A staple for Easter celebrations, the simnel cake is steeped in tradition. British Baker investigates if it is a fruitcake of the past that needs modernising for younger consumers
Originating in medieval times, the simnel cake is a classic Easter bake – but is it a classic that’s looking a little outdated?
While its flavours have inspired a raft of NPD including spiced cupcakes and hot cross buns – developed for Waitrose by Heston Blumenthal – the traditional large simnel cake may be falling out of favour.
There hasn’t been much growth in the simnel market over the past few years, according to Fortnum & Mason fresh food, deli & bakery buyer Katie Joseph.
“Marzipan is an acquired taste and you don’t often get a lot of younger people who like it,” she explains, adding that simnel remains popular with older consumers.
It’s a view echoed by Liz Gabriel, bakery specialist at ITS (International Taste Solutions), who says younger consumers do not typically like heavy fruit cakes.
“To attract younger consumers, you’ve got to look at premiumisation and make it slightly more of a luxury product.”
She feels bakers could offer a twist on the simnel cake, such as salted caramel or sultana cake, a lighter fruitcake, sponge cake with marzipan topping and filling or a Bakewell tart.
Bakewell tart is also suggested by Robert Whittle, managing director at Pidy UK, who puts forward the idea of a cross between a simnel cake and Bakewell tart with a light drizzle of icing. “Combining the cherry and almond with fruit and a hint of spice can be a winning combination,” he says.
Jacqui Passmore, marketing manager UK and Ireland at Dawn Foods, points out that edible flowers can be used to decorate the cake instead of the traditional marzipan balls, which represent Jesus’s apostles.
She suggests the traditional marzipan topping can be adapted by adding ground pistachio powder or by giving the cake a chocolate covering.
Chocolate topping is also recommended by Emma Stamp, senior brand manager at Dr Oetker Professional, who adds: “Another alternative is using chocolate truffles instead of the traditional marzipan or a cupcake topped with decorative marzipan.”
However, not everyone is convinced such a radical approach is required – with some bakers reporting rising sales of traditional simnel cake. “Last year, simnel cake was one of our bestsellers,” says Jessica White, managing director at Meg Rivers Artisan Bakery in Warwickshire. “In this current state of uncertainty with Brexit, people are going back to traditional products from their childhood.”
While White won’t be changing the Meg Rivers simnel recipe without good reason, the business is looking at offering the cake in smaller sizes. “We tend not to follow trends and stick with recipes that we know have worked,” White continues.
Other businesses report that playing around with the traditional simnel doesn’t always work.
“We tried to jazz it up, put flowers on the top instead of balls, and it didn’t sell as well,” explains Dianne Halliday, managing director at Country Fare Bakery.
“The customers that are buying it are wanting the traditional,” adds Halliday, who says the business plans to stick with the traditional cake format.
Despite reporting little growth in the simnel cake market, Joseph at Fortnum & Mason feels the strength of the product is that it is steeped in history.
“Bakers could look at doing different flavours, or doing a simnel Battenberg cake or loaf, or adding flowers or little chicks,” she says.
“But I think the traditional simnel cake will probably always be the most popular. A new format would have to be really special to overtake the sales of the traditional one.”
Get medieval: history of the simnel cake
Simnel cake originated in the United Kingdom and can be traced back to medieval times.
Originally, the simnel cake was served as a Mother’s Day treat, according to Dianne Halliday, managing director at Country Fare Bakery.
Women who were in service to the upper classes would bake the cake, and the housekeeper or cook would permit them to take it home to their mothers on Mothering Sunday.
This would be a huge treat and privilege for households on poverty rations or without high incomes.
The cake would be saved to be eaten at Easter, with 11 marzipan balls on top to represent the 11 apostles from the Bible, excluding Judas.
A Wiltshire legend offers another tale of the origins of the simnel cake. According to this, a couple named Simon and Nelly found surplus dough in their house at Easter time. An argument ensued, as Simon wanted to boil the dough, while Nelly wanted to bake it. In the end, they compromised and did both. The creation was later known as the cake of Simon and Nelly, abbreviated to Sim-Nel or Simnel.
Recipe: Chocolate Simnel Cake
For the cake:
- Extra dark chocolate, 100g
- Unsalted butter (very soft), 225g
- Golden caster sugar, 225g
- Medium eggs, 4
- Self-raising flour, 200g
- Baking powder, 5g (1tsp)
- Cocoa powder, 25g
For the decoration:
- Vanilla Cake Crumb, 225g
- Fine dark cocoa powder, 25g
- Golden syrup, 40 ml
- Caramel flavour, 1 tsp
- Unsalted butter (melted), 15g
- Extra dark chocolate, 150g
- Double cream, 350ml
- Salted caramel sauce, 140g
- Extra dark chocolate, 50g
- Preheat oven to 180˚C. Grease and line two deep 20cm sandwich tins.
- Break extra dark chocolate into pieces, place in a heatproof bowl and melt over barely simmering water. Cool for
- 10 minutes.
- Put the butter, sugar and eggs into a mixing bowl and sift the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder on top. Add the melted chocolate. Whisk on a low speed, then increase speed and whisk for a few seconds more until thick.
- Divide the mixture between the tins. Bake for about 30 minutes until firm and slightly risen. Cool for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.
- Put the cake crumbs in a bowl and mix in half the sachet of cocoa powder with syrup, the caramel flavour and melted butter. Shape into 11 balls. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
- Slice each cake through the middle to make four equal layers.
- Break up 150g of extra dark chocolate into pieces and put in a heatproof bowl. Melt over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Cool for 10 minutes.
- While whisking the chocolate, pour in the cream, whisking until thick and glossy. Spread half the chocolate cream over three layers of the cake. Spread salted caramel sauce over each chocolate cream-covered layer. Sandwich all the layers together and transfer to a serving plate. Spread the rest of the chocolate cream over the top and sides of the cake.
- Put the remaining cocoa powder in a bowl and toss each chocolate truffle in powder then arrange round the top edge of the cake.
- To make chocolate shavings, break 50g of extra dark chocolate into pieces, put in a heatproof bowl and melt over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Spread melted chocolate over a clean upturned baking tray to make a 20cm square. Leave until completely set. Use a cheese slicer to scrape shavings of chocolate along the surface of the chocolate. Place chocolate shavings into the centre of the cake.
Source: Dr Oetker