Simnel Cakes 2011 No 2 by chelmsfordblueToday I’ve got an extra-special British recipe for you! March 18 is Mothering Sunday in the UK, and I’m posting this recipe now so that you can have plenty of time to make a traditional treat: simnel cake.

I’ll to thee a Simnell bring
‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give to me. 
-Robert Herrick 1648

A Short History of Mothering Sunday
In order to discover what this cake has to do with Mothering Sunday, let’s figure out what Mothering Sunday is all about. Here’s something you may not know: the original day had little if anything to do with mothers. The “mother” part actually referred to one’s mother church. If you were an English lad or lass in the 1600s then the local parish church where you went to services every Sunday would be called a “daughter church”, while the main church or cathedral in the area was the “mother church”. It became a yearly tradition for everyone to visit that mother church during Lent, and according to one website, “Inevitably the return to the ‘mother’ church became an occasion for family reunions when children who were working away returned home. (It was quite common in those days for children to leave home for work once they were ten years old.)” It was common to pick a bouquet of flowers for your Mum as you went along your way to church–and this was just a slight foretaste of the vast commercialization of the day which would soon follow. Nowadays Mothering Sunday in the UK looks an awful like Mother’s Day in the US: chocolate, flowers, stuffed bears, guilty cards, etc.

The Simnel Cake

Simnel cake by jeremytarling
Simnel cake, a photo by jeremytarling on Flickr. 

The word “simnel” is probably derived from the Latin word for “fine”, referring to the fine flour which was used. This is a rich fruit cake, covered in almond paste, and topped with 11 marzipan balls representing Jesus’ apostles, minus Judas Iscariot. Supposedly serving maids would be allowed to bake a special cake to take home for their mother on Mothering Sunday; this was to “make up for the fact that they would not be allowed home at Easter as the Lord and Lady would need their services for the Easter celebrations in the big house.” It makes sense that a family reunion would be a great excuse for a special treat, but how did these good church-goers get away with something this rich in the middle of Lent? Well it seems as if the cake was baked or taken to Mum’s house on the fourth Sunday of Lent, but it wasn’t actually eaten until Easter. I have to wonder if some cakes were missing a marzipan ball or two by the time Easter rolled around….

Simnel Cake by psd
Simnel Cake, a photo by psd on Flickr.  

The Recipe

A recipe for simnel cake dating back to 1899 calls for such esoteric (to me, anyway) ingredients as “candied citron” and “orange-sugar”, and such precise measurements as “1 wineglassful of brandy and a little water.” I’ve included a more modern recipe from BBC Food below. Another recipe, complete with step-by-step photos, can be found here, and you can see a “simple” simnel cake recipe here.

For the almond paste:
  • 250g/9oz caster sugar
  • 250g/9oz ground almonds
  • 2 free-range eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp almond essence

For the cake:

  • 175g/6oz butter or margarine
  • 175g/6oz soft brown sugar
  • 3 free-range eggs, beaten
  • 175g/6oz plain flour
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ tsp ground mixed spice (optional)
  • 350g/12oz mixed raisins, currants and sultanas
  • 55g/2oz chopped mixed peel
  • ½ lemon, grated zest only
  • 1-2 tbsp apricot jam
  • 1 free-range egg, beaten for glazing


  1. For the almond paste, place the sugar and ground almonds in a bowl. Add enough beaten egg and mix to a fairly soft consistency.
  2. Add the almond essence and knead for one minute until the paste is smooth and pliable.
  3. Roll out a third of the almond paste to make a circle 18cm/7in in diameter and reserve the remainder for the cake topping.
  4. Preheat oven to 140C/275F/Gas 1. Grease and line a 18cm/7in cake tin.
  5. For the cake, cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs until well incorporated and then sift in the flour, salt and mixed spice (if using) a little at a time. Finally,
  6. add the mixed dried fruit, peel and grated lemon zest and stir into the mixture.
  7. Put half the mixture into a greased and lined 18cm/7in cake tin.
  8. Smooth the top and cover with the circle of almond paste. Add the rest of the cake mixture and smooth the top leaving a slight dip in the centre to allow for the cake to rise. Bake in the preheated oven for 1¾ hours. Test by inserting a skewer in the middle – if it comes out clean, it is ready. Once baked, remove from the oven and set aside to cool on a wire rack.
  9. Brush the top of the cooled cake with the apricot jam. Divide the remainder of the almond paste in half; roll out a circle to cover the top of the cake with one half and form 11 small balls with the other half.
  10. Place the circle of paste on the jam glaze and set the balls round the edge. Brush the cake topping with a little beaten egg.
  11. Preheat the grill to high. Place the cake onto a baking tray and grill for 1-2 minutes, or until the top of the marzipan begins to brown. Alternatively, lightly heat the cake topping using a cook’s blow torch, until the marzipan is golden-brown

First Photo: Simnel Cakes 2011 No 2, a photo by chelmsfordblue on Flickr. 

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Written by Abigail Young

I've had a passion for everything British my entire life, despite being raised as a small-town girl in the American Midwest, After years of dreaming, I got the chance to live and work in England for an entire year. Now I write about my favorite country, and hopefully inspire my fellow Britophiles to get over there and experience it for themselves.

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