Simnel Cake: The Original Easter Cake

Even before the Egg and Bunny became the stars of Easter, there was the fruity cake – a Easter-must and a post-Lent delicacy.

By Madhulika Dash
There is a good chance that if you have heard about the first (recorded) English cake, Simnel, it would be in the past few years, courtesy a few pastry chefs who have given this ancient formal cake a revival of sorts. Known to be one of the earliest formal (read: elaborately decorated) cakes for medieval times – some records date is even older – Simnel, which in Latin means finest/whitest of flour was once an Easter essential. Legend has it that it was with this delicious fruit cake that was at the centre of any religious celebration in ancient times. And when Eostre became Easter, it was natural to adopt the Simnel cake as the main treat, but with several addition made.

The Easter Simnel cake, unlike its earlier iteration of being a flat bread, started its journey as a pastry that was filled with dried fruit, spices and almonds and glazed with egg for that beautiful golden crust. It was around the 18 th century (or later, presumably) that the Simnel began taking the shape of the cake that we all recognise it by today. It was around the mid-19 th century that Simnel began to be more ornate with icing and the traditional 11 marzipan eggs making its appearance.

Made of white flour, sugar, butter, eggs, fragrant spices, dried fruits, zest and candied peel, it, many culinary experts believe, could have led to the creation of formal cakes that became the highlight of Marie Antoinette Court. Simnel, interestingly, had a French version too, which was more of a muffin and decorated with sugar crosses on top that eventually gave birth to the English Hot Cross Bun.

Curiously, no one really knows why this all-favourite cake disappeared from the Easter table around the end of 20 th century. Some speculate the reason for this was the eggs became more ornate, and the focus. Thankfully, it has seen some revival in the past few years -with of course the chefs twist.

Like this Simnel for instance. Recreated by Waqar Ahmed, Pastry Chef, Hilton Bengaluru Embassy Golf Links, this layered cake is an ode to the ancient art of fruit cake making – and has fruits used four ways – syrup, dried, zest and of course jam. And with the freshly ground spice mix it reminds of the time when adding a pinch of pepper or nutmeg was considered gourmet.

“What”, says Chef Waqar, “makes the creation of Simnel so interesting is that it is not only a one pot cake, but also extremely hyperlocal in the sense that it uses a lot of easily-available and kitchen made things like the jam and golden syrup.” In fact, much of the sweet- spiciness of the cake, the chef adds, “was brought forth because of the use of the golden syrup. In my version however, I have tried creating different layers of sweetness that compliments the spice twist.”

Surprisingly, what has also attracted Pastry Chefs to try this medieval treat is the versatility. Except the sugar, fruits, flour and eggs, says Chef Waqar, “it can be played around with.” And while the benchmark of a good Simnel Cake is its sponginess and the sugar play, here are few chefshack that can come useful if you decide to go ‘experimental’ with the cake today:
1. In case castor sugar is not available, please use regular sugar.
2. Rather than buying an apricot jam from the market, the best taste can be derived by making your own apricot jam or compote and then strain it.
3. In case, there is no marzipan one can use almond paste (almond powder + icing sugar) 4. For liquor-based Simnel cake; soak your fruits and dry fruits overnight in your choice of liquor. Malt beverages like the rum are more effective. 5. In case you do not have golden syrup, swap with honey.  

Click here for a tried and tested recipe of Simnel Cake.