A traditional Gluten Free Simnel Cake recipe decorated with marzipan for Mothering Sunday and Easter. Optional dairy free.
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A traditional Gluten Free Simnel Cake in time for Easter
I’ve created a delicious Gluten Free Simnel Cake! After asking for ideas about Easter recipes that needed to be added to the blog, the two that were most requested were Simnel Cake and Hot Cross Buns. The Hot Cross Buns I definitely expected to be on the list. But I was a little more surprised about the request for gluten free Simnel Cake… Although I’m not sure why… It’s such an iconic Easter bake.
The Hot Cross Buns have been absolutely perfected. Such an incredible recipe… Soft and doughy, yet light… Moist enough to stay soft for a couple of days… Rich with fruit and spice and full of Easter promise. No one would ever know they are gluten free. In fact, the recipe is so good, that I even created a second Chocolate Chip Hot Cross Buns version, for the chocolate lovers out there. Hot cross Buns? Done!
So, now it’s time for the gluten free Simnel Cake. If there’s one thing I do… It’s listen to you lovely lot!
What is Simnel Cake?
For those of you unfamiliar with this Easter treat, a Simnel Cake is a fruit cake. But not just any old fruit cake… Simnel Cake specifically contains a layer of marzipan (or marzipan pieces) sandwiched and baked into the centre of the cake. And… importantly… The fruit sponge should be lighter and less heavily-laden with fruit than its Christmas cake cousin.
Traditionally, Simnel Cake enjoys an extra layer of marzipan on top of the cake… Which is then further topped with eleven (and that’s specifically eleven) balls of Marzipan round the edges.
Simnel Cake (gluten free or otherwise) may be a less popular Easter choice than it used to be, having been usurped by all things chocolate. Having said that, from a quick look at foodie social media, I reckon it may just be making a bit of a come back!
A brief history of Simnel Cake
According to British Food History, the origins of Simnel Cake go back to mediaeval times, where it apparently started life as a yeast-leavened bread. Made with top quality flour (the word ‘simnel’ thought to be derived from the Latin ‘simila’, meaning fine flour), this ‘simnel’ bread would have been considered quite special.
By the 17th and 18th Centuries, the treat had morphed into a pudding, somewhat similar to a fruit and spice steamed pudding, which may have then been wrapped and baked in pastry. Indeed, it is only towards the latter part of the 19th Century that the recipe begins to resemble a cake. And not until the 20th Century that marzipan gets added and the Simnel Cake we know today comes into being.
Association with Mothering Sunday
Interestingly, Simnel Cake was traditionally associated with Mothering Sunday which falls in the middle of Lent. And it teased a bit of sweet joy in the midst of fasting. But to be clear… Mothering Sunday actually had nothing to do with treating your mother to flowers and chocolate (or even Simnel Cake) at the start. Back in the 16th Century, Mothering Sunday (the fourth Sunday of Lent) was in fact the day when congregations of local Parish (‘daughter’) churches would visit the main or ‘mother’ church of the region (often a cathedral or abbey) for a special service.
By the 17th Century, Mothering Sunday started offering field and farm workers a day off to visit their mothers. And with this, came the tradition of girls making a Simnel bake to take as a gift. This would then be saved until Easter Sunday to be enjoyed as a family. It seems the gifting tradition held strong… Although in a 21st Century world, it seems to have as much to do with commercial profit as it does with care.
Why are there 11 balls of marzipan on top of a Simnel Cake?
Marzipan is a characteristic feature of a Simnel Cake and is found both within and on top of the sponge. But equally important is the expectation that the top of the cake is adorned with eleven marzipan balls. This is both specific and symbolic… Each ball is said to represent a disciple of Jesus, minus Judas the traitor.
Is this recipe for Gluten Free Simnel Cake a traditional recipe?
Yes. Absolutely! My recipe for a gluten free Simnel Cake may not contain fine wheat flour (‘simila’), but it is definitely traditional and authentic. The only changes made have been to add a careful balance of additional liquid and also ground almonds to the flour blend for moisture and structure.
Actually… I managed to slightly over-bake mine as I got distracted. But it was still utterly delicious.
But if you want a little twist, Gluten Free Alchemist also has a Simnel Traybake recipe that is perfect for sharing and bake sales.
What flour is best for a Gluten Free Simnel Cake?
The flour used to develop my Gluten Free Simnel Cake was the Gluten Free Alchemist rice free flour Blend B. I have found this to be the best flour for baking fruit cakes, not just because of the protein and moisture-retaining structure that it brings, but for its richness of flavour derived from the wholegrain flours it contains.
Having said this, I have no doubt that the cake will work well with alternative flour blends (including rice-based commercial mixes such as Doves).
Whichever flour you use (and especially if using a commercial rice-based brand), the ground almonds will definitely help ensure a richer and more texturally delicious crumb as well as a better shelf-life.
What marzipan should I use for Simnel Cake?
The marzipan used for Simnel cake is down to personal choice. Some cakes use yellow marzipan and some white. I have been unable to find anything that tells me any traditional expectation around this. However, most cakes that adorn the pages of Google look decidedly yellow.
It’s fine to use shop-bought marzipan (you’ll need about 500 g), but I used Homemade Marzipan which is super-simple to make. Seriously, I prepped a batch in the space of 10 minutes… Way quicker than a trip to the supermarket and without a doubt, a tastier result.
Can I make this Gluten Free Simnel Cake dairy free?
Unfortunately, the recipe relies on eggs, so my gluten free Simnel Cake is not recommended to be made egg free or vegan.
What equipment do I need to make this cake?
Traditional Simnel Cake is a deep fruit cake, made in a deep round baking tin. I use an 8 inch Masterclass spring-form tin with a loose base.
You will also need
- Some mixing bowls (I love bowls which have a non-slip base and lids (which are handy for sealing the bowl when soaking fruit)).
- A good set of kitchen scales
- Some measuring spoons
- Good quality baking parchment
- A Whisk
- And a Sturdy mixing spoon
Ready to make gluten free Simnel Cake?
So, with no further waffle, here’s my recipe for Gluten Free Simnel Cake. I hope you make it and love it as much as us. Do let me know if you make it… Leave a comment, a recipe rating or tag me with your photos of how it turned out on Social Media. You’ll find me on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.
For Lots of other Easter inspiration, we also have an Easter Index. And for everything else, grab a cuppa, take a seat and spend a happy half hour perusing our full Gluten Free Recipe Book (photographic index) with over 400 recipes. It’s all FREE!
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Gluten Free Simnel Cake
- 8 inch/20 cm non stick deep springform cake tin
- sharp knife
- kitchen foil
- 500 g marzipan gluten free (see NOTES for link to homemade)
Soaked Fruit – AHEAD OF TIME
- 300 g mixed dried fruit I used 150g sultanas; 75g currants; 75g raisins
- 125 g glacé cherries halved/quartered
- 50 g chopped mixed peel I use Italian Mixed Peel
- zest 1 orange and 1 lemon optional (finely grated)
- 120 ml orange and lemon juice I use about 80 ml orange + 40 ml lemon juice
- 180 g plain gluten free flour blend I use GFA rice free Blend B (see NOTES)
- 100 g ground almonds almond meal
- 1 tsp xanthan gum (or 2 tsp psyllium husk)
- 1 tsp baking powder gluten free
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground mixed spice
- pinch fine sea salt
- 220 g unsalted butter or dairy free alternative
- 225 g soft light brown sugar
- 4 large eggs UK large (Canadian ‘Extra Large’; Australian ‘Jumbo’; and US ‘Extra or Very Large’)
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1½ tsp orange extract (optional)
- 2 tbsp apricot jam
- 1 egg white beaten with a fork
- If making your own marzipan, make ahead of time and store as a block, wrapped tightly in baking paper and clingfilm, stored in the fridge.
- Weigh the fruit into a large bowl and add the zest (if using) and fruit juice.
- Stir well.
- Soak for at least 4 hours (and preferably overnight) to hydrate, stirring occasionally.
Prepare the cake tin
- Double line an 8 inch (20 cm) cake tin (at least 3 to 4 inches(8 to 10 cm) deep) with good quality non-stick baking parchment. (I cut a wide strip long enough for the circumference and fold it in half lengthways to make a double layer).
- Also base-line the tin with 2 circles of parchment (pre-cut).
- Pre-heat the oven to 160 C/315 F/Gas 2½-3.
- Weigh and mix together the flour, almonds, xanthan gum, baking powder, spices and salt. Set aside. (TIP: weigh into a large airtight container and shake vigorously).
- Using an electric whisk, beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
- In a separate bowl, beat the eggs together with a fork and then add little by little to the butter mixture, beating thoroughly between each addition.
- Add the oil and whisk again.
- Lastly, add the orange extract (if using) and beat through.
- Add the dry flour ingredients to the bowl and fold through quickly and lightly with a large spoon or spatula.
- Add the soaked fruit and zest and any remaining juice from the bowl to the mix and fold through again until evenly blended.
- Transfer half the cake batter to the prepared cake tin and smooth the top.
- Using a plate (or another slightly smaller cake tin as a guide), roll out about ⅓ of the marzipan and cut a circle about 18 cm in diameter.
- Carefully place the marzipan circle centrally on top of the first layer of cake batter.
- Transfer the rest of the cake batter to the baking tin on top of the marzipan and spread evenly.
- Bake in the preheated oven for about 1½ to 1¾ hours until the top is firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean. Part-way through cooking cover the cake with a piece of foil to prevent the top burning. Keep a close eye so as not to over-bake as this will dry the sides of the cake.
- Once baked, remove from the oven and leave in the tin for 10 minutes, before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Decorating the Cake with Marzipan
- Warm the apricot jam in a small bowl in the microwave for a few seconds (or over a bowl of steaming water) to loosen.
- Using a pastry brush, brush the top of the fruit cake with the warmed apricot jam.
- Roll out just over half of the remaining marzipan (on a sheet of non-stick baking paper) and (using the base of an 8 inch (20 cm) cake tin as a guide) cut out a circle.
- Position the marzipan circle evenly on top of the jam on the cake.
- Crimp the edge of the marzipan using your fingers to make the edge pretty (optional).
- Lightly beat an egg white with a fork and brush a light layer on top of the marzipan circle.
- Take the remaining marzipan and roll into 11 even-sized balls (representing the 11 apostles of Christ, minus Judas) and arrange evenly around the top outer edge of the cake (the egg white should help them to stick in place).
- Give the marzipan balls a light brushing with egg white too.
- To finish, use a culinary blow-torch to lightly brown patches of the marzipan (until just starting to bubble). Do this carefully so that it browns rather than burns. (If you don’t have a blowtorch, place the cake under a gentle grill for a few seconds, but keep a close eye and turn as needed).
© 2019-2023 Kate Dowse All Rights Reserved – Do not copy or re-publish this recipe or any part of this recipe on any other blog, on social media or in a publication without the express permission of Gluten Free Alchemist
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