Thursday, 21 March 2013

It's Easter...

Well, almost. So let's talk about Simnel cake.

Simnel cake, for those who might not know, is a spicy, pale fruit cake with a layer of marzipan baked into the middle and a layer on top, which is then grilled or gone over with a blowtorch. There are traditionally eleven marzipan balls on top, said to represent Jesus' disciples minus Judas. Being godless and geeky, I like to think it's one to represent each Doctor.

A Simnel cake looks like this (comedy chick in clothes optional):

Doing some research I found out a couple of things that surprised me. Simnel cake, while now associated with Easter, used to be eaten halfway through Lent - on Mother's Day, in fact, also called Refreshment Sunday. Perhaps a little break in the middle of Lent, more likely named after the point when Lent was not so much for fasting as for simply giving one thing up.

As with most traditions, the explanations vary but we do know that Simnel cake has been known of since Mediaeval times, and that the 11 marzipan balls were introduced, like so many traditions, by the Victorians.Whatever its history, though, Simnel cake is tasty. Rich and sweet, it deserves to be eaten when you're really hungry. Perfect with an afternoon cuppa, it's a lovely cake to put on the table when family and friends gather.

You can buy Simnel cakes in most independent bakeries (and please use independent bakeries when you can - the quality is always better) or, of course from Karen's Kitchen.

But it's also a rewarding cake to make. Tip everything in, give it a stir, cut out your marzipan and you're ready to go. If you fancy giving it a go, this is the recipe I favour, from the wonderful Mary Berry (and I don't wash the glace cherries!)

Here's my simplified version:

100g glacĂ© cherries
225g butter, softened
225g light muscovado suga
4 large eggs
225g self-raising flour
375g mixed dried fruit
lemons, grated zest only
2 tsp ground mixed spice

450g/1lb marzipan
1-2 tbsp apricot jam, warmed

1. Preheat the oven to 150C/280F/Gas 2. Grease and line a 20cm/8in cake tin.

2. Cut the cherries into quarters and place in a bowl with all the other ingredients except the marzipan and jam. Beat well until thoroughly mixed. Pour half the mixture into the prepared tin.
3. Take one-third of the marzipan and roll it out to a circle the size of the tin and then place on top of the cake mixture. Spoon the remaining cake mixture on top and level the surface.
4. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 2½ hours, or until well risen, evenly brown and firm to the touch. Cover with aluminium foil after one hour if the top is browning too quickly. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out, peel off the parchment and finish cooling on a wire rack.
5. When the cake is cool, brush the top with a little warmed apricot jam and roll out half the remaining marzipan to fit the top. Press firmly on the top. Form the remaining marzipan into 11 balls.
6. Brush the marzipan with beaten egg and arrange the marzipan balls around the edge of the cake. Brush the tops of the balls with beaten egg and then carefully place the cake under a hot grill until the top is lightly toasted.

Give it a go, impress your loved ones. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

I should Cacao

A friend of mine recently started stocking Hasslacher's 100% cacao drinking chocolate blocks in her shop so I had to get my hands on some. And I did.

To be honest, I have no idea what to do with it. When I make hot chocolate for myself I use unsweetened cocoa powder and add sugar to taste. If I want a real treat I melt down 80% chocolate and use that instead. Sometimes I add a sticky liqueur too - Kahlua is best, Tia Maria works well too. So I knew I could use the cacao for hot chocolate. But what I wanted was a way to make it work in baking.

This is the product:

It's made to appeal to people like me. Wrapped in wax paper, lovely graphics, produced in Colombia by the growers themselves. A happy package of feelgood chocolate.

The first thing I wanted to find out was how it differs from cocoa. I came across an excellent, non conclusive, argument here. After quite an extensive search, I still haven't come up with an answer. Is the cocoa powder I use at home (Bournville as a rule, Green & Black's if it's on offer) the same? The only conclusion I could draw is that it's basically the same. 

I gave it a go in butter icing, a simple experiment. I usually use sifted cocoa powder but sometimes use melted 80% chocolate instead. I had convinced myself that the chocolate gives a richer taste than the cocoa in both icing and cakes but I think it's the added fat of the chocolate rather than the taste that makes it so. The cacao, I thought would add the richness without the extra sweetness. It did, but I could find no difference to cocoa powder.

So cheer myself up, I melted two squares, added milk and two teaspoons of demerara sugar, stirred it up, gave it a whizz with the aerolatte and had the most amazing cup of hot chocolate ever. This IS different to cocoa power and to 80% chocolate. It's bitter like coffee. Enjoyably sweet to to drink but with that satisfying backnote that coffee provides. 

For that reason alone I love this and will buy more when I'm out. As for baking, I'm not giving up. Next time I have an excuse to make cakes I'll do two separate ones and take the taste test. I'm also going to try a ganache and a much richer chocolate icing. A baking friend is going to try using chunks in cookies, and another makes it into hot chocolate with coconut milk. 

I'll keep you posted. Now, where did I put the mini marshmallows?

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