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It’s Easter, Let’s Enjoy Our Simnel Cake

Easter is the time to make the delicious almond paste topped cake known as Simnel which has both religious and secular origins.

April 24 is Easter Day and our local supermarket has run short of vanilla almond paste, or marzipan as we know it. The reason is that many local cooks have been baking their Simnel Cakes in readiness for the great feast of Easter.

Simnel Cake in Poetry

You sense there is great history attached to this intriguing cake. It is known that the English poet Robert Herrick — who wrote so much about countryside traditions – mentions this special cake in his A Ceremony in Gloucester penned in 1648: “I’ll to them a simnel bring, ‘Gainst thou go’st a-mothering'”. But the name is also thought to have occurred a century or two earlier.

The Tudor Pretender

The word “simnel” comes from the Latin “simila,” a high-grade flour, but there were many legends linked to the naming of this cake. One fanciful legend was that Lambert Simnel, one of the pretenders to the throne of England was planning to usurp Henry VII. Maybe the tale grew as a result of Simnel’s father being a pastrycook.

Representing the Apostles

Although similar to the British fruity rich Christmas cake recipe, the Simnel differs in that the recipe calls for a layer of marzipan to be baked within the mixture and when baked and cooled, is topped with a second layer which then has 11 small balls of marzipan placed evenly around the circle. The balls are believed to symbolise the eleven apostles — the missing 12th was Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus.

Mothering Sunday

During the 18th century, it is recorded that the Simnel cake was made to mark the fourth Sunday in Lent and at this period young women (usually working in service) would pick primroses from the hedgerow to decorate the cake before presenting it to their mother. The day was generally known as “Mothering Sunday”. This was not initially an early reference to Mother’s Day, which occurs a few weeks before Easter in the U.K., but a time when people would visit their “Mother” church, the largest in the parish. Families would meet up at this larger place of worship and exchange gifts or share food. As time went by, and the emphasis was placed on more secular forms of the custom, the occasion was changed more literally – to visiting the mother of the family.

Among numerous recipes for this special cake, my version calls for the following ingredients:

150g (5oz) butter

150g (5oz) light brown sugar

3 medium eggs, beaten

200g (7oz) plain flour

1 rounded tsp baking powder

1 tsp mixed spice

Lemon Zest

350g (12oz) mixed dried fruit

50g (2oz) glace cherries, chopped

50g (2oz) chopped mixed peel

1 tbsp sherry

2 tbsp apricot glaze

500g (16oz) marzipan



  1. Preheat oven to 160°C fan/365°F/Gas Mark 4. Line an 8-in round cake tin with greaseproof paper.
  2. Cream butter and sugar until smooth. Gradually beat in the eggs.
  3. Sieve the flour with the baking powder and mixed spice then gently stir into the creamed mixture along with lemon zest until fully combined. Add sherry and fold together.
  4. Spoon half the mixture into the greased baking tin. Spread level and place a thin round of marzipan and spoon in remaining cake mixture. Bake in centre of a moderate oven for 45 minutes, then lower heat to slow and bake for a further two hours. Leave to cool.
  5. To finish cake, roll out one third of the remaining marzipan and shape into 11 small balls. Roll out remainder to fit the top of the cake, and, using warm apricot jam (heated in a small saucepan) spread it onto the cake, placing the marzipan circle on the top. Decorate by pinching the edges. Brush with beaten egg and place under a hot grill to brown slightly.

6.. Lightly dab the 11 balls with apricot glaze and arrange around cake edge.. Return to the oven for 5 minutes until the marzipan is takes on a golden colour and cool.

  1. Decorate with a ribbon and place a primrose in the cake centre.

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