Simnel cake

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • For

    6-8

    people

Appears in

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: The history of British Baking, savoury and sweet

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South

By Regula Ysewijn

Published 2020

  • About

The Simnel cake has a rather mysterious origin. The name could come from simile conspersa, which means ‘fine flour’ in Latin. But England wouldn’t be England if she didn’t try to make it a more romantic story. In 1838, a story appeared in an English newspaper entitled ‘The Sim-Nell’ or ‘The Wiltshire Cake’. Simon and Nelly were an old couple arguing at Easter about what to do with a surplus of dough. Simon thought that the dough should be baked in a mould, while Nelly thought it should not be baked, but cooked on the stovetop. To prevent further quarrelling, the old couple came to a compromise, cooking the cake first on the stovetop, and then baking it!

Another story became legend when the recipe for Simnel cake appeared in a poem. In addition to the recipe, the poem says that the cake should be brought to your mother in mid-spring. This inspired the legend that Simnel cake was cooked by maids who were allowed to go home on Mother’s Day. The cake was apparently made from the rich ingredients found in the household of the maid’s employer. Today, in England, Simnel cakes are still baked around Easter and especially on Mother’s Day.

It’s true that 17th-century references show that the cake was indeed first cooked and then baked, which was later forgotten because ovens became more reliable. The rich ingredients have remained, such as the candied skin of fruits, currants and sometimes saffron. The marzipan is also an important ingredient, and the 11 marzipan balls symbolise the 12 apostles, minus Judas.

This Simnel cake is based on a recipe from May Byron’s iconic 1914 book, Pot-luck; or, The British Home Cookery Book. Byron points out that this is a Simnel cake from the Gloucestershire region, because variations of Simnels were also baked in Bury, Devizes and Shrewsbury. These Simnels, however, were not finished with the balls of marzipan as has become the custom today.

Ingredients

For the home-made marzipan

  • 200 g (7 oz) icing (confectioners’) sugar
  • 200 g (7 oz) caster (superfine) sugar
  • 360 g (12¾ oz) almond meal
  • 40 g ( oz) apricot kernels
  • 1 tsp rosewater
  • 2 eggs, beaten

For the cake

  • 115 g (4 oz) butter, at room temperature
  • 115 g (4 oz) caster (superfine) sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 110 g ( oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 55 g (2 oz) almond meal
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 340 g (11¾ oz) currants
  • 55 g (2 oz) candied citrus peel, chopped
  • ½ tbsp apricot jam, to garnish
  • butter, for greasing
  • flour, for dusting
  • 1 egg yolk + 1 tbsp milk, for egg wash

Method

For a round 18-20 cm (7-8 inch) springform tin

It is best to make the marzipan a day in advance. Sift the icing sugar, caster sugar and almond meal into a large bowl and mix well. Soak the apricot kernels in boiling water for 5 minutes, then remove the skins. Using a mortar and pestle, finely crush the apricot kernels and add the rosewater or maraschino liqueur.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the eggs and the apricot kernel mixture. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to mix everything well, then use your hands to knead the marzipan. If necessary, add a teaspoon of water at a time until it comes together but doesn’t become sticky. Wrap the marzipan in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 160°C (320°F). Grease the tin and cover the base and side with a double layer of baking paper. Fold a piece of brown paper in half, then wrap it around the outside of the tin and secure with kitchen string.

Divide the marzipan in half and roll each piece out to about 5 mm (¼ inch) thick. Use the cake tin to cut out two 20 cm (8 inch) circles. Roll 11 marzipan balls from the left-over marzipan.

Put the butter and sugar in a bowl and beat until creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and make sure that each egg is completely incorporated before adding the next one. Add a teaspoon of the flour with the last egg to prevent the mixture from separating. Fold in the remaining flour, the almond meal and baking powder, followed by the currants and the candied citrus peel.

Spoon half of the batter into the tin, then place one of the marzipan circles neatly on top of the batter. Spoon the other half of the batter on top.

Reduce the oven to 130°C (250°F) and bake the cake in the lower part of the oven for 2½-3 hours.

Remove the cake from the oven and switch the oven function to grill. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then remove it from the tin. Brush the top of the cake with a thin layer of apricot jam and place the remaining marzipan circle on top. Arrange the marzipan balls on the marzipan circle, using a little apricot jam to secure them.

Lightly brush the marzipan balls with the egg wash. Briefly put the cake back in the oven to give the balls a light golden colour.