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.
Table of Contents
- Simnel Cakes For Mothering Sunday
- Bringing Home A New Beau
- The Eleven Apostles
- Meaning Of The Word Simnel
- Lambert Simnel
- How Is This An Irish Tradition?
- Directions for Simnel Cake
- Recipe Card for Simnel Cake
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.
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.
Plus, Irish rebels of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, supported Simnel in his attempts to overthrow the British ruler.
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.
Here you'll find a list of the many ingredients you'll need. However, the exact amounts can be found in the printable recipe at the bottom of this post. There you can switch between US and Metric measurements for the exact quantities required.
For the Fruit Cake
- light brown sugar
- golden syrup
- all-purpose flour
- baking powder
- pinch salt
- ground all spice
- ground cinnamon
- ground nutmeg
- ground cloves
- whole milk
- chopped almonds
- cherries (halved)
- sultanas or golden raisins
- candied peel
- Irish whiskey
- Granny Smith apple (peeled and grated)
- lemon zest (grated rind)
- orange zest (grated rind)
- beaten egg white (to seal almond paste onto the top of cooked cake)
Currants can be used to replace some of the sultanas and raisins.
Apricot jam instead of egg white can be used to seal the marzipan onto the top of the cake.
A small amount of ground ginger can also be added to the spices, but I prefer to omit the ginger.
Some people use brandy instead of the whiskey in this cake. It adds lovely warm flavor.
For the Almond Paste
- ground almonds (almond meal)
- fine sugar
- confectioner's sugar (icing sugar in Ireland)
- lemon juice
- 2 eggs
- pure almond extract (optional)
- Irish whiskey (optional)
Directions for Simnel Cake
There are multiple steps involved in making this cake. It's a pretty complicated recipe so I've broken down the instructions into different essential steps.
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.
The almond paste needs to be prepared before you mix the fruitcake batter. This is because half of the almond paste is layered between the batter before baking.
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 if I can find them. 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.
Half the almond paste in dough. Half will be used to place between two layers of cake batter and baked into the cake. Set this portion of marzipan aside.
The other half should be wrapped in parchment paper and placed in an air tight container or freezer bag, then stored in the refrigerator. It should last there for about 3 days, meaning your cake needs to be decorated within 3 days.
If you are planning on storing the cake for a few weeks before Easter, and then decorating it, I recommend making the almond paste in two half batches. Make the first half when baking the fruit cake.
Then when you're ready to decorate make the second batch. Use half the ingredients outlined in the recipe each time.
Fruit Cake Instructions
Next, it's time to prepare the fruit cake batter.
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.
Use a spatula to spread it evenly in the baking 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.
Decorating Simnel Cake
When you're ready to decorate and serve the cake, take the remaining almond paste out of the fridge.
When ready to decorate the cake, roll two-thirds of the remaining marzipan 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.
Recipe Card for Simnel Cake
Here's the printable recipe card.
- 8 ounces butter 2 sticks
- 1 cup light brown sugar firmly packed
- 4 eggs
- 2 tablespoons golden syrup corn syrup can be substituted
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- pinch salt
- ½ teaspoon ground all spice
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- pinch ground cloves
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
- ¼ cup chopped almonds
- ½ cup glacé cherries halved
- 2 cups raisins
- 1 cup golden raisins sultanas in Ireland
- ½ cup candied peel citron or mixed peel
- ¼ cup Irish whiskey
- 1 medium Granny Smith apple peeled and grated
- 1 lemon grated zest
- 1 orange grated zest
- 1 egg white beaten to seal almond paste onto the top of cooked cake
- 4 cups ground almonds almond meal
- 2 cups sugar fine caster sugar
- 2 cups confectioners sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 eggs
- 1 drop almond extract optional
- 1 tablespoon Irish whiskey optional
- 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.
- 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 of the egg mixture, depending on the size of the eggs used.
- 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. Store the remainder of the almond paste in the fridge wrapped in parchment paper until ready to decorate the fruitcake.
- 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. 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.
- Serve slightly warm or cold. Decorate with Easter novelties as desired.
Nutrition Information is estimated based on the ingredients and cooking instructions as described in each recipe and is intended to be used for informational purposes only. Please note that nutrition details may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients used.
Here are a few other posts about Easter you might enjoy:
Good Friday Traditions In Ireland
Easter Stories of Saint Patrick
Easter Monday - A Day At The Races In Ireland
Wishing every one a very happy Easter.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
Here are some other recipes and ramblings you might enjoy...
Pilgrims' Path In County Kerry
Easy Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding
Oh my gosh! A beautiful, delicious looking labor of love! I love that your daughter is helping and interested. Isn't that the greatest compliment she can give you: that she wants to do the same lovely things you have done for your children? 🙂
Irish American Mom
Hi Patricia - This cake sure is a labor of love. There are lots of steps involved and the end product is one that probably appeals most to Irish or English people. My little girl and one of my little boys love to help me cook. I love to get them kneading dough in the kitchen and learning all the steps involved in making a meal. One of the reasons I started my blog was to force myself to record some of the old ways and traditions that are imprinted on my mind from my childhood. I hope in years to come my kids will be able to read some of my ramblings, and cook some of my recipes and in the process learn something new about their old mom.
Best wishes for a very happy Easter.
I love your ramblings and recipes! I have 3 sons who have been listening to me ramble for years. Isn't it awesome to know that they are listening and getting it?
My mother passed away in 1987, one year before my first son was born. He never met her, but all my sons know my mother through the stories I tell them, and the recipes we make together. I would not trade that for anything!!
Your daughter sounds wonderful!! It is heartening to know that you have instilled in her the love and respect for her history.
Irish American Mom
Hi Melissa - I'm so sorry to hear you lost your mother when you were so young and before your children were born, but it's lovely to hear that you keep her memory alive for them through your stories and cooking. Like you, I believe sharing stories of those who have gone before us is ever so important.
Thanks for stopping by to check out this recipe and its background story, and for your kind words about my recipes and ramblings. Best wishes for a very happy Easter.
Don't no how you do it Mairead. The research and writing of this article is a pleasure to read but the time, and add to this the baking of this fruity concoction, photo's, etc. quite a bit of work. Well done, and Happy Easter to the whole clan.
Irish American Mom
Brian - If I was very organized I would have made my cake well in advance of Easter and have posted it weeks ago, but alack and alas I'm always burning the midnight oil, and get there just in time. This really was a time consuming project, and as I try to get better at food photography, the more time each blog post takes. Good thing I enjoy the process.
Hope you and yours have a very Happy Easter too.
Wonderful post! Happy Easter.
Irish American Mom
Happy Easter to you too, Kay. I thought you might enjoy this little piece of English and Irish history.
Mairéad, I'd never heard of a Simnel cake before. Love the photo your little girl set up and took -- and love how she asked if she'd have your blog when you are dead 🙂 Gotta love kids! 🙂
Irish American Mom
Cheryl - Kids do say the darndest things. I love how my little girl wants my blog when I'm dead and gone. I'll have to leave it to her in my will.
Take care and I hope you had a lovely Easter,
It would be like a dream to have one of these beautiful sweaters of Inis Mór to become a treasured heirloom. I’m happy to have found both websites!
Irish American Mom
Hi Jane - Thanks so much for checking out my blog. I added this comment to the Aran sweater post too so that your name will go into the hat for the giveaway.
That is a beautiful cake! Anyone would likely enjoy that kind of fruit cake. The decorations with eggs and fluffy chicks are very cute. My favorite picture, other than the whole cake, is the braid with the 11 marzipan balls and little chicks and eggs in the center. It reminds me of a live feed of two eaglets that recently hatched that my students are enjoying watching and talking about online. It's wonderful that you and your daughter are making memories as you share those traditions together.
Irish American Mom
Hi Lynn - Fruit cakes are not very popular in America, but this one is a delicious traditional recipe. I love a good fruitcake, and it was lovely to share this tradition with my daughter. She had fun adding the little chicks to the top of the cake. I love to see traditions passed down from generation to generation, and I hope that by recording some of these Irish traditions here on my blog, I will create a record for my children, and their children, to treasure and enjoy.
Many thanks for stopping by,
A lovely Easter tradition - love your photos.
Irish American Mom
Hi Terry - Thanks for checking out this recipe and rating it. Glad you like this traditional Easter fruit cake from Ireland. It's a tradition all across the UK too.
All the best,