Derived from the Latin word simila meaning fine flour, from which the word semolina also comes from, simnel cake is a traditional fruit cake from the United Kingdom and Ireland. Dating back to the middle ages, it is associated with more myths and legends than Robin Hood. Bread regulations relating to weight, price, and quality (including leavened or unleavened bread) suggest they were boiled and then baked. The technique led to the telling of a mythical couple named Simon and Nelly. They came to blows while baking a simnel cake. One wished to boil it and the other wanted to bake it. After beating each other with a range of kitchen utensils they agreed to compromise, by part boiling and part baking the cake.
Typical characteristics of a simnel cake include a middle and top layer of marzipan, crushed almonds, or almond paste topped with eleven marzipan balls to represent the twelve apostles minus the treacherous Judas. Due to its long history, many variations of the cake are available. One major difference to other richer fruit cakes is the replacement of alcohol with orange blossom (although brandy is sometimes added). Unlike most fruit cake, simnel cake needs no time to mature and is ready to eat straight from the oven.
Simnel Cake Recipe
For the Almond Paste
- 250g caster sugar
- 250g ground almonds
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp almond essence
For the Cake
- 175g butter (plus extra for greasing)
- 175g soft brown sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 egg for glaze
- 175g plain all purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp ground mixed spiced (optional)
- 350g dried mixed fruit
- 55g chopped mixed peel
- zest of 1/2 a lemon
- 2 tbsp apricot jam
- pinch of salt
- dash of orange blossom or brandy (optional)
- To make the almond paste, add the ground almonds and caster sugar to a bowl. Add one beaten egg and mix until combined. Add the almond essence and knead until smooth and pliable. Roll out a third of the paste into an 18cm/7inch circle. Save the remainder of the paste for the cake topping
- Grease and line an 18cm/7inch cake tin
- Preheat the oven to 140C/Fan 120C/Gas Mark 1
- To make the cake, cream the sugar and butter together until light in colour and fluffy. Gradually add the eggs and beat until thoroughly incorporated. Sift the dry ingredients and add gradually. Finally sir in the dried mixed fruit, lemon zest, and mixed peel.
- Add half the cake batter into the prepared cake tin. Smooth and cover with the rolled disc of almond paste. Add the rest of the cake batter and smooth the top.
- Bake in the pre heated oven for 1 3/4 hours. If an inserted skewer comes out clean the cake is baked. Leave to cool on a wire rack.
- Once the cake is cooled brush the top with apricot jam. Half the remainder of the almond paste. Roll out another circle with one half, and place on top of the apricot jam in the centre of the cake. Form eleven balls with the rest of the almond paste, and set round the top outer edge of the cake.
- Brush the top of the cake with some beaten egg. Use a cooks blow torch or a grill to brown.
Simnel cake is traditionally eaten on Mothering Sunday when a break in Lent fast is allowed. And again traditionally eaten on Easter Sunday.