A Simnel cake is a light fruit cake packed with dried fruit and pockets of marzipan throughout the cake, a layer of marzipan in the middle and another one on top, decorated with 11 marzipan balls to represent Jesus's 11 disciples (excluding Judas of course).
The cake was traditionally associated with Mothering Sunday, the day that occurs on the fourth Sunday of Lent (don't confuse Mothering Sunday with Mother's Day, the two are entirely different). Mothering Sunday was a special day in the Christian calendar when people visited their mother church or cathedral. The fourth Sunday of Lent falls in the middle of the religious fasting period and offered a day of respite.
The Simnel cake has taken several forms since it came into existence in Medieval times. It started life as a possibly enriched, yeast-leavened bread. What made it special was the fact that it was made from the finest, highest quality flour available at the time, simnel derives from the Latin simila – the whitest and finest of flours..
By the time the 17th century arrived, the bread became a pudding. Something along the lines of a Spotted Dick, full of nuts, spices and dried fruit. First, the batter was boiled and then once cooked, was wrapped in pastry, egg washed and then baked until there was a crisp, hard exterior.
By the 1800s, the pudding had become similar to the cake we recognise today, however, it was not until last century that the marzipan layers and 'disciples' became tradition.
How often do you see a Simnel cake in the supermarket or bakery today? The tradition of the light and rich fruit cake seems to be in decline but if you fancy whipping one up, and telling your children how we came to serve the Simnel cake on Easter Sunday, here is a recipe that makes a gorgeous cake, nice and simple using the all-in-one method.
A couple of quick thoughts, firstly, making your own marzipan is easy and very satisfying but if you don't have time (you'll need about 2 1/4 hours) then by all means use shop bought. Secondly, make sure the butter you use for the cake batter is soft so that it does not take long to bring the batter together, if the butter is hard and the batter takes a while to become creamy, the gluten will be overworked and the cake will not be light.
For the marzipan:
90 g caster sugar
140 g icing sugar
220 g ground almonds
grated zest of an orange
1 beaten egg
Mix all of the ingredients except for the egg in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the egg. Using a mixer or your hand, form a dough. Knead in the bowl until smooth, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Ingredients for the Simnel cake:
225 g softened butter
225 g caster sugar
225 g plain flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
zest of 2 oranges
zest of 2 lemons
325 g mixed fruit (currants, sultanas, currants)
125 g glacé cherries, quartered or left whole
500 g orange marzipan (see above)
icing sugar for dusting
1 beaten egg
To make the Simnel cake:
Begin by greasing and lining an 8-inch cake tin and preheating your oven to 150°C.
In a large bowl, beat together the softened butter, caster sugar, eggs, flour, cinnamon and zests. Using a hand mixer, beat together until smooth. Now fold in the mixed fruit and cherries with a spatula or wooden spoon.
Spoon half of the mixture into your tin and level it off. Take a third of your marzipan and roll it out into a circle the same size as the tin, trimming away any untidy bits. Use a little icing sugar to roll the marzipan out, just like you would use flour to roll out pastry.
Lay the marzipan in the tin and then spoon and scrape the remainder of the cake batter on top of that. Level off with your spatula and make an indentation in the centre, so that the cake doesn’t rise with too much of a peak.
Bake for 2 ¼ to 2 ½ hours. Use a skewer to check it is done. Cool on a rack for about 30 minutes before removing the tin and greaseproof paper.
When cold, roll out half of the marzipan in a circle slightly larger than the cake – the best way to do this is to use the outside edge of the tin it was baked in as a template.
Brush the top of the cake with some apricot jam (if it is very thick, you may want to warm some with a little water in a pan) and lay the marzipan on top, then brush the marzipan with the beaten egg. Divide the remaining marzipan and trimmings into 11 equally-sized balls and arrange them in a circle. Brush those with egg too and glaze the top using a chef’s flame torch (or a very hot grill).
A more modern take on the Simnel Cake
With chocolate arguably symbolising Easter more than a Simnel cake symbolising the death and re-birth of Christ in today's society, why not combine the two and keep the tradition alive? Simply replace the marzipan disciples with chocolate eggs and add an Easter chick or two!
This recipe is taken from https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/03/19/simnel-cake/