To make a Simnel

Before I moved to England to study a decade ago, I had never heard of a Simnel Cake. When I asked people what it was, I usually got the same response: a light fruit cake for Easter. Needless to say, I was initially baffled by the concept of a “light” fruit cake.  But when I finally tried a Simnel Cake I knew I’d been missing out. It was sweet with marzipan and candied peel, rich with spice, and yes, it was “light.”  Now I always urge my spouse to make one as Easter approaches. We also usually re-watch this clip about Simnel-baking and egg-tossing from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage series, too.

Although the origins of the Simnel Cake are highly debated, the Oxford English Dictionary includes mentions of Simnel from medieval and early modern sources. It’s long been “A kind of bread or bun made of fine flour” and “A rich currant cake, usually eaten on Mid-Lent Sunday in certain districts.” When I saw a recipe “To make a Simnel” in perennial favorite manuscript MS Codex 785, I knew which version of the Easter Simnel I’d be making this year.

The Recipe

simnel

To make a Simnel
Take half a peck of flour five or six whites of Eggs
well beaten a pint and an half of good milk, a quarter
of a pint of Sack, six Ounces of sugar, two pound
of Raisins of the Sun, two pound of Currants
half a pint of good Balme, three Nutmegs a
Race of Ginger, a little pepper, Cloves and Mace
make it into paste boyl it and it.

From the start, I wasn’t sure how much this would taste like a “light fruit cake” without the marzipan and candied peel showcased in modern recipes. But the recipe seemed straightforward except for that “half a pint of good Balme.” Ivan Day’s historical baking guide suggests that liquid “balme” in baking recipes often refers to liquid “barm,” or the yeasty scum on the top of home-brewed beer. This barm would have been full of wild beer yeasts. It leavened the bread and imparted funky fermented flavors. Researching this ingredient led me to treat this recipe for Simnel as a rich yeast bread.

Our Recipe

Our version of the Simnel receipt is quartered from the original recipe and makes two hearty loaves. I hand-kneaded this bread, but a standing mixer with a dough hook should also do the trick. Since this is a yeast bread, make sure you budget for an hour and a half of rising time! Alternatively, you can prepare the dough in advance. Keep it in you fridge overnight, allow it to return to room temperature for about an hour or so, and then bake it.

It was fun to pour a favorite local beer into this dough. I used Yards “Brawler,” an English mild style session beer,  but other lagers and pale ales will work as well.  Feel free to experiment with other beers and let us know if they impart unique flavors to the bread. I also used brandy in place of the sack, but sherry is an equally good substitute.

4 1/2 C flour (1.75 lb)
1/4 C sugar (1.5 oz)
1 t yeast
1/2 t nutmeg, freshly grated or ground
1 t ground ginger
1/4 t black pepper, freshly ground or pre-ground
1/4 t ground cloves
1/4 t mace
1 1/2 C raisins (1/2 lb)
1 1/3 C currants (1/2 lb)
3/4 C milk
2 egg whites, beaten
1 C beer
1 oz sack

Mix the dry ingredients — flour, sugar, yeast, spices — in a large, sturdy bowl. Add the raisins and currants.

Add the milk to the dry mix and stir it in. Add the eggs and continue stirring. Add the beer and the sack. The mix should resemble a rough dough that you can shape into a ball. If it’s too wet to handle, add a little more flour by the tablespoonful. Alternatively, if it’s too dry, add water, milk, or beer by the tablespoonful to soften it.

Knead the dough on a floured surface for five minutes until the dough is smooth. It should look glossy and consistent. Don’t worry if the raisins and currants keep falling out of the dough! Just fold them back in. Shape the dough into a ball.

Place the dough into a bowl greased with butter, baking spray, or oil. Set in a warm place to rise for about an hour and a half. This dough doesn’t rise dramatically because of the huge amount of dried fruit mixed into it. The dough is ready to bake when it springs back when poked.

Preheat your oven to 375F. Grease two baking sheets with butter, baking spray, or oil. I shaped my dough into two, round, free-style loaves, but you can also bake it in a well-greased rectangular or circular baking tin.

Bake for 35-40 minutes until the loaves are nicely browned on top and bottom. When you turn them over and tap the bottom, the bread should make a hollow sound.

The Results

This is a delicious, spicy, fruity bread.  It reminds me more of spiced, English hot cross buns than the modern simnel cakes I’ve eaten. The pepper keeps catching me off guard as I eat slices with tea whilst grading a huge pile of midterms and papers. The beer, milk, and eggs add a sweet richness to the bread that I’d normally expect from a loaf of challah. It makes great toast and I anticipate it freezing well, too.

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To make a seed cake

So, I chose to make this particular recipe because 1) I had all the ingredients on hand, and 2) it looked easy. I admit it – no loftier goals than that. But isn’t ease and convenience how we often choose recipes? And perhaps the same applied for this cake’s original cooks. After all, we don’t always have the inclination (or eggs) to make a “rich cake” that requires 24 eggs. But a simple cake that requires only four ingredients? No wonder Catherine Cotton included this recipe in her book.

This “seed cake” comes from one of our favorite volumes, Catherine Cotton’s UPenn Ms. Codex 214. We’ve seen seed cakes come up in other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century recipe books, so it seems safe to say that seed cake was probably fairly common at the time. Interestingly, this recipe would have yielded quite a large cake: halved, it more than filled an 8″ round, so this would have been cake for a crowd.

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The Recipe

seed cakes

To make a seed cake

Take the whites of 8 eggs beat them very well then
put the yolks to them & beat them very well together then
put to it a pound of sugar beat & sifted very fine & beat
it for half an hour then make it a little warm over the
fire & after that put in 3 quarters of a pound of flower
very well dryed a quarter of an ounce of carraway seeds
stirr it well together & put it into the pan it will take 3
quarters of a hour to bake it /

Our Recipe
(halved from the original)

4 eggs, separated
1 heaping c. (1/2 lb.) sugar
1 1/4 c. (6 oz. or 3/8 lb.) flour
1.5 tsp. (1/8 oz.) caraway seeds

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9″ round pan or other baking dish.*

In a standing mixer or with a handheld mixer, beat eggs whites until stiff but not dry. Then add egg yolks and beat until mixture is uniformly yellow and still fluffy. Add sugar and beat at medium speed for about 10 mins., or until light and shiny.* Scrape down bowl and stir in flour and caraway seeds with a spatula.

Bake for 45-50 mins., until top is dry and firm to the touch. Cool in pan 10 mins., then run a knife around the edges to loosen it and turn cake out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

*Note: I used an 8″ round pan and, as you can see, barely escaped a cake batter overflow disaster. 9″ would be safer.

**Note: I actually forgot the next step, to “make it a little warm over the fire”! This didn’t seem to detract from the final outcome, but you might set the mixing bowl briefly over a double boiler if you’d like to be thorough!

The Results

I’m always curious to try a recipe that we see come up, with minor variations, across multiple recipe books. But I didn’t have extraordinarily high hopes for this cake – eggs + sugar + flour + caraway seeds? I expected something blandly palatable, mildly sweet, perhaps dense and a little dry.

Instead, I ended up with something between a pound cake and an angel food cake: sweet without being cloying, moist, nicely chewy, with a sweet crackly crust. Hello, seed cake! Welcome to the rotation – I’ll be making this one again. And while the simplicity of the recipe is part of its charm, it also means that there’s plenty of room for experimentation with extracts, zest, different seeds in different amounts, perhaps even finely chopped dried fruit or miniature chocolate chips. Wrapped well, it stayed moist for several days. And it’s a lovely cake to have with tea or coffee.

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