Oops. It’s Mother’s Day Not Mothra’s Day
Perhaps it’s that we celebrated Mother’s Day at church a month and a half ago; or perhaps it’s that I just read my calendar wrong, but I now realize that today is not Mothra’s Day but rather Mother’s Day.
Why did we celebrate Mother’s Day in March? The traditional Mother’s Day is also called Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or Laetare Sunday, and comes the fourth Sunday in Lent. It’s the day on which servant girls would be given the day off to go home and visit their mother at their home parish. They would bake special cakes to take home called simnel cakes. Nobody’s quite sure where the term simnel comes from, but it’s speculated that it has a relation to seed or semolina, and implies that it is made of the finest flour that could be found. This is a particularly English custom (although I’ve heard of simnel cakes in Ireland too) and it’s one that is practiced in the Anglo Catholic church I attend in New York.
On Laetare Sunday many of the congregants will bake simnel cakes and bring them to church. After the service, they are blessed by the priest, taken to the undercroft, and shared. We’re always reminded that this is not a competition, but it always feels good to be told that your cake was the favorite of So And So. My cake is a rather “adult” version of the traditional cake as I don’t shy away from rolling real maraschino cherries into the marzipan balls that adorn the top of the cake…and I use plenty of liquor. There is a traditional parish recipe that demands that the decorations be coloured with food colouring and that there be twelve balls on the cake. Here’s my recipe:
I do make my own marzipan by grinding almonds in my spice grinder to which I then add caster sugar and a bit of flavouring. The usual recipe asks for a bit of almond extract, but I don’t love almonds so I replace the almond extract with whatever smokey scotch I happen to have in my bar.
4 cups ground almonds
2 cups caster sugar
2 small eggs
1 tsp scotch
Combine all of the above ingredients in a bowl. If the paste is too moist, add more ground almonds until it is the consistency of a good dough. this can be done a day or two in advance of cooking the cake and kept in an air tight container in the fridge.
Simnel cake is a fruitcake, but don’t worry: you don’t need to begin this project months in advance as you would with a black fruitcake, but you should prepare the fruit for the cake a few days in advance of baking the cake.
5 cups of mixed sultanas, raisins, and currents. (Feel free to experiment. If you like sultanas [and can find them] but you don’t like currents, use more sultanas. Use a variety of golden and dark raisins, or substitute golden raisins for the sultanas. The thing that is important is that there be 5 cups of “raisins.”)
1/2 cup dried cherries (once again if you like the idea of more cherries you can add more so long as you reduce the amount of raisins by the amount of cherries you add above 1/2 a cup.)
Put the cherries and raisins in a bowl and cover with your favorite liquor. (I use a combination of Kirsch and Maraschino as I like the cherry flavour, but I’ve also used brandy and rhum.) Keep this along with the marzipan in the fridge, about two days, until you’re ready to bake the cake.
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup candied peel
2 sticks butter
1-1/2 cups light soft brown sugar
2-1/4 cups flour
2 tsp combination cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg
2 tbsp Gooseberry Jam
Once you have all of your ingredients assembled grease the base and sides of a 9-inch round pan with butter and line with brown paper. I use an extra deep pan as this is a two layer cake baked in one pan.
In a bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition. Mix the spice with the flour and fold in gently. Remove the fruit that’s been soaking from the liquor. Combine the fruit (Reserving 12 cherries for later), zest, and candied peel and gently fold into the batter. Put half the cake mixture into the prepared pan.
Dust your counter top and rolling pin with confectioners sugar and roll out one third the almond paste into a round to cover the batter in the cake pan. Place this on top of the uncooked batter in the pan. Cover the marzipan with the remaining batter making a small indentation in the center of the cake.
Bake at 325F for one hour, reduce the heat to 300 and bake for another two hours, or until a broom straw inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave cake to cool. When the cake is thoroughly cooled, remove from the pan and peel off the paper.
Use the jam to fill the indentation on the top of the cake. (Traditionally the jam used is apricot, but like the use of Kirsch, I’ve used some rather Germanic ingredients to reflect my own ancestral background.)
Roll half of the remaining almond paste into a 9-inch round and cover the top of the cake.
Roll the last of the almond paste into eleven, or twelve, balls about the size of a walnut placing one of the reserved Maraschino cherries in the center of each ball, and arrange the balls around the edge of the cake. The balls are said to represent the 11 apostles. At Saint Ignatius of Antioch the tradition is to have a twelfth ball for Mathias as the replacement for Judas on the top of the cake.
If you have a blowtorch, toast the top of marzipan on the top of the cake with your blow torch. You may also toast the marzipan in your broiler, but this can turn to catastrophe in an instant: if you leave it under the fire a second too long you’ll have a burnt crust on the top of your cake rather than a toasty treat.
Happy Mother’s Day!