A Nice Simnel Cake

Simnel CakeFrom Ngaire’s journal, 10th April, 1952
‘I have made a nice Simnel Cake for Easter’

And so have I. Made a nice Simnel Cake that is, complete with eleven marzipan balls – one for each of the disciples (excluding Judas). The exclusion of Judas, by the way, is tradition, not a decision on my part.

Simnel Cakes originated in Britain and date back to medieval times. Some sources say it was convention for young women in service to bake the cake as a gift for Mothering Sunday. Since this fell during Lent, the cake couldn’t be eaten immediately and therefore came to be associated with Easter.

It’s an odd sort of cake, with a layer of marzipan baked in the centre, and the marzipan topping and balls, which you toast under the grill or with a torch. Who knows what the significance of that is, particualrly in the absence of Judas. Perhaps it just makes it taste better. I’m taking my cake to friends in the country tomorrow and  plan to toast it when we get there.

There’s no recipe for a Simnel Cake in Ngaire’s book, so I went searching on the web. Originally different towns had their own recipes and even shapes of the cake, so there are many variations on the theme. The Shrewsbury version is the one that has endured. I used a recipe from the BBC site but, being Good Friday,  couldn’t run to the supermarket for ingredients so had to improvise a little. Instead of mixed peel I used marmalade (and a bit of extra flour) and to compensate for mixed spice I added a dash of strong Chai plus cinnamon and nutmeg. Fortunately I had plenty of blanched almonds in the pantry so was able to make my own marzipan paste.

Easter Simnel Cake

For the almond paste: 250g caster sugar, 250g ground almonds, 2 egg whites, beaten, 1 tsp almond essence.

For the cake: 175g butter, 175g soft brown sugar, 3 eggs, beaten, 175g plain flour, pinch salt, ½ tsp ground mixed spice, 350g mixed raisins, currants and sultanas, 55g chopped mixed peel, zest from ½ lemon, zest.

To assemble: Apricot jam, 1 egg white, beaten.


  1. For the almond paste, place the sugar and ground almonds in food processor. Add enough beaten eggwhite to mix to a fairly soft consistency. Add the almond essence and pulse  until the paste is smooth and pliable. Divide  into thirds, and roll out one pice into a 18cm circle (the size of your cake tin).
  2. Preheat oven to 140C. Grease and line an 18cm tin. Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs then sift in the flour, salt and mixed spice  a little at a time. Finally, add the mixed dried fruit, peel and grated lemon zest and stir into the mixture.
  3. Put half the mixture into the greased and lined cake tin. 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, until a skewer comes away cleanly. Cool on a wire rack.
  4. Brush the top of the cooled cake with the apricot jam. Take another third of your almond paste and roll out a circle to cover the top of the cake. Make 11 small balls with the remaining paste. Place the circle of paste on the jam glaze and set the balls round the edge. Brush the cake topping with a little beaten eggwhite.
  5. 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.

Happy Easter everyone.


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