Simnel cake is a favourite Easter cake in Britain, Ireland and some other countries.  A fruit cake covered and filled with a layer of marzipan, its name probably originates from the Latin word simila, meaning the type of fine white flour used to make the cake.  However, the name may also refer to a story told in Shropshire, England, which alleges that the original simnel cake was the unappetising result of a couple arguing about whether to boil or bake a cake, and eventually deciding to do both.  The names of the couple were Simon and Nell.  The cake has been connected with Lambert Simnel (c1477 – 1525), who, as a ten-year-old, became the figurehead of a campaign to depose King Henry VI of England, and, with peace restored, was put to work in the royal kitchen.  However, references to simnel cake have been found in literature well before Lambert Simnel’s birth, despite some recent arguments that the cake may only date from Victorian times. 

One of the earliest authors to mention simnel cake was seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674), who, in his 1648 poem ‘To Dianeme.  A Ceremony in Gloucester’ wrote, as though to a lover: “I’ll to thee a simnel bring, / ’Gainst thou go’st a-mothering: / So that when she blesseth thee, / Half that blessing thou’lt give me”.  The word “mothering” refers to Galatians 4: 21, the Epistle for mid-Lent Sunday, which called Jerusalem “Mater nostra”, or “our mother”.  This developed naturally into the concept of the ‘mother church’, and of ‘mothering’ as a time, halfway through Lent, when families would visit the church to give each other gifts and share food.  Simnel cake, made of foods left over during Lent, is an example of the type of food that would be exchanged on this occasion.  The eleven balls of almond paste that decorate the simnel cake represent the apostles of Jesus Christ  -  excluding Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.  Some makers of simnel cakes choose to add a twelfth ball in the centre of the cake, to represent Christ.

Over the years, and particularly in those following the Protestant Reformation, such Catholic traditions as ‘mothering’ became more and more secular.  ‘Mothering Sunday’ became a day when people visited and brought gifts to their natural mothers, rather than their mother church.  A further tradition developed around this, as more and more young daughters went into ‘service’, or work away from home as maids to richer families.  To prepare for their day off on what by then was known as Mothering Sunday, they would bake a simnel cake to take home to their mothers, the ingredients being supplied by their employers.

Different towns and cities developed their own simnel cake recipes, such as the star-shaped cake baked in Devizes, Wiltshire, England, or the flat, spiced cake from Bury, Greater Manchester, England.  The most popular recipe, a version of which I provide below, is from the city of Shrewsbury in Shropshire, England. 

            For the cake:

  • 225g / 8oz white flour
  • 175g / 6oz butter at room temperature
  • 175g / 6oz light brown sugar
  • 225g / 8oz raisins
  • 225g / 8oz sultanas
  • 75g / 3oz cherries
  • 75g / 3oz mixed peel
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 50g / 2oz chopped almonds
  • 50g / 2oz ground almonds
  • 2 tablespoons whiskey
  • ½ teaspoon mixed spice
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg


For the almond paste:

  • 450g / 1lb ground almonds
  • 225g / 8oz caster sugar
  • 225g / 80z icing sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 drops almond essence
  • 1 tablespoon sherry or rum

To decorate: apricot jam

Preheat the oven to 140ºC / 275ºF / Gas 1, and use greaseproof paper to line a 20cm / 8 inches round deep cake tin.  Sieve the flour, nutmeg and spice together in one bowl.  Beat the butter and sugar together until the mixture is fluffy and light, and then beat in the eggs, one by one.  Gradually add the dry ingredients.  Add the fruit, stirring it into the mixture. 

To make the almond paste, mix the ground almonds, caster sugar and icing sugar together, and then beat the egg, adding the almond essence and the sherry or rum to it.  Add enough of the egg mixture to the ground almonds and sugar to make a firm paste, and knead it until smooth.  Put aside any leftover egg mixture.  Icing sugar can be used to roll out the paste, dusting both the board and the rolling pin.  Roll out a third of the almond paste, making sure it is a circle wide enough to cover the cake mixture. 

Put half of the cake mixture into the prepared tin, and cover this with the rolled-out third of the almond paste, before putting the remaining mixture on top of it.  Bake the cake in the oven for approximately 3½ - 4 hours.  After 2½ hours, begin checking the cake regularly.  If the top is in danger of burning, slide a cover of greaseproof paper over it.  When the cake is baked, leave it in the tin to cool.

When the cake has cooled, spread apricot jam on top of it to help the almond paste to stick.  Use another third of the almond paste to make a round of 20cm / 8 inches, and set it on top of the cake, making sure it fits as exactly as possible.  Lightly score a criss-cross pattern across the almond paste cover with the edge of a knife blade.  Make eleven balls from the rest of the paste, and place them around the edges of the cake. 

Preheat a grill to a low heat and use a pastry brush to lightly brush the cover of the cake, including the very tops of the ‘apostles’, with the leftover beaten egg, or another beaten egg,  Slide the cake under the preheated grill, and keep the oven door open to watch it.  The egg will make the almond paste toast very quickly, and you want to be certain that there is a light browning, rather than a burning that will spoil the appearance of the cake.  Remove the cake, allow it to cool, and add any further decoration you may wish for: an inner circle of sugar-coated miniature Easter eggs can work very well.  Enjoy, and have a Happy Easter!