The other day David came home from the office with a handful of papers. “What’s that?” I asked. His response was a little sheepish: “Umm. I was thinkin’ we might serve Simnel cake after church next Sunday. He stammered a little as he continued, “I found some recipes online. Could you look at them and maybe pick out the best one?”
I had heard of Simnel cake, probably even eaten a slice or two at some point, but there are lots of religious holiday sweets. Like the Three King’s Cake with a ceramic baby Jesus baked inside on the first day of Epiphany and the gaudy donut-shaped cake with green, purple, and gold sugar for Shrove Tuesday. (Apparently these two cakes are actually the same.) There are Advent stollens, hot cross buns, egg bread.
As it turns out, Simnel cake has evolved into an Easter confection, but there was a time it was served on Laetare Sunday (“Refreshment” Sunday), the midpoint between Fat Tuesday and Good Friday. It was a little treat for the Lenten-weary. It was also known as Mothering Sunday. Servant girls would get to visit their mothers on this day and bring a cake. They’d decorate the cake with eleven almond paste balls to represent the faithful Apostles (poor Judas didn’t make the cut) and little spring flowers they’d pick en route.
David was preparing for Laetare Sunday at St. Luke’s, and here he was with a fistful of random recipes. But I wouldn’t give the poor bakers in our parish a recipe I hadn’t tested first. Once I did a little research, I realized this cake not only needed testing, it needed serious updating!
Many of the recipes called for archaic size pans. Some recipes contained serious errors. Did the recipe writer really mean to call for 1/2 cup golden raisins and 3/4 teaspoon currants. Was I really supposed to bake the cake for 3 hours? 2/3 cup grated citrus zest? My mouth puckered painfully. A lot of recipes insisted on making your own almond paste. Others called for candied cherries and citrus. About now all I can think of are fruitcake jokes.
So I went to work. I didn’t want to cheapen a cake so rich in tradition, but I didn’t want to turn off potential bakers with weird ingredients, odd pans, and unnecessary steps. I also didn’t want them to waste their time making a cake people might admire but politely refuse.
I started with the pan, developing a recipe that would work in a standard 13- by 9-inch pan. I replaced all the candied fruit with a mix of golden and dark raisins and dried cranberries, and for the candied citrus I substituted a reasonable amount of orange and lemon zest. Rather than rely strictly on eggs for lift, I added a little baking powder to the mix. I left the almond paste layer baked in the middle of the batter but opted for almond flavored butter cream rather than a second layer of cloying almond paste on top of the cake.
I garnished the cake with the traditional almond paste balls but I increased the number to twelve because I think Judas was no worse than the other failed disciples, and much like the cake, the theology needed a little update too.