Simnel Cake – an English Easter Tradition born of a very English Argument

The Easter holiday is here and both the hubby and I are greatly looking forward to the Easter break after a very busy start to the year. As ever with the British Easter, the weather forecast is atrocious.  We are set for a beautiful Good Friday, followed by 3 days of solid rain through to Easter Monday.  But time at home with the beloved, family and friends is still the essence of life regardless of the weather, and being kept indoors has the silver lining and giving me more time to continue my little staycation trip around  the Easter baking treats of Europe over the next week.

I started in Italy last week with the Gubana and am now moving on to England with the Simnel Cake, a light fruit cake with a marzipan layer in the middle, marzipan on top and  always decorated with 11 balls representing the 11 loyal apostles (the 12th Judas ball having been sinfully eaten during preparation)  with some having a larger ball in the middle representing Christ.

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This is a very English cake, the origins of which are  a little lost in time.  Even the origin of the word Simnel is uncertain, though most likely it is from the Latin word Simila meaning ‘Fine Flour’.  There are references to Simnel Cake in medieval literature, but these seem to refer to bread rather than cake and was probably lost during the iconoclasm of the Reformation. Around Tudor times it became associated with a luxury sweetmeat at Easter time usually involving some sort of boiling. I stumbled on this very old recipe whilst hunting for some pictures which I really should try one day once I can decipher the handwriting.

recipe

There seem to be various regional variations, most of which have not survived into modern times.  The most reliable reference to the old Simnel Cake comes from the early 19th Century in Chambers Book of Days which refers to a Shrewsbury tradition of making sweet very stiff spiced dried fruit dough  boiled in muslin and then covered in a pastry case and baked rock hard. Some of these must have been quite large because he tells of tales of boys playing football with it, and people outside of the region  thinking they were footstools because the case was so hard.

There is even a quaint folklore tale about how the cake came about. The tradition began, it is said, with an old couple called Simon and Nelly, who had a mighty row over what sort of cake to cook for their children on Mother’s Day. Simon wanted to use up the left-over Christmas mincemeat; Nelly preferred to recycle what remained of her Lenten dough. All manner of kitchen furniture was broken in the argument that ensued, before a compromise was reached. A broken stool was used to boil the pudding, and a broken broomstick to fire up the oven for baking. The eggs that had been smashed in the set-to were deployed to glaze the pastry. The resulting delicacy took its name from the warring factions; Simon and Nelly became simnel.

foodsofengland shrewsbury simnel

The modern cake fruit cake with marzipan seems to come from Bury in Lancashire which makes it very appropriate as my family comes from Lancashire, and we are visiting my Godmother in Manchester over Easter and thought it would be nice to make a cake for her.

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The tradition of gifting the Simnel Cake seems to be a long one, the most documented of which comes from Victorian times.  There are various ladies diaries which tell of their young servant girls making the cake and givng it to their Mothers on Mothers Day, presumably on one of the very few days off the poor servants got. The cake was then kept by the girls’ families and not eaten until Easter. In honour of this I have also made a second cake for my mother who we are seeing today.

I have been making this cake for many years now so it didn’t represent a challenge.  The marzipan layer in the middle melts into the cake making it very delicious, and I personally adore fruit cake and marzipan,  so the whole confection is just perfect. It also gives me a chance to use up any left over marzipan from the Christmas Cake.

1458076770-454b1fa1a3e58fa377cc3bb49a9bd53a-600x346The only danger zone is baking it too long and drying it out.  I have always stuck with Mary Berry’s recipe as Mary, the Blessed Saint of Baking,  is always reliable though sometimes a
little too conservative with spices for my taste. I have upped the spice content a bit and added ground almonds to help retain the moisture. I also always use an insulating band and add steam in the oven to give it a final helping hand.

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The Recipe

The Ingredients

For the cake

  • 100g red or natural glace cherrie
  • 225g softened butter
  • 225g light muscovado sugar
  • 4 large free-range eggs
  • 2oog self raising flour
  • 25g ground almonds
  • 225g  sultanas
  • 100g currants
  • 50g chopped candied peel
  • 2 lemons, zest only
  • 2 level tsp ground mixed spice
  • 1 level tsp cinnamon

For the filling and topping

  • 500g golden marzipan
  • 2 tbsp apricot jame
  • 1 large egg beaten, to glaze
  • chocolate mini eggs

The Method

Preparation

  • line a 20cm spring form cake tin with baking parchment
  • heat the oven to 150C / 130C fan
  • prepare your Insulating Band (to stop the outside cooking too quickly
    • Take a piece of foil long enough to wrap your tin
    • Get kitchen paper, folded in half and lay along it -3 or 4 layers are needed
    • Spray the paper with water
    • Wrap the paper in foil

The Cake

  • quarter the cherries, rinse and dry on kitchen towel
  • beat the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy
  • beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a teaspoon of flour with each egg to prevent curdling
  • mix in the flour, ground almonds  and spices
  • stir in the fruit and lemon zest
  • put half the mixture into the cake tin, levelling off
  • roll out 1/3rd of the marzipan into a disc the size of the cake tin
  • place on top of the cake mixture in the cake tin
  • add the rest of the mix, making sure you have scooped out the centre to about half the depth of the batter (this helps to keep the cake level and I always bottle a bit on this one and don’t scoop enough)
  • wrap the tin in your isolating band
  • bake in the oven for 2.5 hours, covering with foil after 1 hour
  • cool in the tin for 15 minutes and then remove, take off the baking parchment and cool on a wire rack

Decorating the Cake

  • make the 11 “Apostle” balls.  To make sure they are exactly the same size, weigh them and then roll into small balls and set aside
  • put the jam in a saucepan and heat until it is has gone liquid
  • press through a sieve to remove any fruit pieces
  • brush on to the top of the cake
  • roll out the remaining marzipan and cut in a circle about 1.5cm wider than the cake
  • place on top of the cake and crimp the edges (the extra width gives you room to do this)
  • whisk one egg until broken up and smooth
  • brush on top of the cake
  • for the centre weave a small nest from two thinly rolled out pieces of marzipan and place on top the cake
  • place the balls on the cake
  • brush the top of the balls with the egg mixture
  • Either
    • put the cake under a hot grill and watch like a hawk until the balls and surface are beginning to brown
    • use a kitchen blow torch to brown the cake
  • place the mini eggs in the nest
  • wrap in a ribbon
  • take to your Mother
  • make tea
  • AND eat!

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