Easter is a little later than usual this year, but it’s coming up fast. I’d like to offer a suggestion for your annual celebrations before you finish sorting the grocery list, which I think we can all agree is much more forward-thinking of me than usual.
Simnel cake is a recipe that never goes out of style. And when I say it’s timeless, I really do mean it: we have records dating back to Edward the Confessor in the 11th century that speak of “simnels”.
I confess (see what I did there?) to not being a huge fan of fruit cakes in general, but simnel cake is a special case. Designed to represent the biblical story of Easter, it features 11 marzipan “apostle balls” on top to represent each of Jesus’ faithful apostles (leaving out, obviously, Judas).
The word comes from the Latin “simila”, which refers to a finely ground wheaten flour. At first, the word was usually used for the purpose of describing the flour itself, so we don’t know if William the Conqueror was referring to fruit cake when he left the monks of Battle Abbey “a memorial of his affection” in the early 12th century: a simnel bread for their daily use, fit for the royal table.
Most of today’s cakes started out as sweet loaves, back in Medieval times, so it’s likely that the original version tasted quite different from the one we know today. We do know that simnel cake was in existence in its current form by the beginning of the 1600s, but regional recipes tended to differ.
However, all included dried fruits and none included milk or butter.
Until relatively recently, Simnel cakes were boiled in a bag before baking, and they weren’t intended for Easter. They were made for Mothering Sunday, which was once a religious tradition rather than a chance to celebrate the ladies who gave us life.
In the UK, Mothering Sunday takes place on the fourth Sunday of Lent and was a time for the faithful to return to their “mother church” (the main one closest to where they lived) for a service. It was particularly treasured by servants, who were given a rare day off to travel home.
This was also a day for feasting, so it was synonymous with foods forbidden during the fast.
Why no dairy on the ingredients list? Because these items were not eaten during Lent and didn’t store for long, so they were very difficult to procure in time for feast day. Simnel cake thus relies on dried and preserved ingredients – and eggs, because hens don’t understand calendars.
Many decades passed and this history was forgotten. Nobody could remember why the cake needed to be boiled as well as baked so, obviously, someone came up with a new myth.
According to this story – which was doing the rounds as late as the 1930s – a couple called Simon and Nelly were at odds over how to turn the leftovers from their Christmas baking into a cake. Should it be boiled, or should it be baked?
They beat each other with household implements until they came to a compromise through which both of their methods would be used, and the cake was given a title that combined their names (Sim-and-Nell). It wasn’t true, but it’s still nice when we can all get along.
If you’d like to make an old tradition new and add it to your Easter catering, here’s how:
All the ingredients of your simnel cake should be brought to room temperature before you begin, and your oven should be preheated to 325 degrees F. Double line an eight-inch springform cake tin.
Place 3.5 cups of mixed dried fruit in a bowl, add the zest and juice of an orange and microwave, covered, for two minutes for the liquid to absorb. Once cooled, add half a cup of finely chopped candied cherries.
Meanwhile, cream 12 tablespoons of unsalted butter to a cup of fine sugar until light, then add the zest of a lemon. In another bowl, combine 1.5 cups of all-purpose flour, a teaspoon of baking powder, two teaspoons of mixed spice and a quarter cup of almond meal.
Add an egg to the creamed butter and sugar along with two tablespoons of the flour mix. Now beat two more eggs into the mixture, followed by the rest of the flour mix, then two tablespoons of milk.
Fold the dried fruit mix into the batter. Dust a surface with confectioners’ sugar and roll about 14 oz of marzipan into an eight-inch circle that will fit into your cake tin.
Marzipan is sometimes referred to as “almond paste” in supermarkets this side of the pond, although the two are slightly different in texture and sweetness. Both will work, but marzipan is better.
If you can’t find any, you can make your own by blending 3 cups of fine almond flour with 3 cups of powdered sugar in a food processor, then adding 4 tsps of pure almond extract and 2 tsps of rose water (optional), then adding two egg whites to make a thick dough. Knead, form into a log, wrap in plastic wrap and place in the fridge to firm up. You’ll need about 2.5 lbs of marzipan in total.
Back to the cake: pour half your batter into the cake tin and smooth it down, then place the marzipan circle on top. Cover with the rest of the mixture, smooth and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes.
At this time, turn the oven down to 300 degrees F for 90 minutes, until the cake has risen and feels firm. Cool completely, then remove from the tin.
Roll out another circle of marzipan. Melt a couple of tablespoons of apricot jelly or jam and smooth it across the top of the cake, then stick the marzipan circle on top.
Make the apostle balls by rolling the rest of the marzipan into one-inch balls. Beat an egg white until frothy and use it to “glue” the balls evenly around the edge of the cake.
Brush the marzipan top with a beaten egg, then place the cake in the broiler for a couple of minutes until it just begins to caramelize (keep an eye, as it can burn easily).
And there you have it, a centerpiece for your Easter table that’s a millennium in the making. And with all the effort my ancestors put in to perfect the recipe, the good news is that you won’t even have to beat your spouse with a wooden spoon to make it happen.