Mothering Sunday (UK): Simnel bread-cake with tea and whisky

For my own Ma.

There is one cake I’ve never tackled independently, and that is the fruitcake. Often tall, moist and dense, with a batter that’s packed with an insane amount of fruit (and, on occasion, a nice swig of alcohol), fruitcakes are pretty much the answer to the question “Just how much can I fit into one cake?”

Historically speaking, fruitcakes are pretty damn old. According to Smithonian Magazine, the Romans created the earliest antecedent to our modern day fruity goodness. (Although in another article, the Egyptians actually seem to have the oldest recipe, a fruitcake-like loaf recipe that they popped on the tombs of loved ones, because all that fermented fruit would allow the dead to trundle through the afterlife with sufficient nourishment). However, it’s really when we hit the Middle Ages that we see a recipe that resembles our present cake, thanks to better trade (more fruits, a larger variety of flour) and better knowledge of preservation and fermentation (sugared and dried fruits). A bunch of fruit breads in Europe emerged, each with their own unique qualities (some using specific types of fruit, nuts and spices, and some with more enriched doughs), and many still exist and remain popular today – from the German stollen and Italian panforte to the Swedish saffranslängd. Over time, recipes have developed even further still to incorporate more ingredients (such as almond paste/marzipan and alcohol), thus creating the lovely, round delicious thing we see today. The very nature of these cakes, filled with an assortment of fruit and nuts and saffron and sugar, made (and still make) them expensive and time-consuming to mix and bake; as a result, these cakes became the pièce de résistance of a Western European celebratory table, whether it was Christmas, Easter or a birthday. Which leads me on to our next recipe on the blog: Simnel cake.

Simnel cake is a fruitcake traditionally served at Easter or, as you will see from this post’s title, on Mother’s Day / Mothering Sunday. Made up of two tiers, and with a layer of marzipan baked in between, another disc is then placed atop of the cake once baked. This marzipan disc is decorated with 11 little marzipan balls, to represent the disciples of Jesus (Judas Iscariot is left out deliberately for betraying Jesus to the Pharisees). As described, a rich cake filled with expensive nuts and fruits is apt for Easter day celebration after 40 days of abstaining from your chosen luxury (be it wine or… yes, wine). Simnel cake’s association with Mother’s Day (in the UK), according to Daniel Etherington of Bread, Cakes and Ale blog, is intriguingly loosely connected to Easter: not only does Mother’s Day sit nicely in the middle of Lent (acting as a brief respite from abstinence) but it tends to fall near or on spring equinox – suggesting the day has links to pre-Christian celebrations. Mother’s Day in Britain was also a day servant girls, who often lived in their master’s and mistress’s house, would go home to visit their mothers, and it would be a Simnel cake they’d back as a token of their affections.

The cake itself, like the old fruitcakes above, was originally breadlike in composition. Perhaps owing to limited flour production methods, and undiscovered techniques in baking (tins and moulds weren’t in use until around the sixteenth century), bread dough was easier to shape and its yeast allowed the “cake” to rise. Finely milled bread flour was used (which may explain the name behind “simnel”, as it’s supposedly derived from the Latin “simila conspersa” meaning “fine flour”); enriched with eggs and milk; had saffron, nuts, candied peel and dried fruit stirred in; and then the cake was boiled and baked like our modern-day bagels. This cooking method would certainly add truth to the age-old tale behind the name of Simnel cake: supposedly siblings Simon and Nelly argued over how to cook a fruitcake for their mother – he wanted to boil, she wanted to bake – and in the end they did both. Apparently, it tasted dodge, but myriad fruitcake recipes exist today that involve boiling and baking, so clearly peeps from that time were not deterred by the rumours.

While the modern-day Simnel cake – which is technically the Bury Simnel Cake (I hadn’t realised there were lots of versions across England!) – is your typical cake-like affair, I was intrigued by the bready elements of its forerunner. Wouldn’t it be awesome to create a Simnel cake that adhered somewhat to the traditional ingredients used, and capture the taste and loveliness of the old cake? This recipe is an effort to do exactly that. By combining both bread and plain flour, we can try to achieve the consistency of the old cake.

For my Simnel cake, I knew I wanted three things: tea, alcohol and ease, because half the fear I had in making my first fruitcake was faff. Lots of fruitcake recipes out there demand a long list of nuts and specific fruits, which I daresay add lots of subtleties to the overall flavour; however, to make it easier (and slightly cheaper) I opted for a bag of mixed fruit from ASDA (which included candied peel – check!), blanched almonds and glace cherries. Boom; done for my fruit mix. While I was curious about the saffron – a traditional spice used in Simnel cake – again, thriftiness won the battle and I decided to use a pinch of turmeric as its poor replacement. Alcohol can either be a liqueur, sherry or whisky; I went for a whisky with my cake, inspired by Jamie Oliver’s own recipe and because my lovely BF allowed me to dive into his liquor cabinet of goodies and get a swig of one of the good blends (so good, in fact, I can’t actually remember what it’s called…). Finally, the tea was inspired by own beloved mother’s mug tea fruitcake, which is utterly scrumptious and perfumed with Earl Grey.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of this cake, the total ease I desired can’t quite be achieved. You will need to let things soak, you will need to knead (it’s gonna be messy folks) and it’s time-consuming. But, as it’s for your mama, all the hard work you put into this bad boy will be worth it. In addition, if you do take a bit of time to prepare and (hideous as it sounds) schedule your baking , you could make the cake making process a touch easier for yourself. Friday night soak your fruits in the alcohol and tea; Saturday morning make the rest of your cake, and Sunday morning finish off the decorating. Lo; here be a fabulous cake under wraps and you’ve still had most of your weekend to enjoy with mumsy.

Bake and tuck in, my peeps. And Happy Mother’s Day! As before, if you have any recommendations or tweaks, let me know! We make better cooks and bakers when we work together 😉

Emily x

Simnel bread-cake with tea and whisky

(Based on a recipe by Dan Etherington at Bread Cakes and Ale.)
N.B. For this recipe, I would strongly recommend adhering to metric weights in order to get the quantities pretty much perfect.

Yields: 11-12 slices


For the cake
  • 300g (1 1/3 cup) mixed fruit which includes sultanas, currants and candied peel
  • 100ml (1/2 cup) brewed tea, preferably a black variety (N.B. for this recipe I’d advise not using something too perfumed, like Earl Grey, as it would clash with the other flavours)
  • 75ml (1/3 cup) whisky
  • 50g (1/4 cup) glacé cherries, rinsed and roughly chopped
  • 50g (1/4 cup) blanched almonds, roughly chopped
  • 1 lemon, zest
  • 225g (2 3/4 cups) strong white bread flour
  • 275g (2 1/4 cups) plain flour
  • 1/2 teaspoons of turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1 teaspoons of salt
  • 100g (1/2 cup) butter, melted
  • 75g (1/3 cup) caster (superfine) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of yeast
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 150g (2/3 cup) of marzipan
  • Smallquantity of icing (confectioners) sugar
For decoration
  • 160g (3/4 cup) of marzipan
  • 2 tablespoons of marmalade
  • Small quantity of icing (confectioners) sugar
Other bits and bobs
  • Baking parchment
  • Rolling pin
  • 152 x 102mm (6 x 4in) cake tin
  • Large mixing bowl, 30cm (11 1/2in) in diameter
  • Skewer
  • Pastry brush

Friday night, soak your mixed fruit in the brewed tea and whisky. If you forget, not to worry, but ideally give your fruit at least 2 hours in the morning (breakfast time) in the liquid mix to soak up the flavours.

Next day, add your chopped cherries, almonds and zest to the soaked fruit mix and stir until well combined.

In your large mixing bowl, mix your flours, salt, turmeric and mixed spices. Rub in the melted butter, like you would for pastry, and then chuck in your yeast, sugar and beaten eggs. If it’s a bit dry, you can use some of the liquid from the soaked fruit to add moisture. Here’s the glory of a massive bowl! With the dough still inside, knead it for approximately 5 minutes then leave it to rest for 10 minutes. Repeat this kneading and resting process two more times.

Stretch out your dough in your bowl, like your preparing pastry for a quiche dish, and pour your fruit and remaining liquid into the centre. Fold over your dough and then knead to combine. The mixture will be quite moist and sticky. Add a touch of flour if need be, to make it easier to handle, but don’t overdo it as there’s a danger of it becoming too dense if you do. When fully combined, leave to rest for 45 minutes.

While you wait, line your cake tin with baking parchment. Cut a disc to the same size as the tin to sit at the bottom, and then a long rectangle to place along the wall of your tin.

Once rested, divide your dough into two balls. Flatten them slightly, then press one ball into your tin until it’s flat on top. Take your marzipan and roll it between your palms to make it more malleable. If you’re one for perfection, use a rolling pin to roll it out into a disc on a surface lightly dusted with icing (confectioners) sugar and press it onto your bottom layer of dough that’s sitting in the tin. If you’re like me, simply tease out the marzipan with your hands into a disc-like shape and press onto the bottom dough layer. At this stage, you’re baking the marzipan in order to melt it and stick together the dough layers, so aestheticism isn’t an issue here. Take your final ball of dough and press it on top of your marzipan until it touches the walls of your tin. Leave the whole cake to rest for a final 45 minutes.

While it rests, preheat your oven to 180°C (350°F).

When your cake is ready, pop it in the oven on the middle shelf and turn the temperature right down to 150°C (300°F). Bake for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 130°C (260°F). Bake for another 45 minutes, test with a skewer, then remove from the oven and leave to cool for an hour.

After the hour’s passed, carefully remove the cake from the tin and pop it on a wire rack to dry out the base. The marzipan may be quite gooey still and cause the top layer to slide a little; to rectify this gently nudge the top layer back into place and poke your skewer right through the centre of the cake to hold it in place, and keep it there until the cake has completely cooled.
At this point, you can leave your cake overnight covered with a cloth or clingfilm, and decorate the next morning.

Preheat your grill to a high temperature. Microwave your marmalade until it’s melted into a syrup and leave to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, put aside approx. 60g (1/4 cup) of your marzipan; roll the remainder between your palms to warm and then use a rolling pin to roll it out into a disc the same circumference as your cake, on a surface dusted with icing (confectioners) sugar. Use the empty cake tin as a template, if needed. With your marmalade syrup and pastry brush, brush the top of your cake (skewer now removed) and quickly lay your thin disc of marzipan on top of your cake. With the remaining marzipan, divide it into 11 pieces and roll them into balls in the palms of your hands. Brush marmalade syrup on the bottom of each ball and press them gently on top of your cake, spaced about 1.25cm (1/2in) apart.

Carefully place your cake on an oven- and microwave-safe plate and pop it under the grill/broiler. Scorch the top of your cake until the tops of your balls and the centre of marzipan is golden brown; this should only take a few minutes.

Bring to the table, and proudly give it to your mother to slice.

2 thoughts on “Mothering Sunday (UK): Simnel bread-cake with tea and whisky

  1. Hi. I really like how you incorporate the history into your recipe’s.

    Liked by 1 person

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