Simnel cake is a classic English springtime spiced cake, lighter than the fruitcakes of the winter holidays. Its formula as well as its occasion has evolved pretty significantly over the past two centuries or so - while it’s more recently become an Easter cake made from a quick batter, it was originally a yeast-leavened rich bread dough and made for an earlier spring holiday (typically Mothering Sunday). A few features have remained constant throughout those changes: the mixed fruit, the spice, the egg- and butter-enriched but not-too-sugary base, and - perhaps most distinctively - a layer of almond paste baked inside the cake and one more layer atop the cake.
I wanted to pay homage to the many varied forms this cake has taken, yet also reinvent it further. The result - a Simnel torte, if you will - is a sort of deconstructed version, more relaxed and effortless than the classic cake, and with added elements of some other light European cakes that might be considered its distant cousins. Rather than layering with almond paste, I’ve incorporated ground almonds into the batter itself, as featured in so many classic tea cakes, sponges, and other pastries. (The apricot jam that conventionally moistens the top of the cake simply goes in the batter of my version also.) I use potato starch and a little buckwheat for the rest of the flour - both also appearing in numerous traditional European cakes. And as an acknowledgement to the original Simnel formula, I’ve returned the yeast to the cake to make it pleasantly light and bready. It’s a nice accompaniment to tea or coffee for a springtime afternoon.
Notes: Like most spiced cakes, this tastes even better when it’s rested for a day - so if you want it for Easter, I suggest making it tonight or tomorrow.
60 g milk + 60 g water, warmed
15 g buckwheat flour
⅛ tsp yeast
100 g almond flour
60 g potato starch
¾ tsp mixed spice (or ½ tsp ginger plus a pinch each of nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon)
30 g brown sugar
35 g butter, soft
½ tsp salt
2 eggs, separated, room temperature
18 g (a good tablespoonful) apricot preserves or ginger preserves (I used a combination!)
80 g currants, raisins, or a combination
15 g candied peel (you can make your own if you like)
40 g sliced almonds, for the top
For the glaze:
30 g powdered sugar
2 tsp brandy
1 tsp rosewater
½ tsp apricot preserves
Combine the buckwheat flour, yeast, milk, and water and set aside in a warm spot for about an hour. (If the flour settles, give it an occasional stir.)
Combine the almond flour, potato starch, and spices and set aside. Lightly whisk the egg whites. Cream together the butter, sugar, salt, yolks, and preserves. Beat in about half the dry mix, then the milk mixture, the beaten whites, and finally the remaining dry mix. Fold in the dried fruit and peel. Pour the mixture into a buttered 8” tart pan or springform pan and sprinkle the slivered almonds on top. Let it rise for 45-60 minutes (depending on how warm it is in your kitchen) - meanwhile heat the oven to 350º F / 175º C. Bake the cake for about 45 minutes. When the cake is almost done, whisk together the glaze ingredients. Pour the glaze over the cake immediately after removing it from the oven. Let the cake rest for several hours before serving.