In this period of uncertainty, I’m reminded how food – not just eating it but simply talking about it – has the power to connect us to the past, bring us together, and make us smile! For this reason, I thought I’d share a brief history of simnel cakes, the traditional treat for Mother’s Day in the UK (22 March), even if we can’t celebrate it the way we’d like to this year.
Today, simnel cake is a rich fruit cake with marzipan, that is eaten both on Mother’s Day and Easter Sunday (The London Daily News reported on 14 April 1900 that ‘The majority of people now keep their Simnels until Easter Sunday'). It contains a layer of marzipan or almond paste and 11 marzipan balls are used to decorate the top, which are often said to represent the 11 faithful apostles in the Christian tradition.
Simnel cakes and Mother’s Day itself have indeed long been tied to the Christian calendar. Mothering Sunday was also known as mid-Lent Sunday or Laetare Sunday, linked to a custom from the Tudor era when Christians returned to their ‘mother’ church (where they had been baptised) and brought presents to their mothers. On this day of festivity, the long Lenten fast could also be momentarily suspended. In 1644, the royalist officer Richard Symonds described how, ‘Every Mid-Lent Sunday is a great day at Worcester, when all the children and godchildren meet at the head and chief of the family and have a feast. They call it the Mothering-day’.
In the Middle Ages, simnel actually referred to a biscuit-bread made from fine flour that was boiled and then baked. The word simnel comes from the Old French simenel, this from Latin simila, meaning ‘fine flour’. By the late 17th century it could also refer to the fruit cake that we know today. In 1648 Robert Herrick referred to simnel cake in reference to a practice that he observed in Gloucester:
‘ I’le to thee a Simnell bring,
‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering’.
Evidence for their association with Lent and Easter also comes from household accounts, like those of Edward Radcliffe the sixth earl of Sussex at Gorhambury, where simnel cake was made around Easter in 1638. Other popular Lenten foods of the period included figs and almonds.
Here’s a modern recipe:
For the almond paste:
- 250g caster sugar
- 250g ground almonds
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp almond essence
For the cake:
- 3 eggs
- 175g butter/ margarine
- 175g brown sugar
- 175g plain flour
- 350g currants/raisins/ sultanas
- 55g chopped peel
- 1/2 lemon grated for zest
- 1 tbsp jam (of your choice)
To make the almond paste, mix sugar and ground almonds into a bowl and add the beaten egg to make the mixture soft. Add almond essence and knead for 1 minute. Roll and make a circle of 18cm.
Preheat oven to 140C and grease a 18cm cake tin.
To make the cake, cream the butter and sugar together and gradually beat in the eggs. Sift in the flour, a pinch of salt, and any mixed spice you might like. Finally add the dried fruit, peel and the grated lemon into the mixture as desired.
Put half of the mixture into the cake tin then top with the almond paste circle, and add the rest of the mixture.
Bake for 1 3/4 hours.
Once cooled brush cake with jam. Divide the remaining almond paste in half. With one half roll a circle to cover the top of the cake, and then use the other to make the 11 small balls and arrange on top of the cake how you please.
Add a little beaten egg and grill the cake for 1-2 minutes until the marzipan browns.
Stay well and safe!
- The Daily News 14 Apr. 6/6
- Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun (Oxford, 1996), p. 174.
- Robert Herrick, Hesperides, or, The works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick (London, 1648), p. 278.
- Lionel M. Munby, Early Stuart Household Accounts (Ware, 1986).
- This recipe is adapted from that offered by the BBC.