If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you would know that I love food stories, because I find that the most iconic dishes tend to have an interesting legend or history behind them. Today’s intriguing recipe is no exception. In looking for Easter dessert ideas, I stumbled upon the Simnel Cake, and my curiosity went into overdrive. This whimsical confection is usually eaten at Easter time (or even Mother’s Day) in the UK and has the most unusual appearance:
I discovered that the smooth top layer is made with marzipan, but what’s up with the 11 balls? Well, it turns out this cake is steeped in symbolism, so if you are also the curious type, let’s do a deep dive into the history of this treat together to find out what this cake is all about. A food historian named Dr. Annie Gray said: “Simnel cake is the stuff of legends, most of them entirely unfounded in reality.”
Let’s first breakdown what this cake is made of. This light cake is made with almonds, a hint of orange, with candied cherries, and then enrobed with marzipan. What distinguishes the Simnel from other cakes is the decorative marzipan balls on top– 11 of them to be exact. Apparently one story is that the balls represent the apostles minus Judas, since Judas betrayed Jesus. So this cake was eaten on the feast days during lent, like Palm Sunday, which also coincided with Mother’s Day in the UK. This is why this cake is also popular for Mother’s Day in that part of the world.
Another more quirky 19th century tale about this cake revolves around an old couple named Simon and Nell. Legend has it that they decided to use leftover ingredients from Christmas to make a cake for spring. This makes perfect sense since candied fruit and marzipan are quite popular in European Christmas celebrations. Through their collaborative effort on ingredients, the couple’s invention became known as the Sim-Nell cake-named for this husband and wife baking team.
However, many historians think this cake’s history is a little more practical. Their reasoning is that Simnel probably comes from the Latin word ‘simila’, which means fine wheat flour. To me this is the least likely, as it doesn’t explain those marzipan balls on top! Whatever the story, this cake was first documented on a British menu in the 11th century. As I love to keep food traditions alive, here I am in 2022 passing on the cake torch to share this story and recipe with you!
Part of my modern interpretation of this cake is to make it gluten free, with a sugar free option for those who want it. Another change I have made is to use dried cherries, and if you prefer, cherries from the jar are a great substitute too. Let’s face it modern candied cherries have way too many artificial colors and flavors in them compared to the candied cherries they used in midieval times. In any case, this beautiful and unusual looking cake will make a festive and springy centerpiece for your Easter or Mother’s Day celebrations. To see the technique on how to make this cake, click on my new video below:
The Simnel Cake
- Juice and zest of one orange
- 1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
- 1 tbsp orange blossom water
- 4 tbsp unsalted melted butter-cooled to room temperature
- ½ cup sugar (or allulose for a sugar free option)
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 ½ cups finely ground almond flour
- ⅓ cup dried or canned cherries or cranberries
- 500 grams marzipan
- ¼ cup apricot jam
- Start by cracking 4 fresh eggs into a large bowl –beat them until super fluffy and frothy. Next add the zest and juice of an orange. Add the 1 tbsp vanilla paste or extract, ½ stick of butter and then mix the ingredients well. Next add ½ cup sugar or allulose, ½ tsp baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder, and 1½ cups finely ground almond flour. Mix to combine well. Stir in the cherries. Use the cake pan to measure out the parchment paper to line the bottom, then grease with the butter to prevent sticking. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Now it’s time to shape the marzipan, which comes as a block. Cut the marzipan into thin slices and roll until it’s 1/4 inch thick. Then use the cake pan as a guide to cut the marzipan into a perfect circle. Roll the leftover pieces into 11 balls. Once the cake comes out, peel off the parchment paper, and put the cake on a baking sheet. Place the marzipan on top, then arrange the balls on top. Set the oven to broil and put the cake in the oven for about 3 minutes, or until you start to see the marizan browning.