.
For the filling dough:
250g white bread flour
1/2 sachet easy-blend, fast-action yeast
1 large egg
60ml double cream
2 large egg yolks for glazing.
- Sift the flour, salt, spices and yeast into a bowl.
- Cut the butter into small pieces and put into a pan with the cream and the sugar.
- Warm gently until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved
- Whisk the egg and add to the warmed ingredients. NB Make sure they aren’t so hot that they cook the egg.
- Add the liquid ingredients to the flour mixture and knead for 10 minutes.
- Put into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic film.
- Set aside to rise for 1 hour.
- Put a large pan of water on the cooker to boil. I use my preserving pan. Do it now because it will take practically the whole hour to come to heat up.
- When the dough has doubled in size, knead in the raisins and currants.
To assemble the cakes:
- Divide the plain dough into 8 even pieces and roll each piece out thinly (3mm).
- Line 4 small deep pie/tart tins with cling film. This will help turn out the finished cakes.
- Use 4 pieces of plain dough to line the tart tins. Leave the excess dough hanging over the edge of the tins, as it will help in forming a good seal around the cake dough.
- Chill in the fridge together with the remaining pieces of dough, which will form the lids, for 20 minutes. This chilling will firm up the dough and make it easier to form the crust on the cakes.
- Divide the fruit dough into four and knead until firm and smooth. If you’ve added extra fruit or your tins are on the small side, you may need to reduce the size of the dough balls.
- Remove the chilled dough from the fridge. It is best to form one cake and then place it in the hot water immediately. If left to one side while you make the other cakes, the dough will warm up, rise and potentially burst its seals.
- Place a ball of fruit dough in each tin.
- Moisten the edges of the dough with water and cover with one of the dough lids.
- Press firmly and pinch together to form a seal around the fruit filling. Trim any excess dough.
- Crimp the edges of the cake according to your own design.
- Fill a large bowl with cold water.
- When the water is simmering, place each cake on a skimmer and slowly lower into the water. It will sink to the bottom of the pan initially. When the cake rises, use a skimmer to gently turn it over so that the lid cooks for about a minute.
- Lift the cake from the hot water and lower it gently into the bowl of cold water.
- When cooled, set the cake onto a silicon sheet (so that it doesn’t stick) to dry.
- Repeat for the remaining cakes.
- Preheat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment.
- Place the Simnels onto the baking sheet.
- Brush with beaten egg-yolk to glaze.
- Bake for 45-50 minutes until firm and golden. They should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Don’t be tempted to take them out too early, even with the dip in the hot water, these will take a relatively long time to bake.
- Cool on a wire rack.