The Secret of the English Spice Cake Recipe

A Rich Spicy Tradition

A number of holiday traditions revolve around cakes in many countries. Members of my family spoke of spice cakes and shared several recipes, but a favorite was a cake that is little-found prepackaged today and if so, full of artificial ingredients. At one time, you could find the Spanish bar cake, made from natural ingredients and no preservatives, sitting on display racks of a major local bakery in grocery stores. Looking through recipes in folders, card files, and books, I found a few that are similar, but one very interesting recipe. It has all the marks of a more elaborate cake, modified to include simpler ingredients. This is likely the traditional cake from England and one my father and his ancestors enjoyed. 

A Servant's Exam

During 17th c. England, many youth were servants to the rich upper class members of society. Most of these servants lived with the wealthy families Monday through Saturday, but were free to do as they pleased on Sundays. In some parts of England, these young women and men only saw their families once a year, on Easter Weekend.

Most young servants reportedly went home to visit with family members only on their scattered days off, at most one day a week: Sunday. During these 1600s, the kitchen staff of the wealthy taught the servant girls and boys to make a complex cake containing fruit, but not like heavy fruitcakes we consume at Christmas. These were lighter cakes, more on the order of fruity cakes now enjoyed in Botswana and other pats of Africa. They contain dried fruits like raisins and currents – today they might have apricots and others - and the servants took them home to their mothers on the 4th Sunday of Lent. The cake showed how well the youth had learned to bake on the job.

Other stories tell that the small chuirches around England prepared these cakes to take to the larger "mother " church for Easter. Thus, it was nicknamed the Mothering Cake.

Mary Magdalen announcing the resurrection to the apostles (images this page, public domain).
Mary Magdalen announcing the resurrection to the apostles (images this page, public domain).

The Eleven Faithful

Each cake was decorated on top with 11 balls of marzipan, one each to stand for the 11 faithful apostles of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Judas was excluded. This is the only religious aspect of the cake and its tradition in the 1600s. When the servant class declined in the 20th Century, the cake became an Easter Cake.

The fruit-filled cake is called the simnel cake, derived probably from “simila”, a fine ground wheat flour. The desert has been enjoyed for over 400 years as a food item with which to break the fast of the 40 days that are Lent. The following recipe contains some notes for healthier ingredients.

A modern simnel cake, with yellow chicks for another part of Easter.
A modern simnel cake, with yellow chicks for another part of Easter.

Simnel Cake with Healthy Alternatives

Yields One 3-pound cake

INGREDIENTS

  • 8 oz. or 240g by weight, Cake flour. Note: You can substitute whole wheat flour, and have a bit of a different texture -- If you do, weigh it and then sift it.
  • 5 oz. or 150g Butter or butter substitute
  • 4 oz. or 120g light brown sugar
  • 3 Whole eggs, well beaten – Note: if you want to reduce egg content, use egg substitute or substitute 3 medium smashed very ripe bananas for eggs (the texture of the cake will be a bit different, but very moist and baking time may increase).
  • 12 oz. Dried (not candied) fruit of your choice; many people like a mix.
  • ½ tsp each mixed spices (or allspice), cinnamon, and cloves
  • Skim milk for thinning batter, if required
  • 1 Pound or about 1/3kg almond paste - this is marzipan. Note: You can skip the sugary marzipan and press 11 pitted dates around the cake top if you like; or bake them into the cake like a New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake that contains a tiny doll or other prize. You may have some packaged dates left over from Christmas. Another alternative is to make your favorite simple white frosting or a cream cheese frosting, using low fat cream cheese.

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees F or 170 C.
  • Cooking spray the bottom and sides of a 10-inch diameter backing pan, and line the bottom with parchment cooking paper.
  • In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together, then beat until fluffy.
  • Continue to beat and slowly pour in beaten eggs until all are incorporated, then stir the bowl thoroughly
  • In a second mixing bowl, place all the dry ingredients and stir to distribute evenly (It is odd to get a bite of cake that has an undissolved lump of spice encapsulated in it).
  • Pour the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix well. If too stiff, add a small measure of skim milk.
  • Cut off half of the pound of marzipan and cut further into small cubes; add them to the batter and stir (these will melt).
  • Fill the cake pan with the batter and bake for 2 to 2.5 hours. When done, the cake will be risen high and have a firm consistency. Further, if a toothpick or grilling skewer goes in to the center and comes out clean, the cake is done.
  • Remove from oven and let set to cool on a cooling rack, in the pan.
  • When cool, upturn the pan onto a cake plate and remove the cake.
  • Remove parchment form the bottom and discard the paper.
  • Roll out the other half of the marzipan, like a top pie top-crust that will cover the cake top. Press marzipan onto the cake and trim the edge.
  • Make 11 balls of the trimmed and left over marzipan and set them into the top of the cake around the edge, or use pitted dates (purchased in a small box at the grocery).
  • Brown the top of the cake slightly with a handheld blow torch designated for the kitchen. Alternative: Instead of a marzipan top, you can place 11 dates around the edge and scatter a dusting of caster sugar around the top. Brown the top, or not.
  • Serve at the table, whole, telling the story of the 11 apostles (or having someone read the scripture verses), then cut the cake and pass it out to family and friends.

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Comments and Traditions 5 comments

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Thank you for a lovely story and recipe. I shall try this one.


ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Haven't tasted a simnel cake for years. Thanks for the reminder


rmr profile image

rmr 6 years ago from Livonia, MI

This looks awesome! A really good looking recipe, and a fascinating history. Has B.T. been here yet? He can smell a cake from a mile away.


Angela Harris profile image

Angela Harris 6 years ago from Around the USA

Never heard of this, but it sounds delicious!


Wall spice rack 6 years ago

Nothing beats the old English Spice Cake! thanks for sharing

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