Simnel cake is a light fruit cake, similar to a Christmas cake, with two layers of marzipan, one on top that is toasted and the other in the middle, and eaten at Easter. On the top of the cake, round the edge, are eleven marzipan balls to represent the true apostles of Jesus; minus Judas the traitor. In some variations Christ is also represented, by a ball placed in the middle. Originally it was decorated with fresh flowers, but sugar flowers are often used today.
From Mothering Sunday to Easter
Although associated with Easter today, Simnel cake was originally made for Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent. Mothering Sunday was the day when the congregations of the daughter churches of a parish went to the mother church, usually an abbey, to give their offerings. In the 17th century, Mothering Sunday became the day when girls and boys in service were allowed a day off (their only day off) to go and visit their mothers.
A Gift of Simnel
The girls would bake their mothers a Simnel cake as a gift. They were regarded as difficult to make, and thus not only a gift for Mothering Sunday but also a test of the girl’s cooking skills. The cake would not be eaten until Easter Sunday, and the whole family would be anxious to see if the cake was still moist.
I’ll to thee a Simnell bring
Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
So that, when she blest thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give to me
However as the extract below from Chambers Book of Days 6th March 1864 demonstrates, not all the cakes were edible and there was some confusion as to what to do with them.
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, a circumstance which has given rise to various stories of the manner in which they have at times been treated by persons to whom they were sent as presents, and who had never seen one before, one ordering his Simnel to be boiled to soften it, and a lady taking hers for a footstool. They are made of different sizes, and, as may be supposed from the ingredients, are rather expensive, some large ones selling for as much as half-a-guinea, or even, we believe, a guinea, while smaller ones may be had for half-a-crown. Their form, which as well as the ornamentation is nearly uniform, will be best understood by the accompanying engraving, representing largo and small cakes as now on sale in Shrewsbury.
A long history
Simnel cakes have been baked since the middle ages and it is thought that the word Simnel comes from the Latin ‘simila,’ which means very fine wheat flour. A popular legend attributes the cake’s creation to the English pretender Lambert Simnel, who according to legend devised it during the time he was forced to work in Henry VII’s kitchens, but this is unlikely since there are references to the Simnel from 1266. After the First World War and the demise of service, the cake was treated as an Easter cake.
There are a variety of recipes for Simnel Cake and this link will take you to a recipe by the wonderful Mary Berry (who else!). There are many other recipes available and some which seem very complicated, but Mary Berry’s will make a very good Simnel Cake. You’ll notice mine doesn’t have the toasted marzipan and has chocolate eggs on top – both are to please my family who’re not so keen on marzipan, toasted or not.
Whether your going to celebrate Easter by baking a traditional Simnel Cake or with the relatively modern tradition of chocolate Easter Eggs. Have a very Happy Easter.