Shrewsbury Simnel Cake: 1879

Happy Easter!

In honour of Jesus’ disciples (NOT YOU, JUDAS) and as a virtual homage to modern simnel, there are eleven hidden* Easter eggs of the nerdy variety in this post – find them all, win a prize.** In the Easter spirit of goodwill and peace I feel I must tell you that there are also a good few egg-related puns thrown in to keep hardcore egg fans (you know who you are) sunny side up. I make no apologies for these, although I’m aware we’ll all be feeling eggstremely awkward by the end. Feel free to log off now (I would.)

Hopefully by the time the day’s done you’ll have argued with loved ones over how large your Easter hunt haul is, vomited up an unholy (ha) amount of chocolate and had at least one Zoom call that went: “We can see you! We can see you! Can you see us? Oh wait…it’s frozen. Darling, do you know how to get it to unfreeze? It’s just showing me a picture of their dog’s crotch at the moment. Hang on… yes! HAPPY EASTER! How are you? Oh no it’s frozen again. Gosh, she’s got quite the nose on her hasn’t she? I’ve never really noticed it before – oh! You can still hear us? Ah.”

Easter will be a weird one for lots of us this year, what with the Easter bunny not being allowed out apart for non-eggsential travel, but that’s no reason to negglect history. I know, I know. You thought you could use these unprecedented times as an excuse; that I’d take pity on you and give you a break. But really – do you think that Jesus arose on the third day to make an Easter bonnet out of pipecleaners and mini chick toys so that you could “have a break” from my ego?

Get over yourselves.

Gone are the days of meaningless night-before trips to the supermarket to load up on Cadbury’s 3 for 2 to dole out to our nearest and dearest. This year I’ve been surprised at how touched I’ve been by the gifts left by family members on our doorstep for my daughter – a bunch of flowers, a chocolate rabbit, an Easter card. They feel extra poignant and though it’s true I ate that bunny within 30 seconds of it being inside the house and before she knew it existed, it’s nice to think that despite our troubles this year still can still feel special.

It’s family that’s the focus for today’s cake, actually. There’s a million and one posts about the history of Easter, why we celebrate Easter bunnies and the hot cross bun and they’re all much better than anything I could write, but there’s only a million about the history of simnel cake so plenty of space for me to crack on and throw my take on it into the ring.

I don’t know the reason, but this guy’s Easter has taken quite the turn.

Why’s it called Simnel?

Eggsellent question (I know you were waiting for that one.)

Modern day Simnel is a light fruit cake with a marzipan top and 11 marzipan balls circling the edge to represent Jesus’ disciples. Yes it’s true there were 12 disciples, but in order to show how cross they were with Judas for betraying Jesus, bakers denied him his own little marzipan ball. It’s the baking equivalent of cropping someone out of a picture – which is what da Vinci should have done. It’s a cake that lots of people feel they should make at Easter, but don’t really want to on account of the abundance of much more convenient and “treaty” food after 40 days of Lent (I mean, who would pick fruit cake over chocolate? Lunatics, that’s who.)

Having said that, Simnel Cake wasn’t originally a cake for Easter. In fact it wasn’t even a cake, and the marzipan balls that are so synonymous with simnel are actually a relatively modern concept. True simnel contained no marzipan whatsoever.

An almost certainly untrue story told in Chamber’s Book of Days of 1879 says that a couple a long time ago called Simon and Nelly found some spare dough one Easter and had a fight over what to do with it. Simon, the bloody weirdo, wanted to boil it but Nelly, who was clearly carrying over 50% of the brains of the couple, said they should bake it instead. In the end they came to a pointless compromise and boiled it for a bit before baking it afterwards so that “this new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known as the cake of Simon and Nelly…Sim-Nel, or Simnel!” An earlier 1838 poem in the Wiltshire Independent switches the madness round and has Nelly insisting on boiling the dough and Simon as the voice of reason, but the general absurdity of the tale is still the same. In reality simnel has been around for a lot longer than either Simon or Nelly.

Simnel is referred to as early as the 13th century, though it probably pre-dates this, but there are no surviving recipes for it. This is partly because the word simnel wasn’t necessarily describing a specific recipe; possibly a scrambled form of the Latin ‘simila conspera’, meaning ‘fine flour’, medieval simnel refers to a type of leavened bread that was prepared for spring. This bread was high quality indeed: the Chronicle of Battle Abbey tells us that William the Conqueror granted the monks there 36 oz. of “bread fit for the table of a king, which is commonly called simenel.”

As the 13th century progressed, however, simnel began to take on another meaning, much more similar to our concept of a cake. In 1225, John of Garland wrote in his Dictionarius that simineus was a French word for the Latin for cake, placenta, possibly highlighting that simnel was moving away from a description of flour into something more like a cake we would recognise.

Skipping past the story of the 15th century pretender Lambert Simnel (who’s nothing more than an eggregious red-herring in the history of the simnel), by the 17th century the simnel cake had eggceeded simnel bread in popularity. It seems to have been particularly popular in Shrewsbury, Bury and Devizes with all three locations claiming slightly different variations of the simnel cakes as their own.

At the same time, the symbolism of the simnel was forming. Since the Middle Ages people had followed the tradition of returning to their ‘mother’ church and bringing presents to their mothers on the fourth Sunday of Lent: Mothering Sunday. As the centuries progressed Mothering Sunday became more of a bank holiday with domestic servants, girls in particular, given the day off to return home to visit family and the church of their baptism. Naturally, as good daughters, they brought their mothers homemade gifts and it’s in this context that the simnel cake came into its own.

A servant might have to poach some ingredients from her mistress to make the cake or, if she was well thought of, the mistress would donate the ingredients to her. The better quality the ingredients, the higher regard the mistress had for the servant – meaning that a girl had to adopt a souffle souffle approach with her mistress in the weeks preceding Mothering Sunday to ensure she was given the best ingredients. The mother would be given the simnel by her daughter but wouldn’t usually eat it until Easter Sunday, when she would cut into it and, in an act of motherly love, intensely scrutinize the efforts of the daughter to see whether the cake was still moist or whether she’d raised a disappointment.

The best simnels are gluten-free, dairy-free and Judas-free.
Image credit here.

Shrewsbury simnel

Since I’d missed Mothers’ Day by a good three weeks I wasn’t off to the best start. In addition to this, the Take That Greatest Hits albumen I’d bought for my mum hadn’t gone down well, least of all because my mum can’t stand Take That so there was a lot resting on this cake.

Traditional Shrewsbury simnel cake was nothing like I was expecting. Slightly disconcertingly, I had to start by making a dough out of flour, water and saffron until it was a very stiff, which I had to shape into a pastry case that would hold its shape, without baking it.

Luckily for me my temperamental kitchen gets very hot at the slightest hint of sun and I had chosen to make this on the first day of the mini heat wave. I wailed as my pastry case wilted under my clumsy hands. When I’d had en-oeuf of failing, I cheated and shaped the dough in a saucepan lid and stuck it in the fridge to firm up while I got on with the actual cake.

The recipe for simnel in Book of Days is succinct and unhelpful: “a very rich plum cake with plenty of candied lemon and other good things.” I can’t stand fruit cake myself, so wasn’t sure how to just whip one up. I consulted Chambers’ English contemporary, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management for what constituted “rich plum cake” and “good things”.

Mrs Beeton had three distinct recipes for plum cake, of varying quality. The best one, which she enticingly called “an unrivalled plum pudding” used a cholesterol-boosting 16 eggs. Since my hypothetical mistress had granted me 2 because that was all we had in before the next shop, I worked my way onto the second best recipe, which called itself “an excellent plum pudding made without eggs”. This one looked good eggcept it contained mashed carrot and mashed potatoes. These ingredients might seem bizarre today, but they would have helped keep the cake moist for the weeks leading up to its consumption. Unfortunately we didn’t have carrots or potatoes in either. With a heavy heart, already seeing the disappointment in my mother’s eyes, I turned to her most basic of recipes which she had tartly entitled “a baked plum pudding.” No eulogising here – just a straightforward cake with currants, sultanas, suet (we actually did have some of that in, don’t ask me why), flour, eggs and lemon peel. No sugar, I noticed. Also, Mrs B wanted to me to add milk to this, (or water for a “very plain pudding”, which really highlighted how far I’d strayed from my quest for Chambers’ rich plum pudding), but I added brandy instead, which she’d used in her unrivalled plum pudding.

The mixture was very wet because it used a higher ratio of egg to flour than I was used to working with. I realised later that I’d messed up my calculations when converting Mrs B’s lbs to grams so I ended up adding a bit more flour and suet to firm it up a bit. I then spooned it into the chilled pastry case it went, which promptly began sagging at the sides, all my careful chilling undone.

The next stage involved boiling the pastry encased pudding for several hours. I had added a pastry lid and by this point the whole thing resembled a sort of deflated pastry ball. In my mind I saw my mother’s eyes fill with angry tears. Panicked, I tied it in a muslin cloth and forced it back into the saucepan lid for structure and as I crossed my fingers I poured boiling water over it. After half an hour I pulled it out of the saucepan lid, confident that 30 minutes boiling would have helped set the pastry, and replaced it, lidless, back into the water.

I did feel eggceptionally Victorian during this bit, it has to be said.

After two and half hours I lost patience. I was already pretty sure this wasn’t going to redeem me from the Take That CD and wanted to get it over and done with. Tentatively, I pulled the dense mass from the seething pot, peeled off the muslin and looked upon my deformed doughy creation. My husband chose that moment to wander in.

“What’s that?” he asked fearfully.

“It’s a simnel cake.”

He paused. “Oh, for Easter?” Then, completely oblivious to the irony: “It looks like a cake for Satan.”

Once I’d chased him out of the kitchen I dotted some pastry blobs on, because I’d seen them on a drawing of a simnel in Book of Days (though Chambers made no reference to them being the disciples), glazed the Satan cake with egg wash and baked it for an hour. It was then that I read that truly authentic simnels should be so hard that they felt “like wood” and that Chambers could recall a lady who had never seen one before mistaking a large one “for a foot stall.” Because nothing says Happy Belated Mother’s Day/Easter like a cake that could double up as furniture.

After an hour it was ready. I took a photo of it and texted it to my mum.

“Happy Easter! It’s a simnel cake!”

I saw she’d seen it. Three little dots appeared as she formed a response. Then they went away. They came back for a minute and then disappeared again. She was either really, really delighted or cutting me from her will. Finally:

“Is it though?”

Oof.

Despite her lukewarm response, it was instantly obvious why this would have been a good cake to take back home to keep for the weeks before Easter – with its thick impenetrable pastry case there was no way this cake could go off. Even before I cut into I knew that if I left it for 1000 years it would survive.

Taste-wise, this was not as good as a modern day simnel. It was incredibly eggy, because I had messed up the ratios, although it wasn’t completely inedible because the amount of currants and sultanas provided a little natural sweetness. I could definitely taste the brandy, and was glad I’d not just used milk because it made the whole thing slightly richer. Without it it would have been quite bland, which is why I see why Chambers called for a “very good” plum pudding because what I’d made was essentially a weak fruity flan.

The pastry was weirdly pleasant, though. It tasted of saffron, because there were no other flavourings in it and eating it felt like a bagel. The outside crust was very hard and I reckon if I’d wanted to I absolutely could have used it for a little foot stall. Once I got through it, though, it was softer and chewy. I know it looks a bit underdone in the picture, but it wasn’t – again, it had the dense chewiness of a pretzel.

All in all though, it was probably a good thing I wasn’t able to give this to my mum. Even though I hope I’ve shown the modern day simnel isn’t technically traditional, she counts herself as a simnel purist and the lack of marzipan balls and over abundance of pastry in this version wouldn’t have impressed her one bit.

Hopefully you’ve had a great, if weird, Easter with at least one chocolatey treat in it somewhere. I also hope you managed to catch up with family or friends without Skype freezing on a picture of the dog’s marzipan balls, that you were able to enjoy the sunshine and that wherever you are you remain healthy and safe. This will end, one day, and when it does? Well, let’s just say there’s a boiled simnel cake encased in pretzel pastry waiting for you. Aren’t you eggstatic?

Happy Easter.

E x

*Loosest use of the word hidden
**Prize does not eggist.

Shrewsbury Simnel Cake

160g plain flour
80g currants
80g sultanas
80g suet
2 eggs
1/4 pint of brandy
Candied peel or lemon rind

(For the pastry)
250g plain flour
Saffron
Water to mix

  1. Mix the ingredients for the pastry together and knead until it forms a very stiff dough.
  2. Shape the dough around a pan so that it forms a pastry case. Keep some dough back for a lid. Place in the fridge to chill and set.
  3. Begin on the cake. Mix flour, suet, currants, sultanas and lemon peel in a bowl.
  4. Add the eggs and brandy and mix well.
  5. Spoon the cake batter into the pastry case. Add the pastry lid onto the case and pinch the edges tightly to stop cake batter escaping during cooking.
  6. Wrap the pastry case with cake in it up in a muslin cloth and place in a pan of boiling water. Boil for at least 2 hours.
  7. Remove pastry case with cake in it and unwrap. Glaze with egg wash.
  8. Place it on a baking tray and bake in an oven at 190 degrees for 1 hour.