There are three stories of the origin of Simnel Cake. The first alleges that the name comes from “similia”, Latin for the fine flour from which the cake was originally made; this story is both plausible and dull. The second, more exciting, claims it was invented by Lambert Simnel, a fifteenth-century ten-year-old who impersonated the Earl of Warwick (also age ten), was crowned King Edward VI in Dublin, fought against Henry VII, and was later - aged eleven by this time - pardoned and given a job in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner. Better.
The final story of the origin of the Simnel Cake comes from an old woman from Salop, who was told the story as a child:
An old Shropshire tale has it that long ago there lived an honest old couple, Simon and Nelly, and it was their custom to gather their children around them at Easter. Nelly had some leftover unleavened dough from Lent, and Simon reminded her there was some plum pudding still left over from Christmas. They could make some treats for the visiting family.
Nell put the leftovers together, and Sim insisted the cake should be boiled, while she was just as certain that it should be baked. They had a fight and came to blows, but compromised by doing both. They cooked the cake over a fire made from furniture broken in the scuffle, and some eggs, similarly broken, were used to baste it. The delicacy was named after this cantankerous couple.
I’m very fond of stories about how particular food came to be. I recently left some balsamic vinegar to reduce on the stove and forgot about it, and found it a couple of hours later reduced to a black sponge with the texture of brittle plastic. Since I’d read a lot of stories about food origins, I took a bite, assuming it would be delicious and that in a few months I could languidly tell reporters the story of how I discovered BalsamiSnax and became a millionaire. The fact that it tasted horrible is no reason why some other unlikely concatenations of food mightn’t turn out delicious, and any food origin that involves a married couple hitting each other with stools until they break and then using those stools to bake their new cake is a story it would be churlish to disbelieve.
These days, the qualifications for a simnel cake are a bit less stringent than they used to be: stool-smashing is optional, and there’s no boiling required, for a start. Other people’s simnel cakes seem to establish a simple but clear set of rules:
1. The cake must be made on, or for, Mothering Sunday (the 18th of March, this year) or Easter Sunday.
2. It must be a fruit cake.
4. There must be a layer of marzipan inside.
3. There must be another layer of marzipan on top.
5. There must be eleven marzipan balls on top of that, representing the Apostles, except for Judas who, as punishment for betraying Christ, was denied the right to be represented in confectionery form.
6. There must be some other endearing but slightly silly decoration on top, which should be related to Easter and rebirth in some way.
Unfortunately, I don’t like marzipan (presumably it was invented when Zeppo Marx fell into a giant pan of almonds just after he’d been for a swim in a pool that was unexpectedly filled with sugar, at which he was so angry that he broke eggs all over himself and rolled around until he was covered in a thick white paste; it certainly tastes like it).
I’m also not really very enthusiastic about fruit cake (except in the very broad sense that, say, an orange cake or a bar of chocolate with sultanas in it is a fruit cake).
Also, I realised it was Simnel Cake Day at four-thirty on Mothering Sunday, half an hour before the local supermarket closed, and one of my housemates — the one who told me about Simnel Cake in the first place — is gluten-intolerant. Fortunately I had already chosen to discount the “similia” fine-flour origin story.
Because I don’t like marzipan, I decided to make my own, on the off-chance that it would be nicer, or that at the very least the need to stand over it with a whisk for twelve minutes would have a Stockholm Syndrome effect and force me to like it. The recipe I used looked promising , but nope, it tasted just the same as ever - slightly more texture to it perhaps, but certainly no more taste.
The cake, on the other hand, was lovely, once the marzipan had been peeled off.
(Structure and base adapted from Annie Bell’s Gorgeous Cakes)
40g caster sugar
1 tablespoon icing sugar
50g flour (I used gluten-free, which worked fine)
50g almond meal
5 tablespoons apricot jam
100g caster sugar
100g brown sugar
100 grams flour (again, I had no problems using gluten-free)
125 grams almond meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
350g dried fruit, a mix of sultanas, raisins, currants, mixed peel and cranberries
500g marzipan, divided into three sections.
Some icing sugar
Grease and flour a 23 centimetre cake tin.
For the shortbread, cream the butter and sugars, then beat in the flour until it all comes together into a big clump. Spread the mixture along the bottom of the cake tin (it will be very thin; I found I had to use my fingers to spread it properly). Cover the tin with clingfilm and chill for an hour or longer (now is a good time to put the orange on to boil).
Roll out a third of the marzipan onto a surface dusted with icing sugar, and cut a circle the size of the cake tin. When the shortbread base has chilled, press the marzipan circle down on top of it, and spread the circle with two tablespoons of the apricot jam (heating the jam slightly first if it’s too thick to spread).
For the cake mixture, place the orange in a saucepan and cover it with water, then boil with the lid on for two hours. Remove the orange and let it cool a little, then tear it into segments (I like to pretend it hasn’t been boiled and that the careless aplomb with which I do this shows that I’m really strong.) With a food processor or a stab mixer, mix the orange segments into a homogenous puree.
Preheat the oven to 170C.
Cream the butter and sugars, then mix in the eggs and the pureed orange. Add the flour, almond meal, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and ground cloves, and mix well.
Add the dried fruit, and mix it in, then pour the mixture on top of the marzipan layer in the cake tin, and flatten the top.
Bake the cake until a skewer inserted comes out with moist crumbs; this took me about an hour and a half, but I was opening and shutting the oven a lot to put vegetables in.
When the cake is done, let it cool, then remove it from the cake tin and roll out another third of the marzipan into a 23-centimetre circle. Brush the top of the cake with 2 tablespoons of the remaining apricot jam, and cover it with the marzipan circle.
Divide the remaining marzipan into eleven pieces, roll each one into a ball, and place them around the edge of the top of the cake, using the remaining apricot jam to stick them on if necessary. Decorate further with fresh flowers, sugar flowers, little fluffy chickens made of nylon, or whatever other vaguely Easter-themed objects you can find.
One source indicates that the Simnel Cake is a test — a girl should bake it on Mothering Sunday, and if it’s still delicious by Easter Sunday, then she’s a good cook. But really, the cake shouldn’t go uneaten that long (though I’m still claiming it as my submission for this Easter-themed food-post collection). I picked the marzipan off the top, of course, but the layer in the centre was surprisingly tasty, and the mulched-orange almond cake held up well to the dried fruit. If I make it again for the second Simnel Cake Day of the year I might get rid of the raisins and sultanas and just use an awful lot of dried cranberries; you’re supposed to be extravagantly festive on Easter Sunday, after all.