Every easter in Kylemore, Mitchells Café and the Garden Tea House prepare and serve the traditional Simnel Cake. And each year our friendly staff get asked what is a Simnel Cake and why eat it at Easter? Well, here are the answers to that what and why….
A Simnel Cake is a baked fruit cake. Much lighter and with less alcohol than a Christmas cake, the main defining feature is the two layers of marzipan in the cake, one through the cake (as in the picture below) and one on top of the cake. Also sitting on top of the cake and lightly toasted are 11 further balls of marzipan. The marzipan balls represent the 11 faithful disciples and sometimes a twelfth placed in the middle represents Jesus. Here is where the whys start…
Dating back to medieval times, it is thought the name Simnel comes from the Latin similia which translates roughly as the “finest flour”. This sense of importance surrounding the Simnel cake took on a new meaning later in Christianity when the Simnel cake was used as a treat to show appreciation on Mothering Sunday and provided a break from the strict dietary restrictions associated with Lent. In became so much associated with Mothering Sunday that the day is now sometimes referred to as Simnel Sunday, always falling mid-Lent on the fourth Sunday, three weeks before Easter Sunday.
Another story that is sometimes told about the Simnel cake was that it came to be after an old couple Simon and Nell could not decide what they would do with excess pastry left at Easter, one wanted to boil the dough while the other wanted to bake it. They compromised by doing both and so the “Sim-Nel” cake was born. Today, as suggested by the story the cake is cooked twice, but now it is baked and grilled instead of boiled and baked as the original ones were.
Whether you believe in the origin stories around the Simnel Cake or not we will leave it up to you, but it is a staple of many Irish households come Mother’s Day (this year on March 14th) and Easter Sunday. And as we approach our second “unusual” Easter it is nice to learn about and honour some of the old traditions.
A limited-edition of Kylemore’s traditional Simnel Cake is on sale now on our online shop.