What is so traditional about Simnel Cake

In the run-up to Easter, avid bakers will be preparing a traditional Easter Simnel Cake. But why is it a traditionally seasonal bake and why are there 11 marzipan balls on the top?

A Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake with lots of marzipan and is eaten at Easter, although it used to be specifically associated with Mothering Sunday. When folk were fasting during Lent, Mothering Sunday, appearing in the middle of the fast (the fourth Sunday of Lent), offered a respite from 40 days of religious austerity.

Like most British food eaten during winter and early spring, the Simnel cake contains lots of dried fruit, but it is much lighter than boozy Christmas cake and contains a layer or marzipan both on top and within, and is decorated with eleven marzipan balls, each symbolising Jesus’s disciples (minus the treacherous Judas of course). We had to include a recipe here as it includes lots of eggs – not all eggs eaten at Easter are chocolate.

The history of the Simnel Cake

To trace the origin of Simnel cake, you need to go right back to mediaeval times where it began life as a yeast-leavened bread, which may or may not have been enriched. This may not sound like a special bread, but what made it special is that it made from the highest quality flour possible; Simnel derives from the Latin simila – the whitest and finest of flours.

Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries, and the bread mixture had been swapped for a pudding batter, not unlike spotted dick, enriched with dried fruit, spices and almonds. It would be boiled like a pudding. When cooked, it was wrapped in pastry, glazed with egg and baked until a good hard crust formed. It would be like the Scottish black bun, a traditional Christmas food north of the border.

It is only when you get to the tail end of the 19th century that it starts to look like something we would recognise as a cake, though surprisingly it is not until the 20th century that the familiar marzipan layers and decorative disciples appear.

Simnel cakes themselves seem to be disappearing from our Easter tables altogether and are getting more and more difficult to find in British bakeries. Why not have a go at our TRADITIONAL SIMNEL CAKE RECIPE

Thanks to British Food History for this Simnel Cake enlightenment Britishfoodhistory.com