There is so much good food to be eaten over Easter: hot cross buns, roast lamb, Easter bunny for the more adventurous among us, and, of course, Simnel cake, complete with its characteristic extra layer of marzipan running through the middle. Now, I’m certainly not the type to turn my nose up at dried fruit – far from it - but, however much mixed spice you throw at me this Easter will mean nothing if there’s no chocolate.
As far as I’m concerned, Easter might as well be renamed the festival of chocolate. Religious types might scoff at my sacrilege, but I’ll be too busy scoffing chocolate eggs to notice. For the secular amongst us, Easter is about little kids running around with melted chocolate smears all over their chubby cheeks, getting hyperactive and bouncing off walls and sofas, until it’s finally time for them to eat more chocolate. Whether it’s a bag of mini eggs, a Lindt bunny or the poshest of posh Paul A. Young salted caramel egg, I'll be happy. For this weekend only, if your eggs aren’t made of chocolate, you can leave them at the door.
My nephews and niece love my chocolate Easter cake topped with a chocolate Shredded Wheat nest, but for this Easter’s celebrations, I thought I’d bring more tradition to the table and make a Simnel cake instead. But not just any Simnel cake. I’m making a chocolate Simnel cake. That’s right. I’m sticking chocolate in a fruitcake and it’s going to be delicious. If you’re unconvinced by this combination, I can promise that a single bite will have you eating your words and then eating them again over a second slice.
My gluten free chocolate Simnel cake is slightly gooier than traditional Simnel cake, but as far as I’m concerned that’s just one of its many bonuses. It’s best made a few days in advance if possible, as it tends to cut better after a spell in an airtight tin, but you can leave it as late as Easter morning if you like. It won’t affect the taste, you’ll just end up with a slightly claggier knife while slicing, which is no great hardship.
This may look like a lot of ingredients, and it is, but fear not. This cake is a “bung it altogether” sort of recipe. You don’t need to cream the butter and sugar or even get your electric whisk out. If you want to make a larger cake, you can double the ingredients and increase the baking time by 25 minutes for a 9” tin. If you don’t need it to be gluten free and don’t want to shop for fancy flours, plain wheat flour can be substituted for the rice. And finally, if “hazelpan” appeals less than traditional marzipan, you can swap the hazelnuts for almonds, and the Frangelico for almond extract (or Amaretto). This hazelpan recipe contains raw eggs, but you can find my recipe for a cooked marzipan here, if raw eggs are a concern for you.
Happy Easter! May your day be as chocolate-filled as mine!
Chocolate Simnel Cake
For the cake150g prunes, pitted and chopped (it’s easiest to snip them up with kitchen scissors)
70g sour cherries
50g natural glacé cherries, cut in half
2 balls of Chinese stem ginger in syrup, finely chopped
65ml of ginger syrup (from the stem ginger jar)
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
The grated zest and juice of 2 oranges
85g dark muscovado sugar
2 tbsp. cocoa
100g dark chocolate
40g ground hazelnuts (or you can use almonds if you prefer)
75g rice flour
2 tsp. mixed spice
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
A large pinch of bicarbonate of soda
A large pinch of baking powder
1 large egg, beaten
For the hazelnut marzipan or “hazelpan”200g skinned hazelnuts.
200g icing sugar, sifted
A splash of Frangelico (or you can use brandy)
1 large egg, beaten
1 tbsp. of apricot jam
1 egg yolk
For the cake, bung the fruit, ginger, syrup, booze, sugar, butter, vanilla, orange zest and juice, cocoa and chocolate in a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until everything has melted. Take off the heat and leave to cool.
In the meantime, make the hazelpan. Toast the nuts in a dry frying pan, tip them out into a cold dish and leave to cool. Once completely cold, blitz the nuts in a food processor until ground to a powder, add the icing sugar and blitz again. Add the beaten egg and a couple of teaspoons of Frangelico and pulse to combine. Tip it out and knead for a minute before popping it in a sandwich bag. Chill it in the fridge until later.
Double line a 6” deep round tin with baking parchment. Make sure the parchment comes a good two to three inches higher than the tin. Next, wrap the outside of the tin with brown parcel paper (again higher than the tin) and tie with food string.
Preheat the oven to 150°C (135°C fan)/300°F (275°F fan)/Gas Mark 2
Sift the flour over the saucepan of the cooled chocolate mixture. Add the hazelnuts, spices and raising agents and mix the whole lot together with a wooden spoon. Add the egg and mix together again until everything is combined. Pour half of the mixture in the cake tin.
Roll out a third of the marzipan into a circle about 1cm thick and place it on top of the cake mixture and pat it down. Pop the remaining marzipan back in its bag and back in the fridge until later.
Pour the rest of the mixture over the marzipan and level the top. Pop the cake in the oven for 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours. The centre of the cake will leave a sticky residue on your cake skewer, but don’t worry, it’s just the melted marzipan in the middle. Let the cake cool completely in its tin on a wire rack.
Preheat the grill
Roll eleven small balls of marzipan in your hands to make the eleven disciples (excluding Judas). Roll the remaining marzipan in a circle that is slightly larger than the cake, so you have enough excess to crimp the edges. Warm the apricot in a saucepan and paint over the top of the cake. Stick the disc of marzipan on top of the cake and crimp the edges. Brush the top with the egg yolk, stick on the marzipan balls round the edge and brush the tops of the balls with more egg yolk. Leave for a couple of minutes until the egg yolk dries. Pop the cake under the grill for a few minutes until golden brown. Keep an eye on it as it can catch very quickly.
Pop the cake on a plate and, once cold, decorate as you wish. I chose to adorn mine with little fluffy Easter chicks, because I thought they were the coolest things ever when I was a child. In fact I still do, come to think of it.