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Simnel Cake
Adapted from The Festive Food of Ireland by Darina Allen
Mothering Sunday has been celebrated in the British Isles on the fourth Sunday in Lent since at least the 16th century. The custom possibly originated in the church festival of "Refreshment Sunday" when everyone was expected to revisit the church in which they were baptised - their "mother church." Naturally, this would also give people the opportunity to visit their families - especially their mothers. Eventually this became the prime purpose of the annual visit and the custom was so well-established that employers were required to give servants enough time off to visit mothers who lived at a distance - provided the trip did not exceed 5 days!

The traditional Mothering Sunday gifts of Simnel Cake and posies of spring flowers - especially violets, were brought to Ireland by English settlers. Originally, the cake was a case of hard pastry, coloured gold with saffron and filled with all types of dried fruits. The pastry was made from a high quality wheat flour, called simila (from the Latin word for fine flour), hence the name Simnel. It was customary to include crystallized violets as part of the decorations. It's also decorated with eleven small marzipan balls representing eleven of the twelve apostles. Judas is missing because he betrayed Jesus.

Ingredients:
Cake:
2 generous cups sultanas
1-1/2 generous cups currants
1-1/2 cups raisins
1/2 cup glacé cherries, washed and chopped
Scant 1/2 cup ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
Generous 1/4 cup Irish whiskey
2 sticks butter
1-1/2 cups light soft brown sugar
6 eggs, beaten
2-1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon mix spice
1 large or 2 small cooking apples - grated
Almond Paste
4 cups ground almonds
2 cups caster/superfine sugar
2 small eggs
1/4 cup Irish whiskey
Drop of almond essence

Method:
1. Line the base and sides of a 9-inch round or 8-inch square pan with brown paper and grease-proof paper
2. Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds, lemon zest and orange zest. Add the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to soak in
3. In the meantime, make the almond paste. Sieve the sugar and mix with the ground almonds. Beat the eggs, add the whiskey, and 1 drop of almond essence, then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste.
4. Sprinkle your work surface with confectioner's sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth. Set aside
5. To make the cake, cream the butter until very soft, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy
6. Add the eggs bit by bit, beating well between each addition so that the mixture doesn't curdle
7. Mix the spice with the flour and fold in gently
8. Combine the grated apple and fruit and then stir gently but thoroughly into the cake mixture (don't beat again as you will toughen the cake)
9. Put half the cake mixture into the prepared pan
10. Roll out half the almond paste into an 8-1/2 inch round. Place this on top of the cake mixture in the pan. Then cover this with the remaining cake mixture. Make a slight hollow in the center and dip your hand in water; pat over the surface of the cake to ensure the top is smooth when cooked.
11. Bake at 325F for one hour, the reduce the heat to 300 and bake for another two hours, or until the cake is cooked. (A skewer inserted in the middle should come out perfectly clean). Leave cake to cool in the pan
12. When cake is thoroughly cooled, remove from pan.
13. Roll two thirds of the remaining almond paste into a 9-inch round. Brush the cake with a little lightly beaten egg white and top with the almond paste.
14. Roll the last of the almond paste into eleven balls about the size of a walnut. Score the top of the cake in 1-1/2 inch squares and brush with beaten egg or yolk. Stick the balls around the outer edge of the top and brush with beaten egg. Cover the sides of the cake with a strip of foil and then place under the grill in a pre-heated 425F oven for 15 to 20 minutes until slightly golden.

Images: Simnel Cake from The Festive Food of Ireland by Darina Allen
Violets by Katharina Schottler from Barewalls Photos & Prints

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