|Place of origin||United Kingdom|
Simnel cake is a light fruit cake eaten during the Easter period in the United Kingdom, Ireland and some other countries. It is distinguished by two layers of almond paste or marzipan, one in the middle and one on top. The top layer is capped by a circle of "eggs" made of the same paste, and is lightly browned under a grill. It was originally made for the middle Sunday of Lent (when the forty-day fast would be relaxed), although in more recent times it is also eaten throughout the pre-Easter period, particularly on Refreshment Sunday (also known as Laetare Sunday), Easter Sunday, Sunday of the Five Loaves, and Simnel Sunday – named after the cake.
Conventionally eleven, or occasionally twelve, marzipan balls are used to decorate the cake, with a story that the balls represent the twelve apostles, minus Judas or Jesus and the twelve apostles, minus Judas. An early reference to decorating with marzipan balls appears in May Byron's Pot-Luck Cookery (1914), but with no mention of the modern story, and her version may well be derived from earlier styles, which were sometimes crenelated.
Simnel cake is a light fruit cake, generally made from these ingredients: white flour, sugar, butter, eggs, fragrant spices, dried fruits, zest and candied peel. Sometimes orange flower water or brandy is used, either in the cake batter or to flavour the almond paste. In most modern versions marzipan or almond paste is used as a filling for the cake, with a layer laid in the middle of the mix before the cake is cooked, and it is also used as decoration on the top. Most recipes require at least 90 minutes of cooking, and advise using several layers of baking parchment to line the tin, and sometimes brown paper wrapped around the outside to stop the marzipan burning.
Simnel cakes have been known since at least medieval times. Bread regulations of the time suggest they were boiled and then baked, a technique which led to an invention myth, in circulation from at least 1745 until the 1930s, whereby a mythical couple, Simon and Nelly, fall out over making a Simnel. One wishes to boil it, one to bake it and, after beating each other with various household implements, they compromise on one which uses both cooking techniques. It is not the only myth which has become attached to the Simnel cake. They are often associated with Mothering Sunday, and in the twentieth century it was frequently said that young girls in service would make one to be taken home to their mothers on their day off. However, this was by no means the norm, and by the late twentieth century the cake had simply become an Easter cake. The word simnel probably derived from the Latin word simila, meaning fine, wheaten flour. The meaning of the word "simnel" is unclear: there is a 1226 reference to "bread made into a simnel", which is understood to mean the finest white bread, from the Latin simila – "fine flour" (from which 'semolina' also derives). John de Garlande felt that the word was equivalent to placenta cake, a cake that was intended to please. A popular legend attributes the invention of the Simnel cake to Lambert Simnel; however, references to the cake were recorded some 200 years before his birth.
Different towns had their own recipes and shapes of the Simnel cake. Bury, Devizes and Shrewsbury produced large numbers to their own recipes, but it is the Shrewsbury version that became most popular and well known.
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