Easter Simnel

Simnel, circa 1655

Wotchers!

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.

Shrewsbury Simnels

Shrewsbury Simnels, from The Book of Days, Robert Chambers, 1863, Volume 1, p336

 

15thC simnels

Overhead and side view sketches of an early Tudor Symnelle (from A Pictorial Vocabulary of the 15th Century, in “A Volume of Vocabularies” by Thomas Wright, 1857, p266)

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.

Until now.

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.

Manuscript Simnel Recipe

Simnel recipe from The Wellcome Library’s digitised manuscripts collection

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.

Pattypan Squash

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.

Shrewsbury Simnels

For the plain dough:

250g white bread flour
0.5tsp salt
0.5tsp mace
0.5tsp nutmeg
0.25tsp cloves
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
0.5tsp salt
0.5tsp mace
0.5tsp nutmeg
0.25tsp cloves
1/2 sachet easy-blend, fast-action yeast
1 large egg
60ml double cream
50g butter
2tbs sugar

100g raisins
100g currants

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.


Sicilian Seven Veils Cake

Sicilian Seven Veils Cake

Wotchers!

Here’s a delicious treat I’ve had bookmarked for YEARS – and boy am I kicking myself for not trying it sooner! For no other reason that the mirror glaze. I mean, come on – just look at it! In fact, I can’t as the shine from it is so DAZZLING – let me go get my shades.

Today I had the pleasure of sharing a coffee and a chat with the delightful Brendan Lynch – a delicious treat in itself – and decided I would shamelessly recruit him as taste tester.

The Seven Veils of the title refers to the seven different layers of this cake. From the top they are:

  • Chocolate mirror glaze
  • Chocolate Bavarian Cream
  • Chocolate Joconde Sponge
  • Praline Bavarian Cream
  • Chocolate Joconde Sponge
  • Vanilla Bavarian Cream
  • Chocolate Feuilletine crunch.

The cake layer is traditionally a Genoise, but I’ve chosen to switch it for a Joconde, as the ground almonds and teeny bit of butter make for a softer, more delicious texture to the sponge.

Feuilletine is flakes of wafer-thin biscuit that keeps its crunch when mixed with various patisserie items. It is available from online from Melbury and Appleton at a very reasonable £2.55 for 200g. Alternatively, I have found a recipe if you fancy trying to make it yourself (NB I haven’t tried the recipe). If you’re game, you can find it over at BraveTart here. The third alternative, which is what I did, is to crush up some Crepes Dentelles biscuits you have lying around – but then I happened to have grabbed some in France when we were on holiday in the summer. Still, those too are available at Melbury and Appleton for a slightly less reasonable £3.20 for 80g. If all else fails, crushed cornflakes make a great substitute for next to nothing.

Seven layers might sound daunting, but is really more an exercise in assembly than technical skill. The various components can be made over the course of several days and then brought together to assemble the day before the cake is required. In a cunning move worthy of a Professor of Cunning at Cunning University, the cake is assembled upside down and then frozen, to give a firm, smooth base for the glaze to dribble over. It can then just sit in the fridge until required. Actually, it is best served at room temperature, so take it out of the fridge about 2 hours before you intend to serve it.

I made this cake in a 20cm square, loose-bottomed tin, but you can make it in a circle, spring-form tin or even as a slab/tray-bake style. Having a tin does help to keep the edges of each layer neat and it also helps protect the cake whilst it’s in the freezer. Then again you can always trim the cake edges before pouring the glaze, if you prefer.

Seven Veils Cake

Chocolate crunch base
100g dark (70%) chocolate
50g feuilletine or crushed corn flakes
50g toasted, chopped hazelnuts

  • Line the tin you’re going to use to build the cake with cling film.
  • Blitz the hazelnuts in the food processor until they become a paste. (You’ll need more of this paste for the Praline Bavarian Cream, so maybe blitz all the hazelnuts together at once).
  • Break the chocolate into pieces and melt.
  • Stir in the hazelnut paste and the feuilletine.
  • Press the mixture into the tin and smooth over. NB This layer should be no more than 5mm thick, otherwise it will be too chunky-monkey to cut easily.
  • Fold over the clingfilm to cover.
  • Put into the fridge to set

Chocolate Joconde sponge

I bake this in a single, half-sheet pan (30cm x 45cm) and the cut the sponge to size. You can use 2 or 3 round cake tins if you prefer, but make sure to bake for slightly less time.

90g egg whites, at room temperature
15g granulated sugar
112g ground almonds
112g icing sugar, sifted
3 large eggs
20g plain flour
20g cocoa powder
45g clarified butter, melted

  • Preheat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan
  • Line a 45cm x 30cm (half sheet) baking tray with baking parchment and brush with the melted butter.
  • Make the Joconde sponge:
    • Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks.
    • Add the granulated sugar and continue whisking until stiff peaks are formed.
    • Scrape the meringue mixture into a bowl and cover with cling film to prevent the meringue collapsing.
    • Beat the almonds, icing sugar and eggs in the bowl for 5 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy.
    • Turn the speed down to low and mix in the flour and cocoa powder.
    • Gently fold in the meringue mixture using a large spatula.
    • Put the melted butter in a small bowl and mix in a cupful of the sponge batter. Pour this back into the mixing bowl and gently fold into the rest of batter.
  • Pour the batter into the prepared baking tin, spreading it smooth and into the corners ensuring it is level. An offset spatula is useful for this.
  • Bake for 5-7 minutes, until the sponge is cooked and springy to the touch and has shrunk away from the edges of the pan.
  • Turn out by covering the sponge with a sheet of parchment then flip the baking tray over onto the work surface. Peel off the parchment and lay it lightly on top of the sponge. Leave to cool.

Bavarian Cream
Bavarian cream is basically a custard with added gelatine, with flavourings and cream folded through. If you want to break down the process because of lack of time, it can be made in two parts. The first part is the custard base, the second adding the flavourings and gelatine when ready to construct the cake. If you do this, then warm the custard slightly before trying to stir in the soaked gelatine.

250ml milk
2 large egg yolks
35g cornflour
85g sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 leaves (8g) gelatine

650ml double cream
100g dark (70%) chocolate
100g toasted, chopped hazelnuts – blitzed to powder/paste

  • Soak the gelatine in water to cover for 10 minutes.
  • Heat the sugar and the milk until almost boiling.
  • Whisk the cornflour, vanilla and egg yolks together, then gradually whisk in the sweetened milk.
  • Return the mixture to the heat and continue heating and stirring until thickened.
  • Remove custard from the heat.
  • Drain the gelatine and stir into the warm custard until fully dissolved.
  • Cover with clingfilm to prevent a skin forming.

Chocolate Bavarian Cream: To one third of the above custard, stir in 100g dark (70%) melted chocolate, then fold through 250ml whipped double cream.
Praline Bavarian Cream: To half of the remaining custard, stir in the hazelnut powder/paste and fold through 250ml whipped double cream.
Vanilla Bavarian Cream: Fold through 150ml whipped double cream.

Simple Syrup: Dissolve 75g of sugar in 150ml water.

To Assemble The Cake

  • Remove the feuilletine base from the tin and set aside.
  • Line the tin with cling film over the bottom and the sides.
  • Pipe the chocolate Bavarian cream into the base of the cake and smooth over.
  • Add a layer of Joconde sponge, cut to size.
  • Soak the sponge with the simple syrup. This will ensure each mouthful is moist and tender.
  • Pipe the Praline Bavarian Cream and smooth over.
  • Add a layer of Joconde sponge, cut to size.
  • Soak the sponge with the simple syrup.
  • Pipe the Vanilla Bavarian Cream and smooth over.
  • Unwrap the feuilletine layer and press it, upside-down, into the cream.
  • Cover the cake with cling film and put into the freezer for a minimum of 8 hours.
  • 12 hours before you wish to serve the cake, make and glaze it with the chocolate mirror glaze.

Chocolate Mirror Glaze
4 leaves (8g) gelatine
175ml water
150ml double cream
225g granulated sugar
75g cocoa powder

  • Cut the gelatine into small pieces and soak in water to cover.
  • Put the rest of the ingredients into a saucepan and heat gently, stirring, to dissolve the sugar.
  • Continue stirring and, once the sugar is dissolved, bring to the boil.
  • Simmer for 3-4 minutes, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 104°C
  • Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool for 5 minutes. Keep stirring as the base of the pan will still be very hot and might burn the mixture.
  • Leave to cool until the mixture reaches 50°C, then drain the gelatine and stir into the mixture until it is fully dissolved.
  • Let the mixture cool further until just 35°C and is beginning to thicken and set. Now it is time to glaze the cake.

Glazing the Cake

  • Remove the cake from the freezer and turn out.
  • Cover the removable base of the tin (if you have one) with a double layer of foil and place it under the base of the frozen cake. This foil layer will be useful when you need to transfer your cake to your presentation plate.
  • Put the cake onto a wire rack, and balance the rack on the rim of a large bowl. The bowl must be big enough to catch the excess glaze as it drips off the sides of the cake.
  • Pour the glaze onto the middle of the cake. It will run easily over the frozen cream and start dripping off the sides.
  • Move the pan around so that the sides are fully covered.
  • There is more than enough glaze to cover the cake. The excess in the bowl underneath can be stored in the fridge for other uses.
  • Once the glaze has stopped dripping, move the cake to the refrigerator and leave overnight.
  • Remove the cake 2 hours before required to allow it to come to room temperature and the creams to soften.
  • Enjoy!