Simnel cake with marzipan baked inside is a British spring or Easter tradition that dates back a few centuries, with a much debated history. Whatever its origins, it is made of a rich batter, full of dried fruit and candied peel, topped with yet more rolled marzipan. Additionally, it is traditional to decorate simnel cakes with small balls of marzipan to represent the apostles, sometimes only 11 because Judas is excluded, or 12 to represent the apostles and Jesus. These are often browned in the oven before serving.
I’ve written before in this space about trying to pass on my own American traditions to our daughters. What I may not have mentioned, because it’s really his own story to tell, is that my husband also grew up as an expat, a third culture kid. I am sure his mother and father did their best to impart some British traditions to him and his brothers but they went to American curriculum schools and never lived in the United Kingdom so, truth be told, his knowledge of British culture has huge gaps. Many times I have felt it incumbent upon me to shore up that side of our daughters education as well. Mainly because I've been an Anglophile since starting school in the British system. Rather secondarily, perhaps, because their father is British. Problem is, I’ve never lived in Great Britain either, so my information has been gleaned from those three years of schooling and what I learned reading ancient Anglo-Saxon literature as well as Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, historical novels, English Renaissance and Romantic period poets, countless biographies of Queen Victoria (I have kind of thing about her.), not to mention The Secret Garden. Oh, yes, and watching Thomas the Tank Engine, Rosie and Jim and Wallace and Grommit. So, as you can imagine, I have many cultural gaps as well. Simnel cake is one of them. I’ve certainly heard of it and knew pretty much what it was supposed to look like, down to the typical ingredients. But when my friend, Nicky, suggested Simnel muffins for Easter, I’d never made one before. Fortunately the internet is a knowledgeable place and I have mixed and matched several cake recipes to come to this delicious muffin conclusion. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Even if Simnel muffins aren’t traditional.
1.1 lb or 500g marzipan, divided (You may not use quite all of it.)
3/4 cup or 110g whole raw almonds
1 cup or 160g mixed dried fruits (Mine had currants, sultanas, raisins, cranberries and tart cherries)
1/4 cup or 60g mixed candied peel (orange and lemon)
1/2 cup or 120ml orange juice
2 tablespoons dark rum – optional but recommended – sub more juice if not using.
1 3/4 cups or 220g flour
3/4 cup or 170g sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1/2 cup or 120g butter, melted then cooled
1/3 cup or 75ml milk
Divide your marzipan into thirds and wrap two thirds in cling film and refrigerate.
Cut the last third into 12 reasonably equal pieces. Roll them into little balls and then flatten then into disks that are smaller than your muffin cups. Set aside.
Prepare your 12-cup muffin pan by greasing it with butter or non-stick spray, or lining the cups with paper liners.
Preheat your oven to 350°F or 180°C and put your almonds on a baking sheet in the oven while it preheats. Shake the baking sheet to move the almonds around every few minutes and take them out when you can smell that they are toasting. This will take anywhere from 7-18 minutes, depending on how long your oven takes to preheat. Mine takes at least 15 minutes so my nuts are usually in the whole time. Do not let the almonds scorch!
Meanwhile, heat your orange juice and rum in the microwave or in a small pot on the stove until they are just starting to boil and pour them over your dried fruit and peel. Leave to steep.
When the almonds are toasted, remove the pan from the oven and set them aside to cool. When they are cool, chop them in the food processor until they are in small pieces but not ground too finely.
In a large mixing bowl, combine your flour, sugar, baking powder, mixed spice, salt and chopped almonds.
In a small bowl, whisk together your eggs, milk and melted butter.
Pour your egg mixture and your mixed fruit, along with the soaking liquid, into the dry ingredients and fold until just combined.
Spoon half of the batter into the prepared muffin cups.
Press one disk of marzipan gently into the top of the batter.
Top with the balance of the batter, making sure that the disks of marzipan are completely covered.
Bake for 20-25 minutes in your preheated oven or until golden brown on top. The toothpick checking trick will give you a false underdone reading because the marzipan in the middle comes out sticky, so you’ll have to trust that, if your oven has been at the proper temperature, after 25 minutes, they are done.
While the muffins are baking, take the remaining marzipan out of the refrigerator and cut about one quarter off and set that aside. You may need it later when we are making apostles.
Cover your clean work surface with cling film and put the bigger piece of marzipan in the middle. Top with another piece of cling film.
Use a rolling pin to flatten the marzipan out until it’s less than a 1/8 in or about 3mm thick.
When the muffins are done, remove them from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for a few minutes, then put them on a wire rack.
Lift the top bit of cling film off of the rolled out marzipan and cut out circles with a cookie cutter.
Put your hand under the second piece of cling film and raise the marzipan slightly to help peel it off cleanly.
While they are still a bit warm, top each muffin with a circle of marzipan. The heat will warm the marzipan and help it stick to the muffin tops.
Now we are going to make the traditional 12 marzipan balls. Scoop up all of your marzipan scraps and roll them into a small log. If there is not much left, add some from the reserved marzipan you cut off earlier. I managed to use just the scraps but you may need more, depending on how thick you rolled out the batch for topping. You want 12 balls of about 3/4 in or 19mm. Or make smaller balls. Anyway, the extra marzipan is there, if you need it. Top each muffin with an apostle or Jesus marzipan ball.