Simnel cake is a traditional Easter cake baked in Ireland and throughout the British Isles. A rich fruity cake, it has a layer of almond paste baked into the middle and is covered with a thick layer of toasted almond icing. A circle of marzipan balls decorate the top.
The history, origins and symbolism of Simnel cake are fascinating, so I thought this Easter I would try my hand at creating this cake from days gone by. But you know me, I love to ramble. So before we get cooking, here’s a little history lesson …..
Simnel Cakes For Mothering Sunday:
In Ireland and the United Kingdom, Mother’s Day falls on the mid-Sunday of Lent. Dating back to Elizabethan times, Mothering Sunday called for a special cake to be baked for mothers.
Servants who had been hired at the New Year were given a holiday in mid-Lent to return home to see their mothers. To prove their newly acquired cooking skills they brought with them a ‘Mothering’ cake or ‘Simnel’ cake.
Because the rules surrounding the Lenten fast were very strict in those days, the cake had to be rich enough, so that it would not spoil before Easter.
Bringing Home A New Beau:
Servant girls not only brought home simnel cakes as evidence of newly-acquired baking skills, but sometimes a recently met sweetheart also accompanied her home for family approval.
If the servant girl worked in the dairy or laundry and had no access to the kitchens, then it was her new beau’s responsibility to buy a mothering cake. An old English verse goes like this:
“And I’ll to thee a simnel bring
‘Gainst thou goest a-mothering;
So that when she blesses thee
Half the blessing thou’lst give to me.”
The Eleven Apostles:
But there were twelve apostles, I hear you say. Very true, but when it comes to Simnel cake, Judas is left out in the cold.
Traditionally eleven, or sometimes twelve, marzipan balls are used to decorate the top of the cake. These represent the apostles, minus Judas. Eleven balls are the apostles on their own. If twelve are used they represent Jesus and the eleven apostles, again without Judas.
Judas, being a traitor is never given a look-in on a Simnel cake. This tradition developed late in the Victorian era. Prior to that these cakes were decorated with preserved fruits and flowers.
Meaning Of The Word Simnel:
Exact origins of the word ‘simnel’ are unclear. In 1226 a Medieval document refers to “bread made into a simnel”.
Historians believe that this refers to the finest white bread derived from the Latin ‘simila’ meaning ‘fine flour’.
A popular legend attributes the creation of this cake to Lambert Simnel (1477 – ca. 1525). He was a pretender to the throne of England, and at the age of ten, threatened the reign of Henry VII, by claiming to be the Earl of Warwick.
Now Simnel was lauded and supported in Ireland. On 24 May 1487, Simnel was crowned “King Edward VI” at Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin.
Alack and alas, his army was quickly defeated upon invading England, and Simnel was arrested. Because Henry VII believe the boy was merely a puppet in the hands of misguided adults, he pardoned Simnel. He was sent to work in the royal kitchen where legend has it he created the cake that bears his name.
The truth of this story is questionable. References to the cake are found before Simnel’s time, but perhaps he created his own special version of this rich fruit cake.
Check out the full story of Lambert Simnel on Wikipedia.
How Is This An Irish Tradition?
The origins of this cake are definitely English, but the practice of bringing a Simnel cake home on Mothering Sunday also carried over to Ireland throughout the centuries.
Many Irish girls worked as servants in the “Big Houses” of Ireland, and they too would have been provided the ingredients to make this luscious fruit cake for their families.
Simnel cakes are very much associated with Easter in parts of rural Ireland. Darina Allen, a renowned traditional Irish cook bake a Simnel cake at Easter.
For my cake I made a slightly less rich fruit cake than Darina Allen’s recipe, and used others I found in my mother’s old cookbooks from the 1960’s. I adapted recipes from Full And Plenty by Maura Laverty and Marguerite Patten’s Everyday Cookbook.
And so, without further ado, here’s how I make my Simnel Cake.
- 8 ounces of butter (2 sticks)
- 1 cup light brown sugar (firmly packed)
- 4 eggs
- 2 tablespoons golden syrup
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- pinch salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground all spice
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- pinch ground cloves
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1/4 cup chopped almonds
- 1/2 cup cherries (halved)
- 2 cups raisins
- 1 cup sultanas
- 1/2 cup candied peel
- 1/4 cup Irish whiskey
- 1 Medium Granny Smith apple (peeled and grated)
- 1 lemon (grated zest)
- 1 orange (grated zest)
- 1 beaten egg white (to seal almond paste onto the top of cooked cake)
- 4 cups ground almonds (almond meal)
- 2 cups fine sugar
- 2 cups confectioner’s sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice2 eggs
- 1 drop pure almond essence (optional)
- 1 tablespoon Irish whiskey (optional)
Prepare The Baking Pan:
Prepare a 9-inch round baking pan by lining the base and sides with parchment paper. Cover the sides with brown paper.
Soak The Fruit:
Mix the dried fruit, chopped almonds, cherries, and mixed peel with the grated orange and lemon zests. Add the whiskey and set aside for at least one hour to soak.
If you soak the fruit for more than an hour it’s best to hold off on adding the grated apple until just before adding the fruit to the cake batter.
Next make the almond paste. Sift the confectioner’s sugar. Mix with the ground almonds and fine sugar.
Beat the eggs and add a drop of almond essence, and whiskey if used. Mix with the dry ingredients to form a stiff paste similar to pastry consistency.
You may not need all the egg mixture, depending on the size of the eggs used.
I like to use pasteurized eggs. The paste is toasted in the oven for this, but it may not heat for a long enough period to eliminate all risks associated with eating uncooked eggs.
Sprinkle a flat work top with confectioner’s sugar and knead the almond paste until smooth. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Cream the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy.
Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and spices into a separate bowl.
Add the eggs to the butter mixture one at a time, beating well. Add one tablespoon of flour with each egg to prevent curdling.
Add the golden syrup and mix gently.
Fold the flour gradually into the mixture adding a tablespoon or two of milk with the flour.
Grate the apple and add it to the soaking fruit. Gently fold all of the fruit into the cake mixture.
Add half of the cake mixture to the prepared tin.
Roll out half the almond paste and cut into a 9-inch round. Place on top of the cake mixture in the tin. Cover with the remaining cake mixture.
Using the back of a large spoon make a slight hollow in the center to prevent the cake rising to a peak as it bakes.
Cover the top of the cake with a piece of brown paper to prevent it from burning.
Place the baking pan in the pre-heated oven. After 30 minutes reduce the heat to 325° F and bake for a further 2 hours. Test the center with a skewer. It should come out clean when cooked.
Allow to cool for a day. Remove the cake from the tin. If not ready to decorate the cake, leave the lining paper on the cake, wrap in additional parchment paper and store in an air tight tin until ready for decorating.
When ready to decorate the cake, roll two-thirds of the remaining almond paste into a 9-inch round.
Brush the cake with a little lightly beaten egg white. Place the round of almond paste on top. Make eleven balls with the remaining almond paste.
I got a little carried away this time, creating a twist of almond paste also. I used the edge of a small flan dish to imprint the sides of the almond past too.
Brush the top of the cake with beaten egg white and place the marzipan balls around the top in a circle. Brush with more beaten egg.
Toast in a preheated 425°F oven for 15 minutes until the top is slightly golden.
Decorate with Easter novelties as desired.
My little girl loved playing with these chocolate eggs and Easter chicks and set up and took the photo above. She’s ever so proud of her handiwork.
Simnel cake can be served when slightly warm after toasting it in the oven, or allowed to cool completely before slicing.
The cake can be stored in an air-tight container for up to 3 weeks. I recommend adding a little whiskey to the almond paste if you are planning to store it. The alcohol acts as a preservative.
As my little girl helped mix and decorate this cake she asked me:
“Will I have your blog when you’re dead?”
Sounds very morbid from the lips of an eight year old, but I think she was trying to ask, if she will have these old traditional recipes in years to come. She sensed history in the baking of this cake.
I reassured her she will have my blog and my recipes. That’s what my recipes and ramblings are all about.
Wishing every one a very happy Easter.
Here’s the printable recipe:
Beannachtaí na Cásca Oraibh
Irish American Mom