This week its back into the kitchen to cook up some Easter treats. First I’ll make a Simnel Cake with a fat juicy layer of almond paste in the centre and another layer on top – I’ll decorate the top with balls of almond paste to represent eleven of the 12 apostles. Judas doesn’t make it to the top of the cake because he betrayed Jesus.
The marzipan enrobed cake will then be toasted in the oven. It’s a gorgeous cake with a long tradition. I’ve also experimented with cooking the mixture in muffin tins and putting just one marzipan apostle on top – also delicious. If the children are around they love helping to roll the marzipan.
Hot cross buns are our other Easter favourite – it’s not difficult to make your own, it takes time but not too much of your time. Much of the time the dough is quietly rising, there’s a little kneading involved but look on it as a mini-workout. It’s also wonderfully therapeutic when you get into the spirit of it.
Hot cross buns are best freshly baked but they also freeze perfectly so if you make a biggish batch, you can pop a few back into the oven to reheat over a few days. Buttered eggs are another Easter treat but for perfection you’ll need to have your own hens because the eggs need to be warm from the nest to properly absorb the butter. This was originally a way of preserving the eggs in the short term but it’s worth doing because it also preserves the curdy texture of a freshly laid egg. Another special treat for Easter tea are crystallised primrose cupcakes, there are a real labour of love but so so pretty. First there is the joy of picking the primroses (only when they are plentiful). Then paint each one with a fine paintbrush dipped in slightly beaten egg white, when the entire surface and the stem is covered sprinkle it all over with sieved castor sugar. Arrange a sheet of silicone paper on a baking tray – I put them near my ancient Aga to dry out but anywhere warm will do – near a radiator or in a hot cupboard. They will keep for months and are irresistible on cakes or desserts.
This ancient Irish way of preserving eggs in times of glut deserves to be more widely practised, not just for preservation, but actually for the gorgeous flavour and texture the cooked eggs produce. If you’ve got access to really fresh, still-warm eggs, you can try it yourself.
Gerry Moynihan, who still sells buttered eggs in the English Market in Cork, told me that the whole secret is that the shells must be sealed with butter while the egg is still warm or, as he puts it, ‘before the hen misses the egg’. The warm egg and your warm hands will cause the butter to form a coating around the egg. The freshness is sealed in and the albumen stays soft and curdy when boiled or poached.
Buttered eggs can be kept up to two months, but now that we all have constant access to eggs, the reason people still continue this tradition is for the flavour and texture it produces. I’ve also heard of people dipping eggs in lard, melted wax or flaxseed oil.
Crystallised Primrose Cupcakes for Easter
If you have just one oven you may need to make the cupcakes in three separate batches.
450g (1lb) butter (at room temperature)
450g (1lb) caster sugar
450g (1lb) self-raising flour
6 large eggs preferably free-range and organic
6 tablespoons milk
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract.
350g (12 oz) Icing sugar
finely grated rind of two small lemons
3 to 6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Crystallised Primroses (See Recipe)
3 muffin trays lined with 12 muffin cases each.
Preheat oven to 190ºC/375ºF/gas mark 5. First make the crystallised primroses and allow to dry. See recipe. Put all ingredients except milk into a food processor and whizz until smooth. Scrape down sides, then add milk and whizz again.
Divide mixture between the cases in the muffin tins.
Bake in the preheated oven for 15 –20 minutes or until risen and golden. Remove from the tin and cool on a wire rack.
Next make the icing. Sieved the icing sugar into a bowl add the finely grated lemon rind and enough freshly squeezed lemon juice to make a softish icing.
Ice each cupcake with a small palette knife and arrange a crystallised primrose on top.
Use fairly strong textured leaves, the smaller the flowers the more attractive they are when crystallized eg. Primroses, violets.
. The castor sugar must be absolutely dry; one could dry it in a low oven for about 2 hours approx.
. Break up the egg white slightly with a fork. Using a child’s paint brush, brush it very carefully over each petal and into every crevice. Pour the castor sugar over the flower with a teaspoon; arrange the flower carefully on Bakewell paper so that it has a good shape. Allow to dry overnight in a warm dry place, e.g. close to an Aga or over a radiator. If properly crystallized these flowers will last for months, even years, provided they are kept dry. We store them in a pottery jar or a tin box.
.When you are crystallizing flowers remember to do lots of leaves also so one can make attractive arrangements – e.g. mint, lemon balm, wild strawberry, salad burnet or marguerite daisy leaves etc.
8 ozs (225g) butter
8 ozs (225g) pale, soft brown sugar
6 eggs, preferably free range
10 ozs (275g) white flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
2 1/2 fl ozs (35ml) Irish whiskey
12 ozs (350g) best quality sultanas
12 ozs (350g) best quality currants
12 ozs (350g) best quality raisins
4 ozs (110g) cherries
4 ozs (110g) home made candied peel
2 ozs (50g) whole almonds
2 ozs (50g) ground almonds
rind of 1 lemon
rind of 1 orange
1 large or 2 small Bramley Seedling apples, grated
1 lb (450g) ground almonds
1 lb (450g) castor sugar
2 small eggs
a drop of pure almond extract
2 tablespoons Irish whiskey
Line the base and sides of a 9 inch (23cm) round, or an 8 inch (20.5cm) square tin with brown paper and greaseproof paper.
Wash the cherries and dry them. Cut in two or four as desired. Blanch the almonds in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, rub off the skins and chop them finely. Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon rind. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.
Next make the almond paste.
Sieve the castor sugar and mix with the ground almonds. Beat the eggs, add the whiskey and 1 drop of pure almond essence, then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste. (You may not need all the egg). Sprinkle the work top with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/regulo 4.
Cream the butter until very soft, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Whisk the eggs and add in bit by bit, beating well between each addition so that the mixture doesn’t curdle. Mix the spice with the flour and stir in gently. Add the grated apple to the fruit and mix in gently but thoroughly (don’t beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake).
Put half of the cake mixture into the prepared tin, roll about half of the almond paste into an 8 1/2 inch (21.5cm) round. Place this on top of the cake mixture in the tin and cover with the remaining mixture. Make a slight hollow in the centre, dip you hand in water and pat it over the surface of the cake: this will ensure that the top is smooth when cooked. Cover the top with a single sheet of brown paper.
Put into the preheated oven; reduce the heat to 160°C/325°F/regulo 3 after 1 hour. Bake until cooked, 3 – 3 1/2 hours approx., test in the centre with a skewer – it should come out completely clean. Pour the rest of the whiskey over the cake and leave to cool in the tin.
: When you are testing do so at an angle because the almond paste can give a false reading.
Next day remove the cake from the tin. Do not remove the lining paper but wrap in some extra greaseproof paper and tin foil until required.
When you wish to ice the cake, roll the remainder of the almond paste into a 9 inch (23cm) round. Brush the cake with a little lightly beaten egg white and top with the almond paste. Roll the remainder of the paste into 11 balls. Score the top of the cake in 1 1/2 inch (4cm) squares or diamonds. Brush with beaten egg yolk; stick the ‘apostles’ around the outer edge of the top, brush with beaten egg. Toast in a preheated oven 220°C/425°F/regulo 7, for 15-20 minutes or until slightly golden. Decorate with an Easter Chicken. Cut while warm or store for several weeks when cold.
: Almond paste may also be used to ice the side of the cake. You will need half the almond paste again.
This cake keeps for weeks or even months, but while still delicious it changes both in texture and flavour as it matures.
Names of the Apostles
Simon (also known as Peter)
Andrew (Simon Peter’s brother)
John (James’s brother)
Matthew (tax collector)
Simon the Cananaean
Hot Cross Buns
Nowadays Hot Cross Buns are traditionally eaten in Ireland on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. This practice would have been frowned on in the past when these were black fast days and the people would scarcely have had enough to eat, not to mention spicy fruit filled buns.
25g (1oz) fresh yeast
75-110g (3-4oz) castor sugar
450g (1lb) baker’s flour
75g (3oz) butter
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2-3 teaspoons mixed spice, depending how fresh it is
pinch of salt
2 organic eggs
225-300ml (8-10 fl oz) tepid milk
75g (3oz) currants
50g (2oz) sultanas
25g (1oz) candied peel, chopped
egg wash made with milk, sugar, 1 organic egg yolk, whisked together
50g (2oz) white flour
1 tablespoon melted butter
4-5 tablespoons cold water
To Make the Hot Cross Buns.
Dissolve the yeast with 1 tablespoon of the sugar in a little tepid milk.
Put the flour into a bowl, rub in the butter, add the cinnamon, nutmeg, mixed spice, a pinch of salt and the remainder of the sugar. Mix well. Whisk the eggs and add to the milk. Make a well in the centre of the flour, add the yeast and most of the liquid and mix to a soft dough, adding a little more milk if necessary.
Cover and leave to rest for 2 or 3 minutes then knead by hand or in a food processor until smooth. Add the currants, sultanas and mixed peel and continue to knead until the dough is shiny. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place until it doubles in size.
“Knock back”, by kneading for 3 or 4 minutes, rest for a few minutes. Divide the mixture into 14 balls, each weighing about 50g (2oz). Knead each slightly and shape into buns. Place on a lightly floured tray. Egg wash and leave to rise.
If using shortcrust, arrange a cross of pastry on each one. Leave to rise until double in size. Then egg wash a second time carefully.
We tend to decorate with what we call a “liquid cross”. To make this, mix the flour, melted butter and water together to form a thick liquid. Fill into a paper piping bag and pipe a liquid cross on top of each bun.
Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/gas mark 6.
Bake in the preheated oven for 5 minutes then reduce the heat to 200ºC/400ºF/gas mark 6 for a further 10 minutes or until golden. Brush again with egg wash. Leave to cool on a wire rack. Split in two and serve with butter.
Fool Proof Food
Easter Egg Nests
4ozs (110g) Rice Krispies
6ozs (175g) Chocolate
72 mini eggs
cup cake papers or ring moulds
Put the chocolate in a Pyrex bowl over a saucepan of hot water. Bring just to the boil, turn off the heat and allow to melt in the bowl. Stir in the rice krispies.
Spoon into cup cake cases. Flatten a little and make a well in the centre. Fill with three speckled chocolate mini eggs. Allow to set.
Moynihan’s stall in the English Market in Cork city still sell buttered eggs.
If crystallising primroses is not your idea of fun, call to the café at the end of the shop beside Ballymaloe House, Alison Henderson’s primrose cupcakes are totally irresistible 021 4652531.
Lots of great short courses coming up at the Ballymaloe Cookery School but I’ll mention just two. Julia Child’s fans may like to join us for a hands-on 2 ½ day course on Wednesday 7th to Friday 9th April – ‘A Homage to Julia Child’ – you’ll master some of our favourite recipes from her repertoire. ‘Start or transform your own teashop’
from is another12th-14th April. Another hands- on course which includes an afternoon on ‘How to stay in business and make money’ with Blathnaid Bergin. Check out www.cookingisfun.ie for more details.