The taste of Easter traditions: Weekend meets the bakers making simnel cakes
It’s a traditional Easter treat which has been eaten to celebrate the end of the 40 days of Lent since medieval times.
Simnel cakes had started to disappear from our Easter tables altogether but in recent years they have enjoyed a revival.
Made with dried fruit, they are topped with eleven marzipan balls to represent the eleven apostles of Christ, minus Judas the traitor.
Originally the cakes, which have a layer of marzipan running through the centre, were also decorated with fresh flowers but sugar flowers or chocolate eggs are often used by bakers today.
At the Simply Delicious Cake Company, near Ludlow, around 2,000 of these seasonal cakes are being made using a secret traditional recipe by Milly Hunter and her team this year.
They have been baking these cakes in preparation for Easter since January alongside their range of 12 different loaf cakes, round cakes and brownies.
“It’s a lighter fruit cake than Christmas cake and is packed with vine fruits and mixed spice with a layer of marzipan running through the centre,” she explains.
The company, based in converted barn buildings at Moor Farm, was started in 2002 by Milly and her husband Archie.
Milly, who previously ran a catering company and used to sell cakes at Ludlow Food Festival, began by making everything at her kitchen table.
But the business quickly grew from there as her creations won fans around the country and now it employs six full-time staff.
As well as a range of cakes available all year round, they also produce seasonal favourites including their Simnel cakes.
These are baked in three different of sizes; four inch, five inch, eight inch, and they also offer a loaf version and cater for gluten allergies.
This year the company is supplying the National Trust with hundreds that are being distributed to sites across the country as well as local retailers such as Dukeshill in Telford.
They are also sold through the Simply Delicious Cake Company website and Milly says the traditional Easter cake has made a successful comeback in recent years.
“I think it’s because people want to know more about where their food is coming from and want something that’s hand-made.
“Also, people want something with a tradition or story about it which Simnel cake has,” she explains.
There is lots of different theories about the origins of Simnel cake. Some people say it was traditionally baked for Mothering Sunday during the Easter period in the 17th century.
This was when sons and daughters got the day off to visit their mothers and the daughters would bake the cake simply as a gift.
Others say it was a post-Lent treat as it contained all the things you weren’t allowed to eat.
“We always make Simnel cake with good quality fruit and butter as well as free range eggs and a natural marzipan.
“Everything is done by hand including rolling out all of the marzipan balls for the top of the cakes,” says Milly, who has previously supplied cakes to Harrods and Fortnum & Mason.
How the cakes are made
The recipe along with all the others used by the team have been honed and perfected over Milly’s years of experience
The middle marzipan layer is added before the cake goes in the over. Half of the mixture is spooned into the tin while being weighed to ensure both top and bottom are even.
Next, a rolled out piece of marzipan is placed on top and then covered with the same amount of mixture.
Once the cake has come out of the oven and been left to cool, they are each decorated by hand.
A thin layer of apricot jam glaze is spread across the top and a layer of marzipan is lightly pressed on.
A cook’s blow torch is then used to lightly heat the cake topping until the marzipan is golden-brown.
Eleven marzipan balls, which are also browned, are added and more apricot glaze is used to keep them in place along.
Finally, to finish the cake, five yellow flowers made from icing are then placed in the centre.
After being decorated the cakes are shrink wrapped to keep them fresh before being carefully labelled and packed ready to be dispatched to their customers.
Some are packed into pretty gift boxes that have been created from floral paintings by artist Josephine Trotter.
500 cakes a day
Easter is the second busiest time of the year after Christmas for the team who begin preparing for the festive season in June.
They can produce an average of 500 cakes a day to meet demand and they have supplied customers across the globe.
The range of loaf cakes, which all come packed in a card craft box with their signature watchstrap label, includes apricot and ginger, apple, pear and beer, dark chocolate, marmalade and fruit cake.
There is also a choice of round fruit cakes, including chocolate, apricot, lime and ginger and Dundee, and a selection of baby cakes and a newly-introduced mini hamper.
They also support local businesses using beer from the Ludlow Brewing Company and award-winning marmalade from the Ludlow Food Centre.
Due to popular demand, the company has also branched out into wedding cakes offering non-fruit cakes such as lemon and elderflower, chocolate and Victoria sponge filled with buttercream and passion fruit. They can be iced or left ‘naked’ and also be gluten free.
“A lot more people are wanting sponge cakes for weddings rather than the traditional fruit cake.
“They also want the option of decorating them themselves with fresh flowers instead of icing,” explains Milly.
She says she is delighted to be running a thriving family business and enjoys cooking up new recipes for cakes.
“I like trying new recipes and increasing our range. I like getting good feedback and when we get a new customer. It’s very rewarding,” says Milly.