Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Laetare Sunday – whatever you call it, it’s the mid-point of Lent when the rules of fasting would traditionally be relaxed a little. Simnel Cakes were (are?) the most common food for this particular day of celebration but there is more to it than the tall fruit cake with 11 marzipan balls on top.
We think of that as being simnel cake but really it is just one type. It’s the one that originated in Shrewsbury and has managed to stand the test of time by shoving the other regional simnels off our bakers’ shelves. There were two other versions that were similarly popular but sadly less tenacious. The Devizes Simnel which is shaped as star; and the Bury Simnel which is more of a flat, spiced fruit-bread than a cake.
Florence White’s ‘Good Things in England’ has a recipe for Bury Simnel Cake which professes to be “handed down for many generations – possibly for centuries – in the family of a pastry cook of Bury; and was at one time a trade secret”.
This recipe is that one, with my words and a few modern amendments. Chiefly replacing salts of ammonia with baking powder. And I have halved the amounts as Florence’s one was going to be ginormous.
550g plain flour
15g baking powder
340g caster sugar
170g chopped almonds
7g ground nutmeg
7g ground cinnamon
115g chopped candied lemon peel
3 medium eggs
Preheat the oven to 160C and line a baking tray with baking paper.
1. Rub the butter and lard into the flour until it becomes like breadcrumbs.
2. Mix in the baking powder, sugar, almonds, currants, nutmeg, cinnamon & peel.
3. Add the eggs and work into a stiff dough.
4. Form it into a thick round loaf / cake about 3″ high and 9″ across.
Bake for about an hour.
Regional differences aside, what these simnel cakes have in common is that they are dense with dried and/or imported fruits. From medieval times these were prized luxuries which continued to be highly-valued as their usage drifted down the social scales. They were also obviously banned during Lent so being able to have them halfway through was a real treat.
Lancashire’s take on that tradition wasn’t for a cake but for a pie. Fag pie. Which is not quite what it sounds like – it’s a fig pie made with treacle, spices and currants and was Blackburn’s mid-Lent treat of choice for Mothering Sunday. A fig tart would be a nice modern version of that and I think rather a good idea for dessert on Mothering Sunday.