“It is an old custom in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and especially at Shrewsbury, to make during Lent and Easter, and also at Christmas, a sort of rich and expensive cakes, which are called Simnel Cakes,” writes Robert Chambers. These cakes were hefty things filled with candied fruit. “They are raised cakes,” Chambers continues, “the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior is filled with the materials of a very-rich plum cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things.” The preparation of a Simnel cake was a complicated affair. Chambers goes on to describe how the cakes were tied up in a cloth and boiled for several hours, after which they were brushed with egg and baked.
The end result of this arduous process was a round heavy cake “as hard as if made of wood.” Recipients unfamiliar with the Simnel cake sometimes took it for a foot stool, or tossed it in a pot of boiling water in hope of softening it into something more amenable to being eaten.
Despite the labor involved in making them, Simnel cakes were frequently given as gifts on holidays and appeared as a mainstay at feasts. In the seventeenth century youngsters presented Simnel cakes to their mothers on Midlent Sunday (also known as Mothering Sunday), and during the Middle Ages, the cakes were marked with the figure of Christ or the Virgin Mary and enjoyed at feasts.
Though the cakes were enjoyed far and wide, there is much speculation as to the origin of their name. Some claim it derives from the father of Lambert Simnel, a pretender to the throne during the reign of Henry VII. Lambert’s father was a baker and purportedly the first maker of Simnel cakes, whose name survived in the annals of history because of his son’s infamous aspirations.
Others assert that the recipe came about as a result of an argument between a couple named Simon and Nelly, who wished to bake the remains of a Lenten cake, which they mixed with leftover plum pudding. But when it came time to bake the cake, the couple fell to blows over whether it should be boiled instead. They compromised by boiling the cake first and then placing it in the oven for a few hours. Once it was baked through, they glossed the outside with a few eggs that had been broken in the scuffle and christened the finished product “Simon and Nelly cake,” which later became the portmanteau, Sim-Nel.
You need not get in a scuffle should you want to bake a Simnel cake. The 1929 Modernistic Recipe-Menu Book of the DeBoth Homemaker’s Cooking School offers a more contemporary, and peaceful, recipe for this traditional holiday delight.
2 cups margarine
2 1/4 cups brown sugar
3 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon, mace and ginger
5 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 lb. chopped raisins
1/2 lb. currants
1/8 lb. sliced citron
1/2 lb. almond paste (do not add to batter)
Combine the batter as for any fruit cake.
Now, this is where this cake is different from other fruit cakes. After the cake batter is mixed together, beat it hard for 10 minutes. Then spread half of it in a greased and floured cake pan, cover with a layer of the almond paste rolled thin and cut large enough to come almost to the edges of the cake. Then spread the rest of the cake batter over the paste.
Bake the cake in slow oven (300°) for about 3 hours; or it may be steamed for 2 1/2 hours. Ice it with water and sugar icing, but not until after the third day after the cake is baked. Store in crock or tin box.
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