Simnel cakes as we know them have been made since medieval time. It is believed that the word ‘simnel’ developed from the Latin word ‘similia’, meaning fine wheaten flour. Simnel cakes were traditionally baked during the Lenten fast and became connected with Mothering Sunday in the seventeenth century, when girls in domestic service would return home to visit their mothers with gifts of Simnel cakes and freshly picked spring flowers.
These days, Simnel cake is associated with the religious festival of Easter. Traditionally, it’s decorated with eleven balls of marzipan to represent the eleven faithful disciples of Christ – and makes for a stunning Easter showstopper. Here’s how to make your own, courtesy of Lesley Wild (A Year of Family Recipes).
Ingredients – makes a 20cm diameter cake
1kg homemade or shop-bought marzipan
260g caster sugar
4 large eggs
350g plain white flour pinch of salt
¾ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
350g raisins and 175g sultanas which have been soaked in sherry for a couple hours
150g whole mixed peel (lemon, orange and citron), finely chopped
200g naturally coloured glacé cherries
2 teaspoons apricot jam
2 teaspoons water
1 egg, beaten
- Preheat the oven to 145°C (gas mark [½). Take roughly one third of the marzipan and wrap the rest in foil to store in the fridge until needed to decorate the cake.
- Sprinkle the work surface with icing sugar and roll out the marzipan until it is slightly larger than the base of a 20cm diameter × 8cm deep loose-bottomed cake tin. Using the base of the cake tin as a guide, cut out a circle of marzipan. Set aside.
- Line the sides and bottom of the cake tin with baking parchment.
- Beat together the butter and the sugar in a large mixing bowl until pale and creamy. Add the eggs, one by one, mixing in well.
- Blend together the flour, salt and spices and add gradually to the mixture. Add the sherry, raisins and sultanas, followed by the peel. Gently stir in the cherries so they remain whole.
- Spoon half the mixture into a lined cake tin and flatten. Place the circle of marzipan on top then add the rest of the cake mixture to fill the cake tin.
- Bake in a preheated oven for approximately 2.5 hours. The cake will be ready when it’s golden brown on top and firm to the touch. Piece the centre with a thin skewer – it should come out clean.
- When cool enough to handle, remove from the cake tin and leave to cool on a cooling rack. To store, wrap in tin foil and place in an airtight container in a cool place.
- To decorate the cake, divide the remaining marzipan into two halves. With one half make eleven round balls. Roll out the second half until you have a circle of marzipan large enough to cover the top of the cake. Using the base of the cake tin as a guide, cut out a circle of marzipan as before. Set aside.
- Combine the apricot jam and water in a small pan and heat gently until the mixture becomes syrupy. Allow to cool slightly then brush over the surface of the cake.
- Preheat the grill. Carefully list the marzipan onto the top of the cake and press gently with a rolling pin to flatten the surface.
- Create your own artistic patterns on the marzipan – I use a broad-bladed knife to make a criss-cross pattern. Once you’re happy with your design, brush the surface sparingly with the beaten egg and immediately place under the grill. Watch carefully as the marzipan colours very quickly. When it has turned a pale, golden brown, remove it immediately.
- Now place your marzipan ball evenly around the edge of the cake, pressing them onto the toasted marzipan. Brush the tops of the balls with beaten egg and place under the grill again. Remove when both cake and calls are a deep golden brown.
- When cool, cover the sides of the cake as desired.