Simnel Cake History Says It Originated As Gifts For Servants!
Image Credit: Simnel cake, iStock

While most people think of Easter Eggs when picturing Easter Sunday, a whole universe of traditional celebratory meals and beverages is connected with this holiday. The exquisite Simnel Cake is one example. This is the typical British practice leading up to Easter. It is best described as a fruit cake with an upper and lower layer of marzipan. Eleven marzipan balls, representing the remaining 11 apostles after Judas' betrayal, sit atop the cake. This cake has supposedly evolved from its original form and has come to represent Easter in the United Kingdom. Is there a history to this? Let's find out more information about it.

What is Simnel cake?

Simnel cake, a type of fruitcake, is commonly consumed during Lent and Easter in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The distinctive look of the cake is achieved by stacking almond paste or marzipan. One would go in the centre, one on top, and eleven would surround them, all using the same paste. 

The recipe for Simnel cake calls for all-purpose flour, eggs, sugar, butter, dried fruits, zest, fragrant spices, and candied peel. At times orange flower water or brandy is employed in the cake batter or to aromatise the almond paste. Thus, Simnel cake, like the fruit cake, uses alcohol in the recipe. In most modern versions, marzipan or almond paste is used.

Why is it called Simnel Cake?

It was originally prepared for Mothering Sunday, Sunday of the Five Loaves, or Simnel Sunday—the fourth Sunday of Lent. In honour of the latter, the cake bears its name. It has become synonymous with Easter Sunday in the United Kingdom.

Simnel cake for Easter, Image Source:

There is a reference to "bread formed into a simnel" in 1226, which is taken to signify the finest white bread from the Latin simila, "fine flour." Nevertheless, the precise origin of the word "simnel" is unknown. John de Garlande equated the term with the dessert known as placenta cake, which is made only to elicit a positive response.

History of Simnel Cake and Easter

Mothering Sunday, sometimes called Simnel Sunday, is traditionally celebrated with Simnel cakes. Historian Ronald Hutton claims that on Mothering Sunday, live-in apprentices and domestic staff would traditionally pay a visit to their mothers in their hometowns. It was routine to see how everyone was doing and bring supplies if necessary. The calories-dense simnel cake was especially helpful when food supplies were scarce during this time of year. Over time, it was shortened to "Easter cake."

Although Simnel cake has been around for generations, the modern version vastly differs from the original. Because it was originally a dough fruit bread, notes museum curator and The Cake Historian blogger Emma Heslewood, " Sweet loaves were the ancestors of all cakes; later, as sugar became more widely produced, cakes developed their distinctive textures. There are three competing contenders for the Simnel cake original recipe.  One is the decadent plum cake known as the Shrewsbury simnel. Another kind is the star-shaped Devizes simnel, flavoured with currants and lemon peel, given a golden hue with saffron, and finally boiled, baked, and glazed. The third is like the Simnel eaten today; it comes from Bury. The town's cake, the Simnel, maybe the most popular because of its efforts to market it in the 19th century; they even presented a 32-kilogram cake to Queen Victoria in 1863.

Traditional Simnel cake, Image Source: Dreamstime

The story of Simon and Nelly and Simnel Cake

The history of simnel cakes may be traced back to the Middle Ages. The process of creating it is the subject of an intriguing tale that centres on the mythical duo Simon and Nelly. The legend holds that they were first boiled and then baked to comply with the era's stringent bread rules. The origin story around this method began circulating no later than 1745 and persisted into the 1930s. For this reason, Simon and Nelly eventually have a fight over the Simnel. The two argue about whether to boil or bake the cake, finally settling on a method that combines the two. Thus, it is called Sim-Nel, a process with both of their preferred ways to make the cake.