Ettie Neil-Gallacher is a fan of this Easter treat
Forget for a moment the Resurrection and the prospect of eternal salvation. The most exciting thing about Easter is the simnel cake. (Read our article on Easter and Eostre, the origins of this Spring festival.)
Of course, there are many other traditional Easter foods. People still get agitated about Easter eggs, and hot cross buns are certainly delicious. (See our recipe for bread and butter pudding with hot cross buns here.) Who doesn’t relish some rare roast lamb for lunch on Easter Sunday? But none of these can hold a paschal candle to the simnel cake. For what could be cleverer than a fruit cake with not just one, but two layers of marzipan, one baked in the middle of the cake, one on the top, and then topped with 11 marzipan balls, one for each of the apostles, minus traitorous Judas? (Find more of our Easter recipes here.)
Recipe for simnel cake
The recipe for simnel cake I follow each year always varies slightly, and owes much to the ideas of Felicity Cloake, Darina Allen, Mary Berry and Nigella Lawson.
- 450g ground almonds
- 450g icing sugar / (golden) caster sugar or a mixture of the two
- 2 eggs
- Drop of almond essence
- 2 tbsp whiskey (optional)
Approximately 500g dried fruit (quantities vary wildly between recipes, from 300g to 650g. I like a fairly fruity fruit cake, so am erring on the side of generous here) plus 100g glacé cherries (rinsed well in a sieve, tossed in flour, and cut into sultana-sized pieces) and 50g mixed peel. I loathe mixed peel and glacé cherries, so will be substituting these with dried pears, dried apricots and dried cherries.
- Rough quantities: 150g sultanas, 150g raisins, 50g currants, 50g dried pears, 50g dried apricots, 50g dried cherries.
- 175g soft unsalted butter
- 175g soft light brown sugar (caster sugar is fine, though I prefer using golden caster sugar if you’ve got it)
- 3 eggs
- 225g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 30g ground almonds
- 50g chopped almonds
Make the marzipan. Mix the sugars and the ground almonds together, add the beaten eggs, almond essence and whiskey if using. Mix until it’s quite stiff, and then knead it on a surface which has been dusted with icing sugar until smooth. Wrap in clingfilm and chill.
Soak the fruit. This is a controversial step in this recipe for simnel cake, as unlike most fruit cakes which benefit from maturing, a simnel cake can be eaten when it’s made and doesn’t require feeding. However, and while I subscribe to the idea that a lighter fruit cake is fit for spring, soaking the fruit adds a depth of flavour which I think is welcome.
Preheat the oven to 170 / 150 Fan. Grease and line the sides and base of an 8 inch / 20 cm deep round cake tin. (If you want to use a square tin, that’s fine, but it should be 7 inches / 18 cm square). Cloake also recommends cutting out an extra greaseproof circle for the top of the cake, to prevent it burning, but cutting a small hole in the centre to allow the heat to escape.
In her recipe for simnel cake, Mary Berry advocates simply mixing all the ingredients together at this point, and while this certainly works, I think a lighter cake is created if you break down the steps as follows.
- Mix together the flour, baking powder, mixed spice and ground almonds. Set aside.
- Cream the butter and sugar first, then add the eggs one at a time, lightly beaten, and follow with about a third of the flour mix. Repeat until all the dry ingredients have been incorporated.
- Add the dried fruit and the chopped almonds and mix.
- Roll out the marzipan, cutting out two circles to fit the cake tin. Each should weigh about 400 g / 14 oz.
- Fill the cake tin half full of the cake mix, lay one of the marzipan circles on top, and then add the remainder of the cake mix, and place your extra greaseproof circle on top.
- Bake for around 2.5hrs. A skewer inserted not as far down as the marzipan layer should come out clean.
- Roll out another 400 g / 14 oz marzipan circle for the top of the cake.
When the cake has cooled completely, release it from its tin, brush the top with gently heated apricot jam or rindless marmalade, and lay the marzipan circle on top.
Roll out 11 marzipan balls and arrange them round the outer edge of the cake. Nigella advocates using lightly beaten egg white so they don’t roll off.
Optional: either use a blowtorch to slightly brown the cake, or place under a medium grill for a few minutes, watching carefully.
The history of simnel cake
Unsurprisingly for a recipe whose origins date back nearly a millennium, there are various myths surrounding the simnel cake, none of which contain so much as a shrivelled currant of truth. Some are more farcical than others.
For example, while there’s perhaps a certain etymological neatness pertaining to the idea that these cakes have something to do with Lambert Simnel, they in fact bear no relation to the pretender to Henry VII’s throne. The story goes that, realising Simnel was no more than a boy, and one being used as a puppet to stage a Yorkist rebellion, Henry VII pardoned him and employed him in the palace kitchens. There young Simnel devised a certain fruitcake which he then presented to the king. But, sadly, there’s no truth in this. Doubt has even been cast on whether Lambert Simnel was his real name.
A more ludicrous myth can be traced to an edition of the 1838 Wiltshire Independent, which relayed the legend of Simon and Nell. Deciding to make a cake, the couple bickered over how it should be cooked: Simon wanted to bake it, while Nell was all for boiling it (not an uncommon way of cooking a cake in those days – much as we might boil some puddings still today). They compromised by doing both, and the result was called after them in portmanteau form.
In fact, the word simnel probably comes from the Latin, simila, which means a fine white flour (which may explain Lambert Simnel’s surname as his father was a baker). Its earliest origins can be traced back to the 11th century when it was really a type of high quality bread; and in 13th century France we have note of it as a type of cake.
But by the early 17th century, it had very clearly evolved into a fruit cake, though one more closely associated with Mothering Sunday than Easter Sunday. Mothering Sunday is not, of course, to be confused with Mother’s Day; this is a lazy, 20th-century amalgamation. Mothering Sunday falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent, often known as Laetare Sunday, and was the day when traditionally people would have a reprieve from their Lenten observance and would celebrate. It become customary to pay a visit to one’s “mother” church – the church of their baptism. By way of celebration, a cake seemed fitting, but with butter and cream forbidden during Lent (and expensive anyway), a simnel cake was a straightforward and affordable solution, requiring eggs, which were easily come by, and dried fruit. It was typically boiled and then baked.
Regional variants began to emerge, particularly in the North and in the West, though it wasn’t until the 19th century that marzipan began to feature. The Shrewsbury simnel cake was famously hard – so much so that legend tells one recipient demanded it be boiled to soften it, and another thought it was a footstool. It was a rich plum cake, covered with a crust of flour, saffron and water, boiled for hours, brushed with egg and then baked. While the Gloucester simnel cake wasn’t dissimilar to the one we have today, it had only one layer of marzipan, on the top, and it was decorated differently, with crystallised fruit. The Wiltshire Heritage Museum has a recipe for the Devizes version, which was star-shaped, and contained an oppressive amount of peel to my mind: “Three and a half lbs plain flower, Three lbs currants, 2 lbs lemon peel, half oz safron powder mixed with bun powder and egg yoke, prove well, form into star shapes. Boil, then bake. Glaze.”
It was the Bury simnel cake that came to dominate. Food historian Glynn Hughes speculates that this might be due to Bury’s promotional campaign in the mid-19th century, which included sending Queen Victoria a 70lb Bury simnel cake and exhibiting a giant 170lb Bury simnel cake at a national bazaar at Covent Garden in 1845. This fruit cake is made with nuts, cherries and peel, and decorated with a marzipan top and marzipan or sometimes sugar balls.
By the end of the Victorian era, the association of simnel cake with Mothering Sunday was waning, and people nationwide were eating it at Easter. Historian Dr Alexander Lee observes that “the trend was accelerated by the late Victorian revival of Easter as a time of feasting and the corresponding decline of Mothering Sunday. Just as Easter bonnets and postcards came into vogue, so traditional foods were adapted to a fresh purpose and imbued with new meaning”. (Read how to plan an Easter egg hunt.)
The simnel cake we have today, and which I encourage you all to enjoy, hasn’t changed much since the Victorian era – its longevity should dispel any lingering doubt you may have as to its deliciousness and its rightful place at the very centre of Easter celebrations.
And if you don’t have the time or inclination to make a simnel cake?
Then we’ve searched out a few that we think sound delicious (and which would make a good Easter gift if you’re off to stay somewhere and want a change from chocolate).