The weeks are whizzing by Easter is virtually upon us. We’ve just made our Simnel Cake, and wrapped it up to marzipan and ice closer to the feast day. Easter is particularly early this year so it’ll be more difficult to get milk fed lamb but if you contact your local family butcher they will hopefully be able to source it for you. It’s so worth making the effort for the sweet delicate flavour and melting texture but there’s still time to make the Simnel cake, with a delicious layer of moist almond marzipan in the centre.
I’m sharing my favourite recipe for hot cross buns too. They take time to make but the anticipation and satisfaction are so worth it. We’ve also discovered that they freeze well, both cooked and uncooked and will taste miles better then virtually anything you can buy.
We’ve also experimented with a hot cross bun loaf which is fun to make in a tin or a tear and share version. I’ve also ordered a mould to make Flores Fritas, the crackly rose shaped fritters so beloved of Spaniards for Semana Santa at Easter time. The batter is super simple to make, then simply dip the hot mould into the batter, cook in hot oil until it crisps. When it slips off the mould continue cooking, we’re only talking seconds until evenly golden. Drain on kitchen paper, dredge with icing or vanilla sugar. Enjoy immediately, the problem is where to stop – everyone loves them! Another simple way to bring joy into our Covid 19 world.
Finally, for this week , Torrejas, another Spanish Easter speciality for Holy Week that’s also eaten all over Latin America, can be enjoyed year round. It’s the Spanish version of French Toast. Sliced, slightly stale bread, dipped in a mixture of milk, eggs, sugar and occasionally a splash of wine or better still sherry, preferably soaked overnight so the stale bread absorbs the maximum amount of liquid. A rich bread like Brioche gives best results. Apparently this simple treat dates back to Roman times. It differs from French Toast principally because its cooked in olive oil. It’s easy to see how it became popular, especially in households where money was scarce, a delicious way to transform leftover bread into an inexpensive dessert. In the middle ages it became common to eat Torrejas during Lent, particularly during Semana Santa (Holy Week) to compensate for the absence of meat and wine. Traditionally eaten with a glass of wine, the combination was said to represent the body and blood of Christ – not exactly a penance in my book….
Torrejas still feature on traditional Menu del Dia all over Spain as an affordable workers lunch. It was in fact a legal requirement in Spain for decades. One way or another this recipe will become a favourite in your repertoire of ‘go to’ dishes loved by all the family. Get going on your symbolic Easter Simnel cake – to decorate with marzipan ice and the 11 of the 12 apostles to enjoy on Easter Sunday but meanwhile have fun making Torrejas with your little ones, who’ll no doubt want to drizzle them with chocolate spread rather than traditional honey.
Simnel Cake is a traditional Easter cake. It has a layer of almond paste baked into the centre and a thick layer of almond icing on top. The 11 balls represent 11 of the 12 apostles – Judas is missing because he betrayed Jesus.
8oz (225g) butter
8oz (225g) pale, soft brown sugar
6 eggs, preferably free range
10oz (275g) white flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
2 1/2fl oz (35ml) Irish whiskey
12oz (350g) best quality sultanas
12oz (350g) best quality currants
12oz (350g) best quality raisins
4oz (110g) cherries
4oz (110g) homemade candied peel
2oz (50g) whole almonds
2oz (50g) ground almonds
rind of 1 lemon
rind of 1 orange
1 large or 2 small Bramley Seedling apples, grated
1lb (450g) ground almonds
1lb (450g) castor sugar
2 small eggs
3 of 4 drops 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 3 or 4 drops of pure almond extract (careful it’s really easy to put in too much), 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/Gas Mark 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/Gas Mark 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.
NOTE: When you are testing do so at an angle into the cake mixture 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 several layers of parchment paper 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/Gas Mark 7, for 15-20 minutes or until slightly golden. Decorate with an Easter Chickens and flowers if you fancy. Cut while warm or store for several weeks when cold.
NB: Almond paste may also be used to ice the side of the cake. You will need half the quantity of 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
(1). Simon (also known as Peter)
(2). Andrew (Simon Peter’s brother)
(4) John (James’s brother)
(8). Matthew (tax collector)
(11). Simon the Cananaean
Hot Cross Buns were traditionally eaten in Ireland only on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday but nowadays they are available right through Lent. This practice would have been frowned on in the past when these were several black fast days and the people would scarcely have had enough to eat, not to mention spicy fruit filled buns. Buns can be made larger if desired.
Makes 22 (50g/2ozs dough)
25g (1oz) fresh yeast
110g (4oz) castor sugar
450g (1lb) bakers flour
75g (3oz) butter
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2-3 teaspoons mixed spice, depending how fresh it is
1 level teaspoon of salt (important to add)
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
Put 600ml (1 pint) water and 450g (1 lb) sugar into a pan and boil for 2 minutes. Brush over the buns as soon as they come out of the oven to give them a sweet, sticky glaze. This makes a large quantity of bun wash but it keeps very well.
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. Leave to cool on a wire rack. Split in two and serve with butter.
Alternatively, brush each one with bun wash while still warm.
Hot Cross Bun Loaf
Brush the bottom and sides of the loaf tin (13x20cm (5x8inch) approx.) with oil. Make the dough in the usual way – Knock back.
Roll 8 x 50g/2ozs balls of dough and arrange in the tin. Egg wash, cover and allow to rise for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 230°C, just before baking brush with egg wash, pipe a liquid cross on each bun.
Bake for 10 minutes at 230°C reduce temperature to 190°C for a further 10 – 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, paint with the bun wash. Cool on a wire rack and pull apart and eat slathered in butter.
Hot Cross Tear & Share
Brush the base and sides of a 23cm (9 inch) round spring form tin with oil. Arrange 12 – 14, 50g/2oz balls of dough almost side by side in the tin, egg wash and allow to rise in a warm place until double in size. Egg wash again, pipe a liquid cross onto the top of each bun. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, reduce the temperature to 190°C for a further 10 – 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven and brush with bun wash while still warm. Cool on a wire rack.
A speciality for Semana Santa – Holy Week in Spain but enjoyed year round. It’s a brilliant way to use up any leftover bread deliciously. Cook in olive oil rather than butter.
Makes 8 pieces
8 slices Baguette, challah or brioche
175ml (6 floz) Milk
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Cinnamon sugar, honey or icing sugar
Slice the bread approx. 1” thick slices, whisk the eggs, milk and sugar well together and pour into a gratin dish. Dip the slices in the liquid and flip over. Leave to soak, for at least an hour. In Spain they sometimes soak overnight.
To cook, heat some extra virgin olive oil in a wide frying pan over a medium heat. Cook until golden 3 – 4 minutes on each side. Sprinkle with icing sugar, cinnamon sugar or drizzle with honey. I love Torrejas warm with a dollop of crème fraiche but it’s usually served cold or at room temperature in Spain as a dessert or a nibble with a cup of strong coffee.