Simnel cake is a light and airy fruitcake widely eaten in the United Kingdom, Ireland and other countries with patterns of migration from them, associated with Lent and Easter. It is distinguished by layers of almond paste or marzipan, typically one in the middle and one on top, and a set of eleven balls made of the same paste. It was originally made for the fourth Sunday in Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday, the Refreshment Sunday of Lent (when the 40-day fast would be relaxed), Mothering Sunday, the Sunday of the Five Loaves, or Simnel Sunday (named after the cake). In the United Kingdom it is now commonly associated with Easter Sunday.
Conventionally, 11 marzipan balls are used to decorate the cake, symbolizing the 12 apostles minus Judas Iscariot, or occasionally 12 are used representing Jesus and the 11 apostles.
There are a variety of odd theories of where the name “simnel” came from. One of the most humorous is a 19th-century legend about an old couple called Simon and Nelly, who decided to use leftover ingredients from Christmas plum pudding to make a cake for spring. However, they argued over how to cook it —Simon wanted to boil it and Nell wanted to bake it. They compromised by doing both, with their invention becoming known as a Sim-Nell.
Much more sensible (if not too plausible) is that the cake is named after Lambert Simnel, a claimant to the throne in Henry VII’s time. Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell referenced this highly unlikely theory in a letter to a friend in 1838, when she shared her childhood recollections of eating simnel cake on Mothering Sunday in Knutsford, Cheshire.
As fun as either of those tales may be, the most likely truth is rather boring. Simnel probably comes from the Latin word simila meaning a very fine wheat flour (and from which semolina derives). The cake’s forefather of simnel bread was on the British menu as far back as the 11th-century.
Traditionally in the UK, towns had their own recipes and shapes of the Simnel cake. Both Bury in Manchester and Shrewsbury in Shropshire produced large numbers to their own recipes. Chambers Book of Days (1869) written by Scottish author Robert Chambers contains an illustration of the Shrewsbury Simnel cake, of which said—
It is an old custom in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and especially at Shrewsbury, to make during Lent and Easter, and also at Christmas, a sort of rich and expensive cakes, which are called Simnel Cakes. They are raised cakes, the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior is filled with the materials of a very rich plum-cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things. They are made up very stiff; tied up in a cloth, and boiled for several hours, after which they are brushed over with egg, and then baked. When ready for sale the crust is as hard as if made of wood … the accompanying engraving, representing large and small cakes as now on sale in Shrewsbury. The usage of these cakes is evidently one of great antiquity.
There are hundreds of modern recipes with a wide assortment of variations, including low-sugar, gluten-free, vegan, and so on. Just give Google search a go if ya don’t believe me! LOL! The images I’ve added are all of traditional British recipes, which do tend to be very similar as far as ingredients go, but vary in how the marzipan is added and of course the ribbon adornment chosen.
The recipe below is from BBC Food, so I did convert the measurements from metric to apothecary for my American readers. For the original, click the image for the direct link.
For the almond paste–
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup ground almonds
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 tsp almond essence
For the cake–
- ¾ butter or margarine, plus extra for greasing
- ¾ soft brown sugar
- 3 eggs, beaten
- ¾ plain flour
- pinch salt
- ½ tsp ground mixed spice (optional)
- 1 ½ cups mixed raisins, currants and sultanas
- ¼ cup chopped mixed peel
- ½ lemon, grated zest only
- 1–2 tbsp apricot jam
- 1 egg, beaten for glazing
- For the almond paste, place the sugar and ground almonds in a bowl. Add enough beaten egg and mix to a fairly soft consistency. Add the almond essence and knead for 1 minute until the paste is smooth and pliable. Roll out a third of the almond paste to make a circle 7in in diameter and reserve the remainder for the cake topping.
- Preheat oven to 280° F. Grease and line a 7in cake pan.
- For the cake, cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs until well incorporated and then sift in the flour, salt and mixed spice (if using) a little at a time. Finally, add the mixed dried fruit, peel and grated lemon zest and stir into the mixture.
- Put half the mixture into the cake pan. Smooth the top and cover with the circle of almond paste. Add the rest of the cake mixture and smooth the top leaving a slight dip in the centre to allow for the cake to rise. Bake in the preheated oven for 1¾ hours. Test by inserting a skewer in the middle – if it comes out clean, it is ready. Once baked, remove from the oven and set aside to cool on a wire rack.
- Brush the top of the cooled cake with the apricot jam. Divide the remainder of the almond paste in half. Roll out a circle to cover the top of the cake with one half and form 11 small balls with the other half. Place the circle of paste on the jam glaze and set the balls round the edge. Brush the cake topping with a little beaten egg.
- Preheat the oven broiler high. Place the cake onto a baking tray and broil for 1–2 minutes, or until the top of the marzipan begins to brown. OR, lightly heat the cake topping using a cook’s blowtorch, until the marzipan is golden brown.