If you believe, as I do, that any ceremony worth its salt merits celebration with a fruitcake, then you’re probably already looking forward to Easter to eat a Simnel cake—the fruit-packed, cherry-flecked, marzipan-stuffed confection that’s a rite of spring.
The word “Simnel” probably comes from the Latin "siminellus," which refers to an extremely fine wheat flour that was typically reserved for ceremonial baking. However, there are two, more colorful myths about how the cake took on that name. The first centers around a couple, Simon and Nell, who disagree over how to bake a cake for their children’s Easter visit. One wants to boil it, the other wants to bake it. Eventually, they reach a compromise: the cake will be both boiled, then baked, and named after them—Sim and Nell. Simnel.
The second myth concerns Lambert Simnel, a boy who, in 1487, impersonated Edward, Earl of Warwick (Richard III’s designated heir to the English throne), in an (slightly convoluted and unsuccessful) attempt to dethrone Henry VII. Once the dust had settled and he was let out of the dungeon, he might have become the baker who created Simnel bread. Or, possibly, his father was the baker who came up with the Simnel bread recipe. Or maybe Lambert was given the nickname “Simnel” simply because his father was a baker. Either way, Simnel cake, in many forms and with many traditional recipes, seeped into the British consciousness, and became a Eastertime staple.
Simnel cake was—and still is—a cake associated with Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent. On this day, fasting rules were relaxed, and people were encouraged to return to the church in which they were baptized (their “mother church”) to worship and celebrate. While the church tradition waned in popularity, Mothering Sunday quickly acquired a secular significance: it became a day to visit your mother and bring her a cake (usually, the Simnel cake) for tea, and is what Britain now knows as its Mother’s Day (not to be confused with America’s Mother’s Day, held annually on the second Sunday of May).
By the 17th century, Mothering Sunday and Simnel cake were so connected in British culture that the cleric and poet Robert Herrick (of “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” fame) was able to reference it in a poem without need for further explanation:
“I’ll to thee a simnel bring,
‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering:
So that when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.”
However, there was still no agreement on what exactly a Simnel cake was (fine flour and dried fruits aside), and different regions in England had markedly different approaches. Several styles predominated: One, from Bury in Lancashire, uses a rubbing-in method to incorporate the fat into the flour, a little like making pastry crumb, to create a dense cake resembling an oat bar. Simnel cake from Devises is fragranced with saffron, shaped into a star, and glazed with honey, while Shrewsbury Simnel is essentially a fruitcake baked in a water-crust pie.
This Shrewsbury recipe, minus the pastry crust, most closely resembles what we think of as Simnel cake today—lighter than a Christmas cake, packed with dried fruits, and layered with marzipan, which gives it a melt-in-your-mouth texture and a distinctive (and divisive) almond flavor. Spoiler alert: if you do not like marzipan, this is not a cake you will enjoy.
“I’m proud the cake comes from Shrewsbury,” says my Aunt Christine, back from shopping in Shrewsbury that very morning, “but I don’t bake it myself. Why does there have to be so much marzipan?!” Even on the telephone, I can feel her shuddering.
Today, the most recognizable indicator of a Simnel cake is the decoration: 11 marzipan (or almond paste) balls, arranged in a circle around the top of the cake and scorched under high heat to a golden burnished caramel. These decorations originally symbolized Jesus’ disciples (minus Judas).
“My recipe isn’t with marzipan,” her friend and neighbor, Wendy Gregory, tells me. “I only use almond paste. That’s what my mother used. And her mother.” This variation using almond paste, which is similar to marzipan but has a lower sugar-to-almonds ratio, proves, once again, that Simnel cake resists being confined to a single recipe.
Yet even this aspect of the cake took centuries to come to conformity. Early recipes recommend finishing the cake with various glazes, toasted nut flourishes, pie crust crenulations, and sugared flowers. However, by 1914, when Mary Byron published her book, Pot Luck, Or The British Home Cookbook, the abstract-impressionist Apostle decoration had become a generally accepted and even defining feature.
Whether or not you’re interested in the religious symbolism, the decoration has one big unexpected advantage, which Wendy brought to my attention: “It prevents fights. I grew up in a family of 7 and we could each have a whole apostle to ourselves—no sharing!”
For the cake
- 6 ounces butter, at room temperature
- 6 ounces golden caster sugar (or 3oz white sugar and 3oz light brown sugar)
- 3 pieces large eggs, at room temperature
- 6 ounces all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice (alternatively, 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon)
- 12 ounces dried fruit (such as sultanas, golden raisins, and currants)
- 2 ounces glace cherries
- 2 to 3 tablespoons orange zest
- 18 ounces marzipan, divided into 3, for the topping
- 3 ounces apricot preserves, to brush the top and sides of cake, and assemble the decorations
For the almond paste (if not using prepared marzipan)
- 9 ounces white sugar
- 9 ounces ground almonds
- 2 pieces large eggs, at room temperature
Have you ever tried (or baked!) a Simnel cake? Tell us about your confectionary adventures in the comments!