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Simnel Cake

From the Victorian Kitchen – Simnel Cake

Just a few questions to see if you need to read any further!

What’s the difference, historically, between Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day?

What food is traditionally associated with Mothering Sunday?

How did Simnel Cake gets its name? Was it

  1. a) First made by a couple – one called Simon and the other Nell? Or
  2. b) Named after Lambert Simnel, a baker’s son, a Pretender to the throne in Henry VII’s reign? Or
  3. c) Because it was made from fine flour which in Latin is called SIMILA

And finally . . .

What is a Simnel Cake?

Simnel Cake
Simnel Cake

If you weren’t too sure about some of the answers, then perhaps you’d better read on . . . .

Mothering Sunday – Its Meaning and Traditions

The glib answer to the first question could be – Over 500 years. But I’m sure you want a better response than this!

The term Mothering Sunday referred to in this document has absolutely nothing to do with Mother’s Day, an American invention which was adopted by the U.K. in the 20th century. This day is actually all to do with the religious calendar.

Church going in the Middle Ages was mandatory and everyone would attend the church near to where they lived or worked.

At this time, it was normal for children, often ten years old or even younger, to be apprenticed to a trade or to go into service some distance from their home. Therefore, they would attend the nearest church as returning to their own parish was not an option.

Once a year there was an exception to this as apprentices and those in service had to return to worship at their Mother Church. The date decreed for this to happen was, in Britain, the fourth Sunday in Lent. This Sunday has, over the centuries, been called by many different names – Laetare, Sunday of the Five Loaves, Simnel or Refreshment Sunday. Mothering Sunday, however, was the name most generally used.

Often this was the only day that these young people were allowed away from their place of work, so the roads would be very busy! There would be much excitement as, of course, they would be able to meet up with family, see their friends and make sure that all was well at home.

On this day the very strict food laws surrounding the Lenten period were relaxed and many of these young people would return home with some kind of ‘cake’, a bunch of wild flowers which they had picked from the hedgerows and their wages, saved up over the past year.

Now what exactly this ‘cake’ was during the Middle Ages is not known. I hardly feel it would contain ‘the finest of ingredients’. Also, as butter, milk and cream were forbidden during the Lenten period, and could not be kept for any length of time they would not be able to be used. Eggs on the other hand would be readily available. So the resulting ‘cake’ was likely to be a bread or yeast dough, filled with dried fruit and enriched with egg. And in reality, whatever it tasted like it was going to be better than what was ‘normal fare’ at this time of year!

Origin of the Word Simnel

To do this we really do have to journey back in time and start many centuries ago.

It is generally believed that the word is derived from the Latin Simila which meant fine flour. There are written records of the word Simnel being used by Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror and Henry III. All these refer to bread made from fine flour and are linked with food for the monasteries on special feast days.

Over the years the word started to be only used to describe a kind of cake and by the reign of James I (1603 – 1625) Simnel cake was also associated with Mothering Sunday. In Gloucestershire and Worcestershire there are written records to show that apprentices still carried on the tradition of presenting a cake to the family on this day even until the 18th century.

Now don’t go thinking that this Stuart confection was anything like the one we know today. The cake at this time, when mixed, was tied up in a pudding cloth and then boiled. Then it was baked, possibly with some kind of additional crust or covering. As you read through the history of this English cake, twice cooking is an ever-recurring feature!

It is perhaps now an appropriate place to debunk a myth about the cake’s origins. This is the tale of Simon and Nell.

Once upon a time in Wiltshire, so the story goes, a couple wanted to make a cake but they couldn’t agree how it should be cooked. Simon wanted to boil it. His wife Nell wanted it baked. The arguments were long and very acrimonious. Eventually they came to a compromise. The mixture was made, tied in a cloth and boiled. Nell then took over and baked it. The myth continues that it was their names that resulted in the cake being called – SIM/NEL. All not true. And while we’re at it the tale that the cake was named after Lambert Simnel is also untrue. The word had been in use for centuries before the Tudor period.

And so the journey about this remarkable cake continues . . . .

Bringing the Story up to Modern Times

So, as can be seen from the previous section, Simnel Cake is now firmly fixed as an item specially prepared for Mothering Sunday. However, change was afoot from the Stuart period, particularly after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

Gradually over the ensuing centuries the power of the church and its control over people’s lives lessened and the Lenten fast became a personal choice rather than a countrywide diktat imposed on all. Worship at the local church became the norm all year round and even though Mothering Sunday was still in the church calendar it lessened in importance against the forthcoming Eastertide. So gradually the Simnel cake became a feature of the Easter celebrations. In 1783 a newspaper reported that this type of fare, along with Hot Cross Buns and Saffron Cakes were eaten in Passion Week, the week before Easter.

So now the link between this special cake and the Easter celebrations has been established. This is the connection that most people know today.

A Closer Look at the Simnel Cake

These cakes were always more popular in the North and West of England, never really in the south. This simple fact may then explain why neither Eliza Acton nor Isabella Beeton mention this type of cake anywhere within their mighty tomes!

So as this was almost a regional dish there were accordingly a number of different variations.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the initial mixture was more like a pudding batter which was tied in a cloth, rather like Spotted Dick, and then boiled. When cooked the ‘cake’ was wrapped in pastry, glazed with egg and baked.

Devizes Star Simnel was made with currants and lemon peel, coloured with Saffron and made into a star shape. It was first boiled and then glazed and baked.

Bury Simnel Cake stayed true to its earliest of roots as this was made from a yeast dough. It is worth remembering here that many cakes before the invention of chemical raising agents had a yeast dough base. This cake had a layer of marzipan in the middle. This was put in before the whole cake was baked. It was then iced and in later years 11 sugar balls decorated the top.

In 1869 in Shropshire and Herefordshire there was an old custom of making a rich plum cake (fruit cake) which was boiled then when cold covered in a pastry crust, made from fine flour and coloured yellow with saffron. It was brushed with egg and then baked.

Shrewsbury Simnel Cake is the one which is classed as the blue-print of our modern cake. It is a light fruit cake, not as dark nor as boozy nor as heavily fruited as Christmas cake. Traditionally this too was flavoured with Saffron – yellow of course being the colour of spring and often associated with Easter. This cake also had the layer of marzipan baked in the middle. It was initially boiled, then this was completely covered with more marzipan and the top decoration shaped into castle like crenellations. The cake was then baked to cook the decorations!

In the 19th century the Simnel Cake tried to make a move south! It was very slow to be adopted and, in all honesty, it was never really fully embraced as a delicacy of Easter.

So now we have reached the modern era. Gradually the expensive Saffron was replaced by spices – nutmeg, mixed spice, allspice, cinnamon or ginger and the amount of marzipan was reduced. The layer in the middle remained but the outer crust became a circle on the top.

In the 20th century the idea of putting the 11 paste balls on the top became common. These were supposedly to represent the 11 faithful disciples. Some people have 12 (believe you me this is a much easier number to distribute evenly around the top!). The 12 is either to represent the 11 disciples and Jesus or to symbolise the 12 months of the year.

The twice cooking feature has remained to this day. The cake is baked, decorated and the decorations cooked quickly under the grill or the chef’s blow torch is used to brown the top.

Just a few pieces of information about a couple of items which may not be familiar to everyone. Then I’ll get on to the recipe!

Lent is the 6 week period in the Christian calendar before Easter Sunday. The first day is Ash Wednesday (the day after Pancake Day) and ends (depending on the Christian denomination), either on the evening of Maundy Thursday or at sundown on Holy Saturday. During this time in the Middle Ages many foods were strictly forbidden and fines and other punishments were administered for breaking these rules. It was seen as a time of fasting and religious observance. Many people still observe the Lenten period by abstaining from favourite foods or drinks, but it is a very personal, private observance.


Marzipan is a less archaic name for the almond flavoured paste used in this recipe and on iced fruit cakes. Marchpane was the very old name used for this paste. By the 20th century the phrase almond paste started to be used. This denoted the almond layer which was usually home made. The name marzipan seemed to be reserved for the bought version. In this country there is no difference between these two. They both have almost equal quantities ground almonds to sugar. They are interchangeable. However, this is not the case in America. Marzipan there has a higher sugar content.

Just a word about home made versus bought. The bought marzipan will probably have a much stronger almond flavour as almond essence is frequently added. Making the paste yourself you can regulate just how ‘almondy’ you want the flavour to be. Ground almonds themselves have a very mild flavour. In the recipe given, eventually, the marzipan (home made) in the Simnel Cake I have used orange zest to give additional flavour and I found it worked very well – My husband doesn’t like almond flavour but has managed to eat most of the trial cake without comment!

Simnel Cake

This recipe lists the ingredients generally used in pre-1870 Victorian Britain. Details about the post 1870 recipe will be given at the end along with some additional making information.


3oz (90g) caster sugar

5oz (140g) icing sugar – sieved

7oz (200g) ground almonds

1 large egg – beaten

Zest 1 orange


6oz (175g) softened butter

6oz (175g) caster sugar

3 large eggs – beaten

6oz (175g) self raising flour

6oz (175g) raisins

6 1/2oz (180g) currants

1 1/2oz (30g) candied peel

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon or mixed spice

Zest 1 orange

Zest 1 lemon

2 or 3 tablespoon milk

4 tablespoons Brandy – optional

Before starting to make the cake

Decide whether brandy is to be used. If so  the following needs to be done a few days in advance of making the cake.

Put the currants and raisins into a mixing bowl, pour over the brandy. Stir to mix, cover and stir regularly to ensure the dried fruit evenly absorbs the alcohol.


Method to make Marzipan

  1. Put the two different types and sugar into a bowl. Add the ground almonds and mix all together well
  2. Add the orange zest and the beaten egg. Depending on how large the egg is not all may be needed. Combine thoroughly to a moist but pliable paste. Cover and set to one side
  3. Trace round the base of the chosen cake tin – either 7” (18cm) or 8” (20cm) round tin, loose bottomed is good but it is not essential. Cut out the parchment circle
  4. Sprinkle the parchment circle with icing sugar
  5. Take 1/3rd of the marzipan and gently shape or knead it into a round. Roll out on the circle of parchment until it just fits. Set to one side, still on the parchment
  6. Cover the remaining marzipan with cling and store in a cool place – preferably not the refrigerator

Method to Make the Cake

  1. Light the oven 160C, 140C fan, Gas Mark 3. Grease and line or use a paper liner, the cake tin of choice (7”- 18cm or 8” – 20cm)
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy
  3. Gradually add the beaten egg a little at a time, beating well after each addition. If the mixture looks as if it might curdle then add a spoonful of flour with each portion of egg
  4. Sieve the remaining flour with the cinnamon or mixed spice and gently fold this into the mixture in the bowl
  5. Carefully fold in the dried fruit, candied peel and the orange and lemon zest
  6. Adjust the consistency with the milk to form one which will, with encouragement, drop off the spoon
  7. Spoon half the cake mixture into the prepared tin and level it off to form a flat surface
  8. Pick up the circle of marzipan, still on its parchment template and place, paste side down onto top of the cake mix. REMOVE THE PAPER TEMPLATE!
  9. Put the remaining cake mix into the tin and carefully level this
  10. Cook for approximately 1 3/4 – 2 hours. If it gets too brown cover with foil
  11. Test with a skewer – JUST THE CAKE. MIX. When cooked remove from the oven allow to cool for 15 minutes in the tin before turning out – this is why a loose bottomed tin is ideal as the cake is still fragile. If this type of tin is not used leave the cake to cool for longer before removing onto a cooling tray

Decorating the Simnel Cake

  1. Once the cake is completely cold, cut another circle of parchment the same size or a little large than the base
  2. Take 1/2 of the remaining marzipan and knead gently until smooth. Roll out in the same way as before to the size of the parchment circle
  3. Brush the top of the cake with apricot glaze – warmed apricot jam or marmalade and cover this with the circle of marzipan. Make sure the edges look neat – they can be crimped or fluted to give a very decorative effect
  4. Take the remaining paste, divide and roll it into 11 even sized balls. Place these around the top of the cake and once satisfied they are correctly placed, secure them with a little beaten egg
  5. Brush the top of the cake and the 11 balls evenly with the beaten egg and brown either under the grill, turning the cake frequently or use a chef’s blow torch. Great care must be taken as golden brown to burnt takes only a fraction of a second!ĺ
  6. Before serving tie a yellow-coloured ribbon around the cake and if liked adorn the top with little mini eggs, fluffy chicks or a simple sprig of flowers.

If this cake is to be made, decorated and eaten within a few days of finishing then follow the method as given above. However, if the cake and the finishing are to be days for even a couple of weeks apart then only make enough marzipan to go in the middle of the cake. Make more when it is required for the finishing of the cake. It can go a little dry and rather hard, particularly after grilling.

Some people find the browning of the almond marzipan difficult and prefer to have some glacé icing on the top. Take care that this is not made too runny as it will spoil the finished result. The correct consistency is the icing should thickly coat the back of a spoon. Use as a guide 4 tablespoons icing sugar with 4 teaspoons water as a starting point. Any more water should be added BY THE DROP!  Adjust the quantities for the size of cake made.

To make a Simnel Cake using ingredients post-1870, the following can be included –

Victorians described this as a light fruit cake so the one given above uses caster sugar. Soft light brown sugar can be substituted for this if desired.

Glacé cherries, imported from France, did not appear in England until after 1870. If these are to be used then use only 3oz (90g) currants and 3oz (90g) chopped glacé cherries.

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