As we approach the holidays, I am flipping through at least fifty English cookbooks to get the lowdown on Simnel Cake. I know that it has long been associated with both Mothering Sunday (similar to North America’s Mother’s Day) and the Easter season. Nevertheless, it is a relatively simple fruitcake, covered in the usual marzipan and so suitable for this quiet 2020 Christmas season. According to the redoubtable Elizabeth David, the marzipan once ran through the middle of the cake, gravitated to the top of the cake and then took the cake with an addition of twelve* marzipan balls – representing the Apostles – placed around the cake. Today, perhaps, the balls can represent the twelve days of Christmas.
The name “simnel” is in dispute. Elizabeth David writes that the word is a derivation of “semola” – the finest of white flour – from which we get the Italian word semolina. I prefer the legend of Lambert Simnel, supposedly the young son of a baker, who pretended to be a Plantagenet king, “Edward VI”, and challenged Henry Tudor’s reign. And so began another installment of the War of the Roses. In a most peculiar lapse of vicious retribution, once the hostilities subsided, Henry took pity on the boy and set him to work in the royal kitchens. Despite the notorious parsimony of Henry, Simnel came up with a luxurious and delicious cake recipe with which to celebrate the Lord. No doubt, when the bill for one hundred pounds of currants reached the desk of the King in the Counting House, he bitterly regretted sparing young Lambert’s life.
I have chosen some recipes (none of which feature one hundred pounds of currants) that I found in various cookbooks from the early 20th century to today. The first is from The Main Cookery Book, published in 1928 by R. & A. Main, Ltd. the maker of gas ovens. It was written by Marguerite Gompertz and the Main staff. Depending on the publication date, the measurements are either metric or imperial. I’ve occasionally edited the receipts for simplicity or seasonality.
1 lb. each of butter, eggs and plain flour, 1 ½ lbs. currants, 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg, ¾ lb. sugar, 6 ounces mixed peel, 1 wineglassful rum, 1 lb. almond paste.
Method: Mix as for cake. Put half the mixture into a greased cake tin 9” in diameter, place half the almond paste on this and fill with the rest of the cake mixture. Bake in a slow oven 3-4 hours, about two-thirds of the way down the oven. Leave to cook. The next day, roll half the rest of the almond paste flat; brush the top of the cake with a little melted apricot jam and put on the flat piece of almond paste. Shape the rest of the paste into little balls, place around the top of the cake and tie a band of paper around the cake. The next day put the cake into a fairly hot oven to cook and lightly brown the balls.
Florence White’s Good Things in England was published in 1932. She provides a Lancashire recipe by Mrs. Huggins of The Rowans at Four Oaks:
Bury Simnel Cake
Flour 2 ½ lb., butter, ½ lb., lard, ½ lb., salts of ammonia (substitute appropriate amount of baking powder), 1 ounce, sugar 1 ½ lb., almonds ¾ lb., currants 4 lb., nutmeg ½ oz., cinnamon ½ oz., candied lemon peel ½ lb., eggs 5, a little milk if necessary. Bake in a slow oven for about 1 ½ to 2 hours or more according to the size and thickness of the cake.
Jumping ahead to 1967, here is a recipe from Gladys Mann’s Traditional British Cooking for Pleasure. This cake looks pretty dense with its vast amount of sticky fruit and nuts and smallish amount of flour and liquid.
6 oz. butter or margarine, 6 oz. soft brown sugar, 3 eggs, 6 oz. plain flour, sieved, 3 rounded teaspoons mixed spice, 2 oz. almonds, chopped, 6 oz. currants, 4 oz. sultanas, 2 oz. glace cherries, chopped, 2 oz. mixed peel, cocoa powder, marzipan.
Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a little of the sieved flour and spice. Finally fold in the almonds, fruit and peel. Place half the mixture in a 7-inch round cake tin, previously lined with a double thickness of greaseproof paper and brushed all around inside with melted fat. Tie several thicknesses of brown paper or foil around the cake tin to come 1 ½ inches above the rim. Stand cake tin on a pad of paper on a baking sheet. Smooth the top.
To decorate: brush the top edge of the cake with apricot jam. Roll out marzipan to a 7-inch round and place on top of the cake. Roll out remaining paste into a roll to fit around the edge of the cake. Press down all around with a fork to give a ridge effect. Create eleven marzipan balls* and roll them in cocoa powder and place around the inside edge of the cake.
Finally, we jump into the 21st century with a Simnel Cake Cupcake published by Good Food Magazine. I’ve changed it slightly to accommodate the Christmas theme:
Simnel Egg Cupcakes
115g/4 oz. butter, softened, 115g/4 oz. golden caster sugar, 2 large eggs, 115g/4 oz. self-raising flour, plus 1 level tablespoon, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. finely grated orange zest, 25g/1 oz. ground almonds. To decorate: 200g/8 oz. fondant icing sugar, edible paste food colors, sprinkles and sugared almonds or marzipan balls.
Heat oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Line 2 bun tins with 14 paper cases. Put the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, baking powder and orange zest into a bowl and beat until well mixed for 1 ½-2 minutes with an electric hand mixer or 2-3 minutes with a wooden spoon. Fold in the ground almonds. Spoon the mixture into the paper cases and bake about 20 minutes until risen and firm to the touch. Remove from the tins and cool on a wire rack. To decorate: mix the fondant icing sugar with about 2 tablespoons of water until smooth. Divide between 3 small bowls and color one red, green and white. Spoon over the cakes and leave to set. Scatter with sprinkles and decorate with sugared almonds or marzipan balls.
Try one of these recipes and then lift a glass of bubbly in celebration of Lambert Simnel –a young man who found several ways to get on Henry the Seventh’s nerves.
*Judas was apparently kicked off this cake version and I have left out the instructions for decorative chicks that are more associated with spring. One could easily substitute a snowy deer for effect.