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Reprinted from the Chipping Norton News.

When I was a child my brother and I would cycle to Chesterton Woods to pick primroses for our mother � she wanted no truck with the new-fangled Mother�s Day which had arrived from the USA with the Yanks just a few years before. She ensured that we knew the origins of the day � Mid-Lent Sunday as it was on this day that the devout parishioners went to the Mother Church of the parish, or the Cathedral of the diocese, to make their offerings. Sometime during the seventeenth century the day became the festival of human motherhood when the whole family met together and apprentices and servants were given the day off � probably the only holiday in the year � and took flowers gathered from the hedgerows and, sometimes the gift of a simnel cake to their mothers from their employers.

I�ll to thee a Simnell bring
�Gainst thou go�st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou�lt give to me.�
Robert Herrick 1648

Simnel cakes had been known from mediaeval times and the word simnel probably derived from the latin word �simila�, meaning fine, wheaten flour from which the cakes were made. There were local specialities and Shrewsbury, Devizes and Bury made large quantities to their own special recipes and shapes � all were very rich with ingredients similar to those in Christmas cakes. It was the Shewsbury version that became widespread. The fourth Sunday in Lent is still known as Simnel Sunday in some areas.

Simnel-style cakes are now also eaten at Easter when eleven balls of marzipan are placed around the top layer to represent the eleven true disciples but the really good cake has a layer of delicious sticky marzipan in the centre and it was this variety that my mother made so the long bike ride was well rewarded.



Once made to mark Mothering Sunday,a cake that has a fascinating cultural heritage with roots that stretch back to the Romans and Athenians. In Britain, known as the shrewsbury simnel, it is simply made using white flour, fragrant spices and is generously studded with dried fruits and pungent peel. Like a Christmas cake, it is covered with pale sweet almond paste. The decoration is plain - eleven little balls of smooth paste which represent the apostles (omitting Judas). There are bakers who prefer a yeast dough, while others make a creamed mixture. Which ever you choose, a specially baked simnel cake is a welcoming gesture over the holidays.


Almond paste:
400 g icing sugar, sifted
250 g ground almonds
1 large egg yolk, beaten lightly
3-4 tablespoons orange juice
5 drops almond essence

250g flour
pinch salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
300 g currants
250 g sultanas
90 g mixed peel
160 g butter
160 g caster sugar
3 large eggs
200 ml milk to mix
(Serves 6-8)

CHECK LIST: a sifter, nest of bowls, food processor or electric beater, spatula, wooden spoon, 24 cm round cake tin, baking paper, brown paper and twine, rolling pin, thin metal skewer

To make your own almond paste you will need a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Don't be tempted to use store-bought almond paste because it contains lots of sugar and few almonds, it will turn to liquid under the grill. Place icing sugar and almonds in food processor bowl. Process, slowly dripping in egg yolk, orange juice and almond essence. The mixture should form a pliable paste. Set aside a small portion for balls with which to decorate the cake.

Use a sturdy non-stick cake tub or line the buttered base with baking paper. As the baking period is long (1-1 1/2 hours), prevent the cake drying out by wrapping a double thickness of brown paper around the pan and securing it with twine. Preheat oven to 160 C. Sift flour, salt and spices together, then stir in fruit and peel. Cream butter and sugar thoroughly until light and creamy then beat in eggs one at a time, until the mixture is fluffy. (Reserve a drop of egg yolk for brushing over top layer of almond paste.)Stir flour and fruit into creamed mixture (you may need to add a little milk to give the mixture a dropping consistency).

Place half the mixture into a greased and lined cake tin. Place the round of almond paste over the top. Cover with remaining cake mixture. Before baking the cake, give the pan of mixture a sharp tap on to a firm surface. This settles the mixture and prevents holes from forming in the cake. Bake in the centre of the oven for 1-1 1/4 hours or until a thin metal skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out without a trace of stickiness. Turn out cake on to a wire rack. Peel off paper and leave to cool. Level the cake by placing a weighted plate on top of the cooked cake while it is still hot.

Break off a third of the remaining paste and roll into a circle which is the approximate size of the tin. Set aside. Cover the top of the cake with a second round of almond paste. Roll 11 small balls of paste and place evenly around the top of the cake. Brush the top with a little beaten egg and very lightly brown under the grill until the almond paste turns light golden brown. Remove and leave to cool