Before I moved to England to study a decade ago, I had never heard of a Simnel Cake. When I asked people what it was, I usually got the same response: a light fruit cake for Easter. Needless to say, I was initially baffled by the concept of a “light” fruit cake. But when I finally tried a Simnel Cake I knew I’d been missing out. It was sweet with marzipan and candied peel, rich with spice, and yes, it was “light.” Now I always urge my spouse to make one as Easter approaches. We also usually re-watch this clip about Simnel-baking and egg-tossing from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage series, too.
Although the origins of the Simnel Cake are highly debated, the Oxford English Dictionary includes mentions of Simnel from medieval and early modern sources. It’s long been “A kind of bread or bun made of fine flour” and “A rich currant cake, usually eaten on Mid-Lent Sunday in certain districts.” When I saw a recipe “To make a Simnel” in perennial favorite manuscript MS Codex 785, I knew which version of the Easter Simnel I’d be making this year.
To make a Simnel
Take half a peck of flour five or six whites of Eggs
well beaten a pint and an half of good milk, a quarter
of a pint of Sack, six Ounces of sugar, two pound
of Raisins of the Sun, two pound of Currants
half a pint of good Balme, three Nutmegs a
Race of Ginger, a little pepper, Cloves and Mace
make it into paste boyl it and it.
From the start, I wasn’t sure how much this would taste like a “light fruit cake” without the marzipan and candied peel showcased in modern recipes. But the recipe seemed straightforward except for that “half a pint of good Balme.” Ivan Day’s historical baking guide suggests that liquid “balme” in baking recipes often refers to liquid “barm,” or the yeasty scum on the top of home-brewed beer. This barm would have been full of wild beer yeasts. It leavened the bread and imparted funky fermented flavors. Researching this ingredient led me to treat this recipe for Simnel as a rich yeast bread.
Our version of the Simnel receipt is quartered from the original recipe and makes two hearty loaves. I hand-kneaded this bread, but a standing mixer with a dough hook should also do the trick. Since this is a yeast bread, make sure you budget for an hour and a half of rising time! Alternatively, you can prepare the dough in advance. Keep it in you fridge overnight, allow it to return to room temperature for about an hour or so, and then bake it.
It was fun to pour a favorite local beer into this dough. I used Yards “Brawler,” an English mild style session beer, but other lagers and pale ales will work as well. Feel free to experiment with other beers and let us know if they impart unique flavors to the bread. I also used brandy in place of the sack, but sherry is an equally good substitute.
4 1/2 C flour (1.75 lb)
1/4 C sugar (1.5 oz)
1 t yeast
1/2 t nutmeg, freshly grated or ground
1 t ground ginger
1/4 t black pepper, freshly ground or pre-ground
1/4 t ground cloves
1/4 t mace
1 1/2 C raisins (1/2 lb)
1 1/3 C currants (1/2 lb)
3/4 C milk
2 egg whites, beaten
1 C beer
1 oz sack
Mix the dry ingredients — flour, sugar, yeast, spices — in a large, sturdy bowl. Add the raisins and currants.
Add the milk to the dry mix and stir it in. Add the eggs and continue stirring. Add the beer and the sack. The mix should resemble a rough dough that you can shape into a ball. If it’s too wet to handle, add a little more flour by the tablespoonful. Alternatively, if it’s too dry, add water, milk, or beer by the tablespoonful to soften it.
Knead the dough on a floured surface for five minutes until the dough is smooth. It should look glossy and consistent. Don’t worry if the raisins and currants keep falling out of the dough! Just fold them back in. Shape the dough into a ball.
Place the dough into a bowl greased with butter, baking spray, or oil. Set in a warm place to rise for about an hour and a half. This dough doesn’t rise dramatically because of the huge amount of dried fruit mixed into it. The dough is ready to bake when it springs back when poked.
Preheat your oven to 375F. Grease two baking sheets with butter, baking spray, or oil. I shaped my dough into two, round, free-style loaves, but you can also bake it in a well-greased rectangular or circular baking tin.
Bake for 35-40 minutes until the loaves are nicely browned on top and bottom. When you turn them over and tap the bottom, the bread should make a hollow sound.
This is a delicious, spicy, fruity bread. It reminds me more of spiced, English hot cross buns than the modern simnel cakes I’ve eaten. The pepper keeps catching me off guard as I eat slices with tea whilst grading a huge pile of midterms and papers. The beer, milk, and eggs add a sweet richness to the bread that I’d normally expect from a loaf of challah. It makes great toast and I anticipate it freezing well, too.