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A Simnel Cake for the Mother's Day Celebration : An Elaborately Rich Fruit-Type Pastry Comes Down From the 18th Century

May 09, 1985|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

The Hotel Bel Air Sands notified us through their publicist, Dorothy Hundley, that a Mother's Day cake, which pastry chef Annette Gallardo was preparing, was noteworthy. "You'll love it," said the publicist.

Well, we don't usually jump out of chairs to follow a story on the promise of a publicist, but the cake, which is called Simnel, and was (possibly still is) a tradition in Britain on Mother's Day was worth a look, a taste. It certainly would be something different for Mother's Day.

Naturally, chef Gallardo, who developed her recipe according to that found in a cookbook from Bury, Lancashire, England, was delighted to share the recipe. She prepared not only the unusual fruit-type cake with its marzipan topping, but decorated it with frosting that made it look as if the church windows of an English cathedral had been replicated. It was that lovely.

Anyway, the stories associated with the cake are, indeed, entertaining.

18th-Century Tradition

It seems that no one really knows when the custom of the Simnel Cake for Mother's Day celebration actually started. But according to the writings of 19th-Century British authors, researched by Hundley, it was customary in the 18th and early 19th centuries for servants and apprentices working away from home to visit their mothers and present them with a cake of their mistress's making. The cake was usually accompanied by a nosegay of violets and other wild flowers "gathered in the hedgerows as they walked along the country lanes," according to writings by several 19th-Century British authors.

The so-called "mothering cake" was called Simnel Cake, a rich fruit cake boiled in water, then baked.

Simnel Cake may possibly be traced to Lambert Simnel, who, reports the Encyclopaedia Britannica, was an "impostor and claimant to the English crown, a cat's paw in the Yorkist conspiracies against King Henry VII."

Apparently, this fellow, Simnel, was passed off as a Yorkist prince, but was ultimately captured by Henry in 1487 and employed in the royal kitchens. Was then Simnel, serving time in the royal kitchens of Henry VII, also father of the Simnel Cake?

Another theory, according to Hundley's research, is that a couple named Simon and Neil, who devised the recipe, could not decide if the recipe should be boiled or baked, so they did it both ways, thus joining their names.

Fine Wheat Flour

According to Webster's Dictionary, the word simnel from the Latin word simila , means fine wheat flour (the same as semolina).

"In England," states the dictionary, "simnel was formerly a kind of bread or roll prepared by boiling, or boiling and baking." A secondary definition calls simnel "a rich fruitcake traditionally eaten in mid-Lent or at Easter or Christmas."

Whatever the truth of the matter, there could be no better tribute to mother than a spot of tea with a bit of comforting simnel for dunking, to round out the celebration. If any of the cake is left over, you can always freeze to serve as they do in North Ireland, as a tea sandwich spread with butter, or wrap it in a square of cheesecloth doused with some brandy or rum, and put it away for another celebration--say Christmas--if it lasts that long.

Meanwhile, when rolling out the marzipan to drape over the cake, be sure to let the marzipan soften at room temperature for easy rolling. Then you can decorate the top with squirts of frosting gel, candied violets or any decoration you wish.

Here is Gallardo's recipe.


1 1/2 cups butter

1 3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

6 eggs, lightly beaten

2 3/4 cups flour, sifted

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup sultanas

1/2 cup chopped candied fruit

1 pound currants

1 cup ground almonds

3 (7-ounce) rolls almond paste

1/2 cup simple syrup

1/4 cup rum

Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, a little at a time. Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Fold flour mixture into creamed mixture. Stir in sultanas, candied fruit, currants and almonds. Pour half of batter into greased and paper-lined 9-inch tube pan.

Roll out 1 package almond paste to circle to fit pan. Place over batter in pan, cutting around tube to fit well over cake portion. Cover with remaining cake batter. Bake at 300 degrees 2 1/2 to 3 hours or until cake no longer sticks to wood pick when pierced.

Turn out and cool on wire rack. Remove paper. Place on serving platter. Combine simple syrup and rum and brush over entire surface of cake. Roll out remaining almond paste into circle large enough to drape over entire cake. Trim center opening and at bottom of cake. Decorate with chocolate and colored piping gel, if desired. Makes 1 (9-inch) cake.

Note : Simple syrup can be purchased at any candy or bakery supply store and in some gourmet food stores. To make simple syrup, bring 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water to rolling boil and boil about 5 minutes or until thin syrup is formed. Cool.

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