A Simnel Cake is like a plum pudding inside a crust.
The inside part is made from flour, spices, dried fruit and candied peel.
Some versions have a crust made from a creamed batter, others from a yeast-dough. Yeast dough ones tend to have saffron in them, making them yellowish. Other versions have the inside part coated with marzipan, baked, then iced.
Some versions put a layer of marzipan in the middle of the cake before baking; others break up chunks of marzipan in the cake batter.
Simnel Cakes are often decorated. Flowers are a typical adornment. In the past, it was fresh flowers; nowadays it will be candied flowers or flowers made from icing.
There are several regional variations in England:
- Shrewsbury Simnel Cake: coated with marzipan and decorated;
- Bury Simnels: has flat, dried fruit inside plus topped with flaked almonds (made in Bury, Lancashire);
- Devizes Simnels: Made in the shape of a star, no crust (made in Wiltshire.)
The most well-known version is the Shrewsbury version.
Simnel cakes have evolved. They started off as small biscuity-type cakes, unrisen, with good quality flour, honey anise and water,
In the late 1100s, Canon David de Aqua left land in Moreton, Hertfordshire, in his will to endow giving out Simnels on St Milburga’s Day (23 February.)
In the time of Henry III, a Simnel Cake was a small cake, twice baked. Bakers were allowed to charge a farthing for it, not only because they used better flour, but because of the extra work involved in cooking them twice. The laws referred to them in Latin as “bis coctus” (meaning “twice cooked”.) They ended up with a crisp, shiny surface. They sometimes had a pattern stamped on them, such as the figure of Jesus or Mary.
They started becoming large spiced plum cakes sometime in the late 1600s.
The cake was wrapped in a cloth, like a pudding, and simmered in water, then removed from the cloth, brushed with beaten egg, then baked. Over time, it came to be decorated for Easter, iced with marzipan, and decorated with 11 balls of marzipan, 1 for each apostle (not 12 — minus 1 for Judas, of course.) The crust was sometimes made in the past from flour and saffron-coloured water.
Simnel Cakes were traditionally given as presents to mothers on Mothering Sunday (aka Laetere Sunday or Midlent Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church), which fell during Lent. Whether the mothers ate them then or saved them till Lent was over seems to have been up to the mother. The cakes would have kept till Easter, because after boiling and baking, the crust on them gets very hard, helping to give the cakes a long shelf life. But Mothering Sunday was also known as Refreshment Sunday in the Anglican Church, when the rules of Lent were relaxed for that one day.
Literature & Lore
Simnel Cake was not completely unknown in America. In the c. 1905 Los Angeles Times Cook Book No. 2, page 54, a Gertrude Williams of 525 Cypress Avenue, Pasadena, California, kindly donated to readers her recipe for it:
Five pounds flour, two pounds currants, three pounds sultana raisins, one and one-half pounds butter, two pounds sugar (brown or white,) three-quarters pound mixed almonds, one-half ounce cinnamon, a little mace, one-half ounce soda, seven eggs, one-half pound candied lemon peel. Mix flour and rub butter well first, then add spice and sugar, then fruit. Let it stand and next morning add the eggs, milk and soda, just a little milk, about a gill; when nearly baked paint them over with two eggs, a little sugar and milk, also a little molasses; then put them into oven again (a cool oven is required.) This makes two or more large cakes. This cake must be rolled about two inches thick, made round, higher in the middle and notched around edges.
“Simnel” meant a “fine flour”. The word came from the Latin “simila”, a desirable flour that was finely ground from wheat (what we would now, of course, consider everyday flour, though still a bit coarser than ours owing to more primitive equipment) via the old French word, sinenel. Our modern word “semolina” comes from the same Latin word.
Simnel bread was white bread, sold throughout the year.
The name of these cakes has nothing to do with Lambert Simnel (c. 1477 – c. 1534), pretender to the title of Edward VI, who ended his career working in the royal kitchens.