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Enjoy an Easter tradition that started hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of years ago by baking this deliciously rich and fruity Simnel Cake.
What is Simnel Cake?
Simnel Cake is a traditional fruit cake that is associated with Easter, particularly in the United Kingdom. It often includes spices and zest, peel or essence.
Rich in history and symbolism, these days it’s also generally covered with marzipan and decorated with eleven marzipan balls on top. These eleven balls represent the twelve apostles – minus Judas who betrayed Jesus according to the Bible.
Often the cake is also decorated with a ribbon around the outside and flowers.
Unlike Christmas Fruit Cake, Simnel Cake generally doesn’t include any alcohol.
But it makes up for it with marzipan! Some Simnel Cakes, including this recipe, have an additional marzipan layer baked into the cake. Because, really, can you ever have too much marzipan?
Simnel Cake history
When it comes to the history of the Simnel Cake, and the origin of its name, opinions are divided.
First, there’s the rather bland explanation which traces the history of Simnel Cake back to medieval England, when it was a plain, unleavened bread made with fine flour and known as “simmel bread.”
The word “simnel” is believed to come from the Latin word “simila,” which means fine wheat flour used for baking.
Then there’s the story of Simon and Nelly, parents of many children who quarrelled over how they should use leftover ingredients from Christmas plum pudding to make a cake for Easter.
Their compromise resulted in a cake that all their kids loved – and the parents names were combined, “Sim-Nel”, to attach a name to the cake.
It may or may not be true, but the Simon and Nelly story was recounted in a Sydney newspaper in 1940 which posed the question: “How many realise the interesting story that has come down with the very old recipe for simnel cake for Easter entertainment?”
Another story suggests the cake is named after Lambert Simnel, a claimant to the throne in Henry VII’s time. However, it’s fairly clear that the cake pre-dated his birth – tracing back to medieval times – and that this story is just a story and not based in fact.
Simnel Cake, Lent and Mothering Sunday
Despite this cake having no clear origin story, it has always had a direct link to Easter, Lent and Mothering Sunday.
Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Lent, a day that is often called Mothering Sunday.
Hundreds of years ago, widespread Christian beliefs meant most people would return to their home or ‘mother’ church, where they were baptised, once a year in the middle of Lent. That day was the fourth Sunday in Lent and became known as Mothering Sunday because of this practice.
The return to the ‘mother church’ also meant it was a day when children, usually daughters, who had gone to work as domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother and family. They would often bring a Simnel cake with them as a gift for their mother to show her their gratitude and appreciation.
Over time, this fourth Sunday in Lent became associated with both the “mother” church and mothers generally, and giving or eating Simnel Cake on Mothering Sunday or any time during Easter became a tradition.
Ingredients for Simnel Cake
Today’s traditional Easter Simnel Cake Recipe is an easy-to-make fruit cake.
In days gone by, people would have made their own marzipan, but this recipe uses the store-bought stuff which is absolutely and perfectly delicious.
To make this Easter fruit cake, you’ll need:
- marzipan (available in Australia at large supermarkets)
- icing sugar (to roll out marzipan) (powdered/confectioners’ sugar)
- caster sugar (superfine sugar)
- plain flour (all purpose flour)
- baking powder
- mixed fruit
- glace cherries
- ribbon and store-bought flower icing decorations (optional).
You’ll also need a 20cm (approx) round springform cake tin and baking paper.
How to make Simnel Cake
Start by greasing and lining the cake tin and pre-heating your oven to 150 degrees celsius.
Break the marzipan into three equal pieces (166-167 grams each).
For two of the marzipan pieces, roll each piece out on baking paper dusted with icing sugar into a circle that will just fit into the round cake tin. Use the tin as a template to cut the shape.
So you should have two marzipan rounds and one remaining piece of marzipan.
For the second marzipan round (which will sit on top of the cake), crimp the edges of the round by using your thumb to push the inner edge out while pinching the outer edge in with the thumb and index finger of the other hand.
Break the remaining marzipan into 11 equal pieces (15 grams) and roll into balls.
Preparing the cake mixture
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Add eggs to mixture, one at a time and beating after each addition.
Sift the flour, baking powder and spices and stir into the mixture.
Fold in the mixed fruit, glace cherries (halved), and rind.
Pour half of the mixture into the prepared cake tin and use a spatula to even out the mixture. Cover with one of the marzipan rounds.
Pour the rest of the mixture into the cake tin and smooth out evenly.
Baking Simnel Cake
Bake the cake for 2 hours.
Reduce oven temperature to 130 degrees celsius and bake for another half an hour.
Take cake from the oven and check that a skewer comes out clean.
If not, pop the cake back in for another 5-10 minutes or until cooked.
Next, add the second round to the top of the cake.
Place the 11 marzipan balls around the edges of the cake. Push down very gently to ensure each ball stays in place.
Return the cake to the oven for 10-15 minutes to allow the marzipan to cook and brown a little.
If the marzipan doesn’t start to brown after 10 minutes, switch oven to grill for 2-5 minutes (but keep an eye on how quickly the marzipan starts to brown).
Alternatively, use a kitchen blowtorch to carefully brown the marzipan
Allow the cake to cool in the tin.
Once cool, you can decorate with icing flower decorations (available at supermarkets and specialty cake decorating shops) and tie a ribbon around the edge of the cake.
Q. How long will Simnel Cake keep?
It should last for up to a few weeks if stored in a cool place in an airtight container.
Keep in mind it is a light fruit cake with no alcohol, so won’t store like a traditional Christmas Cake.
It will also freeze for up to 6 months.
Q. How many balls on Simnel Cake?
Q. Why 11 marzipan balls?
Traditionally, 11 marzipan balls are used to symbolise the 12 apostles minus Judas. Occasionally, 12 are added to represent Jesus and the 11 apostles.
Q. How do you get the ribbon to stay on the cake?
The ribbon I’ve used here is lace and simply stuck to the edges of the un-iced fruit cake.
You can also use some marzipan or fondant as a “glue” to stick the edges of the ribbon together or fasten the ribbon to the cake.
Q. Do you have other Easter recipes?
- 20cm (approx) round springform cake tin
- baking paper
- 500 grams marzipan
- 2 tablespoons icing sugar (to roll out marzipan) (powdered/confectioners' sugar)
- 250 grams butter
- 1 cup caster sugar (superfine sugar)
- 4 eggs
- 2 1/2 cups plain flour (all purpose flour)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 3 1/2 cups mixed fruit (375 grams)
- 1/2 cup glace cherries, halved (120 grams)
- 1 lemon (rind only)
- 1/2 orange (rind only)
- ribbon and store-bought flower icing decorations (to decorate)
- Grease and line the cake tin and pre-heat oven to 150 degrees celsius.
- Break marzipan into three equal pieces (166-167 grams each).
- For two of the marzipan pieces, roll each piece out (on baking paper dusted with icing sugar) into a circle that will just fit into the round cake tin. Use the tin as a template to cut the shape. You should have two marzipan rounds.
- For the second marzipan round (which will sit on top of the cake), crimp the edges of the round by using your thumb to push the inner edge out while pinching the outer edge in with the thumb and index finger of the other hand.
- Break the remaining marzipan into 11 equal pieces (15 grams) and roll into balls. Set aside.
- Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
- Add eggs to mixture, one at a time, beating after each addition.
- Sift flour, baking powder and spices together and stir into mixture.
- Fold in mixed fruit, glace cherries, and rind.
- Pour half of the mixture into the prepared cake tin and use a spatula to even out the mixture. Cover with one of the marzipan rounds.
- Pour rest of the mixture into the cake tin and smooth out evenly.
- Bake for 2 hours.
- Reduce oven temperature to 130 degrees celsius and bake for another half an hour.
- Take cake from the oven and add second marzipan round to the top of the cake. Place the 11 marzipan balls around the edges of the cake, pushing down gently so they "stick".
- Return the cake to the oven for 10-15 minutes to allow the marzipan to cook and brown a little. If the marzipan doesn't start to brown after 10 minutes, switch oven to grill for 2-5 minutes (but keep an eye on how quickly the marzipan starts to brown).
- Allow the cake to cool in the tin.
- Once cooled, decorate with a ribbon and icing flowers (as pictured) if desired.