I’ve been baking. First my Simnel cake and now my Hot Cross buns are proving, and are almost ready for the crosses to be piped onto them. In recent years I have taken to making the buns with a sourdough starter - in fact really since we moved to Orkney - although for many years in Sussex I would reach for the yeast. Both ways work well. This year I have a piping bag and suitable pipe at the ready: so many times I have got into the most unholy mess using homemade paper forcing bags, which doesn’t seem quite right when preparing Easter fare! The big thing is to do your Easter baking yourself - it simply tastes so much better. And I am not sure that I have ever seen a Simnel cake for sale in Orkney. Plenty of Doodlebugs with tiny chocolate eggs on top, but no Simnel cakes.
This is as far as the Simnel cake has got. What makes it my favourite cake of the year is the layer of marzipan baked into the centre of the fruit cake. The important thing is to work said marzipan into a round a little smaller than the diameter of your tin which will stop it burning during baking. I’m pretty pleased with how the cake looks - I can’t share a picture of it cut as it won’t be started until Sunday. But this is how it will look once iced and decorated, although hopefully the layer of marzipan won’t be taking a nosedive! Don’t you just love slightly sad (undercooked) fruit cake?!
The main shops and supermarkets on Orkney are about a twenty-five minute drive from us so we are frequent customers at our village shops, just 3 miles away in St Margaret’s Hope. There are two and, between them, they supply local spirits and beers, a small selection of wines, smoked salmon, local eggs and milk. There’s the Post Office, papers (who still buys papers, apart from the local rag The Orcadian?) magazines and so much more. Flour, sugar, yeast and fruits for baking, fresh meat and then the really unexpected things like crystallised ginger, marzipan and capers as well as a selection of fruit, veg (including fresh hot chillies) and cheeses. One of the shops is part of the refillable Orkney milk bottle scheme which has proved very popular. It also supplies bedding plants from a local nursery, and compost. Neither shop is beautiful from the outside, both are surprising inside. Let’s hope they keep going for many years to come.
St Margaret’s Hope is one of the two ferry terminals for boats arriving to Orkney from the Scottish Mainland. As the Islands became a popular tourist destination the streets in The Hup were too narrow for the ferry traffic and a by-pass was built. I just hope that tourists staying locally on South Ronaldsay or Burray do explore our local emporiums before heading to the supermarkets in Kirkwall - they need the tourist pounds in the summer as much as our year-round local custom. And they do stock a surprising range of ingredients for anyone who loves to cook.
Here are my two must-make-every-Easter recipes.
Makes 1 large cake
Having a layer of marzipan baked in the middle of the cake makes it very rich so I use a light, rubbed-in fruit cake recipe which doesn’t need time to mature, unlike a traditional Christmas cake.
- 500g pack golden marzipan + a little icing sugar
- 100g naturally coloured glacé cherries
- 6 large eggs
- 3 tbsp cream sherry, or similar
- 250g butter
- 500g self-raising flour
- 1 tsp ground mixed spice
- 200g Demerara sugar
- 500g mixed cake fruit
- 100-150ml milk
- 250g icing sugar
- 1 lemon
1. Preheat the oven to gas mark 4, 180°C, 350°F. Place the shelf 1 rung below the centre of the oven. Line a 23m deep springform or loose- bottomed tin with baking parchment.
2. Roll out 350g of the marzipan into a circle just a bit smaller than the prepared cake tin – use a little icing sugar to stop the marzipan from sticking as you roll. Wash the cherries under cold water in a sieve, shake dry then cut them in half. Beat the eggs with the sherry and cut the but- ter into small pieces.
3. Mix the flour and spice in a large bowl then add the butter and rub it into the flour, between your fingertips or with a mixer, until it is like bread-crumbs. Stir in the sugar, mixed fruit and cherries.
4. Add the eggs, sherry and 100ml of milk to the dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly then beat for about a minute until creamy, but don’t break up the fruits. Add the remaining milk if the mix is dry and not really creamy – you’ll need more milk if using wholewheat flour as it absorbs more liquid than white and you don’t want a crumbly finished cake.
5. Scrape half the mixture into the prepared tin and level the top. Add the rolled marzipan then cover with the remaining cake mixture. Bake in the centre of the oven for 1 3⁄4- 2 hours until the cake is cooked, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out cleanly – don’t worry about any stickiness from the marzipan. Another good test is to listen to the cake – a fruit cake will ‘sing’ if it is not cooked through, so a cooked cake is a quiet cake!
6. Remove the cake from the tin and cool on a wire rack.
7. To ice, sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl. Squeeze the juice from the lemon and add sufficient of the liquid to make a stiff, spreadable icing. Spread it over the top of the cake. Roll the remaining marzipan into eleven small balls and arrange them in the wet icing, around the edge of the cake. Leave until set before cutting the cake.
- Marzipan burns easily if in contact with the cake tin so be sure to roll the circle of it a little smaller than the diameter of the cake tin.
- I use 350-400g white flour and 100-150g Orkney beremeal, a barley flour, for my cake. This grain, unique to Orkney, has a sweet and nutty flavour. You can order online in the UK from the Barony Mill website.
- The 11 marzipan balls on the top of the cake represent the 11 true disci- ples of Christ – there is no ball for Judas, who betrayed Him.
- I could only get white marzipan this year – it will not look quite right but it will taste fine. I don’t make my own marzipan for this as so much of it is baked in the cake.
Sourdough Hot Cross Buns Makes 12
400g strong plain flour
100g beremeal or wholewheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
50g caster sugar
1/2 nutmeg, freshly grated
1tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
250g active sourdough starter
1 large egg
50g chopped mixed peel
50g softened butter
150g ordinary plain flour
100ml warm water
3 tbsp caster sugar
3 tbsp milk
3 tbsp water
1 Mix together the flours, salt, sugar and spices in a large bowl and add the butter, cut into small pieces. Rub the butter in with your fingertips until it is combined and looks like crumbs.
2 Beat the egg into the milk and gently combine it with the sourdough starter in a large bowl. Add the flour etc and start mixing it together then add the dried fruits and combine everything into a manageable dough. If it is too dry it is best to add extra warm water on your hands, not by pouring it into the bowl which makes the dough too sticky.
3 Knead the dough in the bowl by pulling it from the sides into the middle and pushing it down, rotating the bowl as you do this action 12 times. Cover the bowl with a clean damp tea-towel and leave it for 10 minutes. Repeat the kneading and standing process 4 times then leave the dough, covered, for 1 hour.
4 Lightly butter a Swiss Roll tin. Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and knead it gently. Divide it into 12 evenly-sized pieces and shape them into round buns, again pulling the dough from the sides into the middle so that the top is smooth. Place them on the baking sheet, cover again with a damp tea-towel or loose cling-film. An oiled plastic bag works well too, but you need a very large one to take the baking sheet and allow space for the buns to grow without sticking to it.
5 Leave until almost doubled in size - this might take 2-4 hours depending on the temperature of your room.
6 Mix the ingredients for the paste together, beating until smooth. Spoon into a large piping bag fitted with a 4mm pipe. Cut crosses with a sharp knife into the tops of the risen buns then pipe the paste into crosses, cutting it off with a sharp knife when necessary.
7 Set the buns in a cold oven, set the temperature to gas mark 6, 200C and bake for 25 minutes or until golden.
8 Prepare the glaze when the buns are almost baked. Heat everything together gently in a small pan until the sugar has melted then boil for 2-3 minutes to a thick syrup. Brush over the buns as soon as they come out of the oven then transfer them to a wire rack to cool.
9 I think the buns are best split and toasted, with butter and marmalade.
The buns look divine. Happy Easter!