Mothering Sunday, also known as Mother’s Day, is celebrated this year (in Britain at least) on April 3. It has its origins in a festival of the church which falls on the fourth Sunday in Lent. As such, it’s one of those movable feasts linked to the celebration of Easter, which — as I’m sure you know — follows the old lunar calendar, unlike Christmas and all the other Christian feast days which remain the same from year to year.
A cake to demonstrate material wealth
The festival was marked in medieval times by a pilgrimage to the mother-church of the parish. This habit was replaced in Queen Victoria’s day, when more than half the population was employed in domestic service, by granting young unmarried female servants leave to pay a visit home to mother. If the employer was generous, young women in service were permitted to bake a rich fruitcake to take home to their families, allowing just enough time (since all fruitcakes improve with the keeping) for their handiwork to be stored away for the Easter festival three Sundays later.
The cake, an edible demonstration that the young woman was well cared-for, was made of the very best ingredients, and Victorian household books stipulate the finest white flour (well-sifted and dried in the oven), raisins-of-the-sun, Jordan almonds, crystallized fruit, dried figs, sweet (rather than salted) butter and fresh eggs, with a liberal addition of expensive spices from the household’s precious supplies. And, if the housekeeper was particularly well disposed, a layer of almond paste baked through the middle. The Christian message was underlined by finishing the cake with another layer of marzipan and a dozen little balls to symbolize the apostles, with another larger ball popped in the middle to represent Christ.
Tracing the cake’s unusual name
None of this explains the cake’s curious name. Victorian storytellers ascribed it to a certain Lambert Simnel, pretender to the English throne some 500 years earlier but granted a royal pardon on account of his youth and set to work as a baker in the palace kitchens. Others ascribed it to a marital quarrel between two confectioners — husband Simon and wife Nell — who couldn’t agree upon who thought of it first.
Nevertheless, the most probable (and prosaic) explanation is that the name derives from the Latin for fine white flour, simila, the ingredient favored by Roman cooks to prepare foodstuffs designed to celebrate the rites of spring which, naturally enough, included those well-known symbols of fertility appropriate to the festival: nuts, eggs and seeds. This might explain the popularity in modern times of the nests of sugar-eggs, fluffy chicks and baby bunnies with which those of a secular turn of mind replace the symbols appropriate to a Christian festival of resurrection. No matter what its origin, the story is renewal, and the cake, a 17th-century improvement on the original boiled dumpling, tastes as good at it should.
For dried fruit, choose a pretty mixture of prunes (pitted and diced), sultanas, raisins and crystallised fruit. Ready-made marzipan won‘t do since it lacks the egg-yolk which allows the mix to keep its shape in the oven. This recipe combines boiling with baking, a method which takes account of a lack of domestic ovens. It‘s easy, too, with virtually no beating and absolutely no machinery required.
For the marzipan layer:
For the marzipan topping:
- Line the base of 9-inch cake tin with a double layer of well-buttered paper. If yours is not one of those tins with a hinged side, line the sides as well with a double thickness — raisins are terrible stickers. For a really nutty flavor, dust a little powdered almond round the tin.
- Put the butter, treacle, all the dried fruit, the whole almonds and orange and lemon rind and juice into a roomy saucepan, and heat until the treacle and butter have liquefied. Simmer gently, stirring, for a few minutes, and then leave aside to cool.
- Prepare the marzipan by working all the ingredients into a stiff paste. If it’s not pliable enough, work in a little lemon juice. Knead it into a ball and roll out into a disk to fit the cake tin, dusting with confectioner’s sugar to stop it sticking to the rolling pin. (Ready-prepared marzipan is no good for the middle layer since it lacks the egg which holds the mixture together in a single luscious layer as it cooks.)
- Preheat the oven to 300F.
- Sieve the flour and the spice mixture into the pan with the syrup-fruit mixture and crack in the eggs. Turn all together thoroughly until you have a soft batter which drops easily from the spoon. Spoon half the batter into the lined cake-tin. Cover it with the marzipan round, and spoon on the rest of the batter. Smooth the top down so that it dips a little in the middle; this encourages the cake to bake with a flat top.
- Bake for 2½ to 3 hours, until the cake has pulled away from the sides and feels firm to your finger. Or you can test it with a skewer poked through the middle — if the batter is uncooked, it’ll stick to the skewer. Or open the door and listen: an excited hissing means the inside is still evaporating moisture and not yet ready.
- Transfer to a rack to cool. Then store in a tin till Easter.
- Before serving: Prepare the marzipan as before, using just the egg yolk to mix (lemon juice might be required to soften) and saving the white for finishing. Save a quarter of the paste and roll out the rest to fit the top of the cake. Spread the cake-top with apricot jam, then cover with the rolled-out marzipan.
- Cut the reserved marzipan into 12 small pieces and form into little balls — one for each of the 12 apostles and one for Jesus. With your finger, make 12 indentations round the edge of the marzipan topping and one in the middle. Paint each dip with a little egg white and drop in the marzipan balls. Brush all with the remaining egg white and sprinkle with a little caster sugar. Pop the cake under the grill or transfer to a hot oven for a few moments to brown the marzipan balls (a lick of spring sunshine, no more).
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Images: Watercolor of a simnel cake.
Credit: Elisabeth Luard