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Simnel Cakes

Simnel Cakes

I’ll to thee a Simnel Bring

‘Gainst thou go’st a-Mothering

So that, when she blesseth three,

Half that blessing thou’lt give me.

Robert Herrick

As with many other parts of the country one Easter tradition that has long been held on Dartmoor is that of the Simnel Cake although its origins are thought to have begun either in Bury, Devizes or Shrewsbury. Originally this tradition was associated with the fourth Sunday in Lent which in medieval times was a day when people went in procession to their ‘mother church’ to honour the local patron saint and get their blessing. The occasion was known as ‘Mothering Sunday‘ but term ‘mother’ applied to the church not a maternal parent.

By the 16th century this observance was extended to visiting one’s mother to get her maternal blessing which symbolised the pilgrimage to the mother church. It became the fashion for girls who were away from home working in service to bake a cake which along with flowers were given to their mothers on what by then had become Mothering Sunday. The cake they baked was a Simnel Cake, so called because its roots lie in the Latin word ‘simila‘ which means ‘fine, white flour’ and was what was used in the recipes. However, prior to this tradition the term ‘simnel’ referred to anything baked with fine flour and not specifically to the cake associated with Mothering Sunday. There are a couple of other suggestions as to how the cake got its name; some will argue that Lambert Simnel devised the recipe whilst working in the kitchens of King Henry VII where he was placed as a punishment for trying to usurp the throne. Another fanciful version is the following which appeared in Chambers’ Book of Days in 1867:

‘The fasting season of Lent was just ending, but they had still left some of the unleavened dough, which had been from time to time converted into bread during the forty days. Nelly was a careful woman, and it grieved her to waste anything, so she suggested that they should use the remains of the Lenten dough for the basis of a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, and further reminded his partner that there were still some remains of their Christmas plum pudding hoarded up in the cupboard, and that this might form the interior, and be an agreeable surprise to the young people when they had made their way through the less tasty crust. So far, all things went on harmoniously ; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose, Sim insisting that it should be boiled, while Nell no less obstinately contended that it should be baked. The dispute ran from words to blows, for Nell, not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up, and threw the stool she was sitting on at Sim, who on his part seized a besom, and applied it with right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. She now seized the broom, and the battle became so warm, that it might have had a very serious result, had not Nell proposed as a compromise that the cake should be boiled first, and afterwards baked. This Sim acceded to, for he had no wish for further acquaintance with the heavy end of the broom. Accordingly, the big pot was set on the fire, and the stool broken up and thrown on to boil it, whilst the besom and broom furnished fuel for the oven. Some eggs, which had been broken in the scuffle, were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake. This new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known by the name of the cake of Simon and Nelly, but soon only the first half of each name was alone preserved and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel, or Simnel.’

It was custom for the mistress of the house to donate the ingredients for the cake and their quality was a reflection of how high a regard the mistress of the house held her employee.

My mistress seemed to take quite a pride in seeing that mine (Simnel Cake) should be of the richest and the best: saying as she gave me out flour and saffron, eggs and candy, with many other good things, – “Thy mother’s brought up her family for some use, Sally, and not to sit with their hands before them; and though spice and candy’s not to be got for naught they’re nothing more than is suitable when feelings of duty and gratitude are mixed along with them, as they should be with thee..‘.

Not only was the giving of the cake’s ingredients an appreciation of how much an employer thought of their employee it was also an exercise in which a girl could demonstrate her cooking skills to her family. As Mothering Sunday was an occasion when dispersed families came together the Lenten observances were relaxed for the day and pride of place on the food table was the Simnel Cake. Therefore the girl’s entire family would be sampling her cake and undoubtedly have given their marks out of ten for its quality. It seems that in later years the baking skills of the daughter were stretched to the limit when tradition dictated that the simnel cake was kept until Easter Sunday. If it retained its taste and moistness then she would have proven her worth, if not…

They are raised cakes, the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior is filled with the materials of a very rich plum-cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things. They are made up very stiff, tied up in a cloth, and boiled for several hours, after which they are brushed over with egg, and then baked. When ready for sale the crust is as hard as if made of wood, a circumstance which has given rise to various stories of the manner in which they have at times been treated by persons to whom they were sent as presents, and who had never seen one before, one ordering his simnel to be boiled to soften it, and a lady taking hers for a footstool.

Originally the Simnel Cake was basically an enriched yeast cake full of currants, saffron, lemon and almonds and decorated with preserved fruits and flowers. Eventually this tradition shifted slightly insomuch as Simnel Cakes became part of the Easter tradition. This also saw a change in the cake’s decoration because 11 marzipan balls replaced the fruits and flowers, each ball symbolised an apostle who attended the Last Supper, except for obvious reasons Judas, hence 11 and not 12. There is some notion that the early simnel cakes also had the figure of Christ placed in their centres, equally in modern times some people place sugar/chocolate eggs in the middle as a symbol of Easter. I must admit Simnel Cake is not one of my favourite Easter traditions as a while ago I visited a farm that will remain nameless and was given some of ‘Mother’s bake’. I left with a broken tooth which to this day still gives me some gip and lasting memories of that ordeal. Having said that if anyone wants a very early Dartmoor recipe for a Simnel Cake then here it is and I will not be held responsible for any dental problems!

She who would a Simnel make,

Flour and saffron first must shake,

Candy, spices, eggs must take,

Chop and pound till arms do ache:

Then must boil, and then must bake

For a crust too hard to break.

When at Mid-lent thou dost wake,

To thy mother bear they cake:

She will prize it for your sake.

Simnel Cakes


Step 1.

Roll the pastry out until it’s about 2 cm thick then cut out 6 squares that measure 6cm x 6cm. Use one of the squares as a base and place on a well greased baking tray. Then place another 4 of the squares around this to form the sides of a cube and then pinch in at the bottom so as the sides stand up. If they will not stand freely rollout four 6cm ropes and line the inside of the cube with them. If they still won’t stand up chuck the lot in the bin and go down to Sainsbury’s who sell Simnel Cakes. If they do stand up go on to the next step…

Step 2.

In a bowl mix together the fruit, walnuts and spices then drizzle on the 50ml of honey and blend this in, finally add the ground almonds and once again mix together. Next spoon the mixture into the cube and fill almost to the top, place the last square of pastry over the top to form the lid. Crimp around the edges ensuring that the whole lid is firmly sealed, it has been advised to use a ‘cock’ crimp‘ (clockwise) as opposed to a ‘hen crimp‘ (anticlockwise). Shove a sharp knife into the lid four times to create some vents.

Step 3.

Make a glaze by first dissolving the saffron in the boiling water, add to the 4 tablespoons of honey and then beat in the egg white, this should produce a rich yellow glaze (?) which should then be applied to the whole of the outer surface of the cube. Preheat the oven to 180ºC and place what can now be called the Simnel Cake into the centre and bake for about 30 minutes or until the pastry has hardened. Once baked remove from the oven, allow to cool and serve.

As noted above this is a very old Simnel recipe and was formulated before the tradition of decorating with symbolic marzipan balls. Should you want to be symbolic then simply buy some marzipan, roll up 11 balls and space evenly around the cake prior to baking. You may also like to add some sugar or chocolate eggs as a central decoration but if you do so then it’s best to place them post-baking as they tend to keep their shape better. All that remains is to present mother with your creation along with a bunch of traditional hedgerow violets which I think are now illegal to pick – naughty but nice.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor


  1. Great to read all the detail of history of the Simnel Cake including its use as a footstool! I’ve just made a cake for our service at church today and many people wanted to know more about how it was so named etc. Thank you.
    PS originally from England, Dartmoor is one of my favourite places and one brother lives not far from Tavistock so we still visit the moors.

  2. This is so close to a Black Bun (pastry case around a dense mixture of fruits that there is virtually no cake mixture to be seen and lasts for years!) of Scottish New Year custom. I wonder if the origins of an even earlier tradition of using up the fancy ingredients boiled or baked inside a flour water container started this. There were no cake tines or even ovens except for breadmaking for a long time.

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