Simnel Cake is a fruit cake decorated with marzipan and with a layer of marzipan baked in the middle. The name of this seasonal British cake now usually served on Easter Sunday is believed to comes from the Latin word “Similae” which means fine wheat flour.
A little history
The history of Simnel cake is a little unclear, but it would appear the predecessors of the modern Simnel cake date back to mediaeval times where it began life as a yeast-leavened bread, made out of the highest quality flour available.
From there it evolved into more of a pudding enriched with dried fruit, spices and almonds and boiled before being wrapped pastry, glazed with egg and baked until a good hard crust formed.*
Then towards the end of the 19th century it started to become more like the cake we know today.
It became traditional for girls in service to give a simnel cake to their mothers on the fourth Sunday of Lent - which later became know as mothering Sunday - as proof of their cooking skills.
Mothering Sunday falls half way through lent and offered a respite from 40 days of religious fasting.
This return to visit one's own mother on mothering Sunday represents an adaptation of an earlier tradition of visiting one's mother church (where you were baptised) on that day.
A fruit cake with marzipan
Simnel cake contains a lot of dried fruit but is lighter than the traditional rich fruit cakes served at Christmas. It does not usually contain alcohol, although if you want to add a splash or two brandy, rum or whisky to your cooked cakes to add a richness of flavour, it won’t do any harm.
It was not until the 1900s that the addition of marzipan to this cake occurred. In addition to a layer of marzipan on the middle and top, a Simnel cake is traditionally decorated with 11 almond paste balls symbolising Christ's 11 faithful disciples,
How long will the cake keep?
While it will happily keep for a month or more, and can be made ahead of Easter, it can also be eaten on the same day it is made.
A recipe that has stood the test Of time
This recipe is based on one that I originally wrote for my very first feature as a Home Economist on a weekly magazine called Woman’s Realm back in the mid 80’s and later shared on my other recipe blog Recipes Made Easy.
In my original recipe for the magazine I made my own marzipan. Back then real marzipan was hard to buy, but now good quality marzipan is readily available so I usually just use that instead.
For a fair few years Simnel cakes seemed to be disappearing from our Easter tables altogether and I cannot say I can ever recall seeing them for sale in bakeries (Nor do I recall them being sold in our family baker when I was growing up.)
However, over the last few years, I am seeing more and more recipes for them on the web which is great because it would be a shame if this classic cake disappeared altogether.
I am, as well as some interesting twists on my own, including an Easy Simnel Cake Traybake from Easy Peasy Foodie Chocolate simnel cake from Tin and Thyme, Easy Simnel loaf Cake from Lavender and Lovage and our own Simnel Cupcakes.
How to make simnel cake with a traditional marzipan decoration.
Traditional Simnel cake
- 20cm (8in) deep round cake tin
- 225 g (8oz) butter softened
- 175 g (6oz) caster sugar
- 4 medium eggs
- 275 g (10oz) plain flour (all-purpose flour)
- 1½ teaspoon ground mixed spice (pumpkin spice)
- 1 lemon finely grated zest and juice
- 500 g (1lb 2oz) mixed dried fruit
- 50 g (2oz) glacé cherries quartered
- 1 kg ( 2¼lb) marzipan
- a little apricot jam
- Grease and line a 20cm (8in) deep round cake tin. Preheat the oven to 150℃ (130℃ fan) 300°F /gas mark 2.
- Beat 225g (8oz) butter and 175g (6oz) sugar together until light and fluffy. Then beat in 4 eggs one at a time. Add the 275g (10oz) flour and 1½ teaspoon mixed spice and fold in. Next add the lemon zest, juice, 500g (1lb2oz) dried fruit and 50g (2oz) cherries and mix well.
- Roll out 500g (1lb 2oz) marzipan to a circle the same size as the cake tin. Scoop half the cake mixture into the tin and level the surface. Carefully put the marzipan circle on top and press down gently.
- Now scoop the remaining cake mixture on top of the marzipan and spread level. Bake in the centre of the oven for 2½ – 3 hours. To test if the cake is cooked, insert a skewer in the centre. It will come out clean when the cake is cooked.
- Allow the cake to cool in the tin for at least 1 hour then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
- Roll out ¾ of the 500g (1lb 2oz) remaining marzipan to a circle the same size as the cake. Brush the top of the cake with apricot jam and place the marzipan on top.
- Using a dinner knife score the surface of the marzipan with a diamond pattern. Divide the remaining marzipan into 11 pieces and roll into balls. Arrange the balls on top of the cake, securing with a dab of apricot jam.
- Place the cake under a preheated grill and grill until lightly browned. Watch carefully to avoid it burning.