New recipes and updates

Get new recipes
in your inbox

Cuisine Fiend

Find a recipe by ingredient

Simnel cake

Updated: Tue, 27 February, 2024

Traditional English Easter Simnel cake is a rich sponge full of dried fruit and candied peel, in my version with a cheerful yellow glossy icing on top instead of marzipan.

simnel cake

What is Simnel cake?

It is the post-Lent austerity blowout, lavish with dried fruit and syrup, butter and marzipan.

The most popular version has a marzipan layer inside, marzipan on top and eleven little marzipan balls to crown it, apparently meant to represent the eleven apostles, Judas excluded. You can add the twelfth ball in the middle for Jesus though.

Simnel cake origin

Simnel is one of the oldest English cake recipes though both the recipe and the occasion for it has changed over the centuries.

It goes back to Middle Ages, when it was customarily prepared for Mothering Sunday – which has in fact nothing to do with modern Mother’s Day.

It used to be one day a year when youngsters in a family, all year apprenticed to a trade or service, were allowed to visit home. Not to hug their mums though, but to attend service at their Mother Church. Hence, Mothering Sunday. Lent rules got somewhat relieved then, and a ‘cake’ of sorts was baked.

The name ‘Simnel’ probably derives from Latin ‘simila’ which means fine flour. That’s at least one ingredient of the original cake accounted for!

traditional easter simnel cake

Simnel moves to Easter

Over the centuries the church power lessened, the Lent constrains were loosened, and Mothering Sunday lost its original meaning.

Simnel cake became richer and more festive, and gradually became adopted by the Easter tradition, bundled together with other seasonal bakes like hot cross buns or saffron cakes.

And very good too, because it is a lovely cake, not stupidly overloaded with fruit. It is rich, very much so, but in a nice way. Though various regional versions feature plums, cherries, sugar crust baked around boiled centre, sugar balls on top or marzipan in the middle.

My version of Simnel cake

I was mostly inspired by The Guardian's How to cook the perfect Simnel cake but, pleased to see the relative flexibility in the recipe interpretations, I added my own twist and take, mainly in the form of icing replacing top marzipan layer.

I must admit I didn’t trust this cake up till the moment of the first forkful in my mouth. At a glance the recipe was too close to Christmas cake for comfort, which is not my favourite, to say the least.

There is also a version of the cake leavened with yeast and the recipe for that is to be found here. I honestly don't know which I like better - but you might be swayed by the fact that the yeasted, teacake version has the full assortment of marzipan apostles on the marzipan layer topping.

Make your own marzipan

It really makes a difference. Once you’ve tried homemade, and it’s surprisingly easy, you won’t want to touch the shop-bought sugary bricks. Since I first tried, I have been vehemently snobbish about marzipan.

I usually make the German version of marzipan which is no more than a sugar and almond paste. Since Simnel is English, and traditionally so, I make the marzipan according to the English recipe: with egg yolks and lemon.


Is it safe to eat raw?

The quick answer is yes: the amount of sugar in marzipan will kill any eventual bacteria from raw eggs, though if you use fresh ones and wash the shells before cracking them in, you’ll be safe anyway.

But also, in my recipe I only put a layer in the middle of the cake rather than one on top, too, which is of course thoroughly baked in the cake. Instead of marzipan soldiers, there's the most wonderful, cheerful and yellow, glossy icing layer on top.

And if you want to kill marzipan altogether, feel free to skip it – it will be still the perfect Simnel cake, without marzipan.

simnel cake with yellow icing

How to make the cake batter?

It is almost as rich as English Christmas cake, with almonds, glace cherries and raisins soaked in rum or brandy, strands of saffron for the colour and mixed spice for the flavour.

In the past Lent tradition banned the use of butter, milk or cream so the batter would only be enriched with eggs. The modern version is reassuringly cake-like: butter beaten with sugar, with gradually added eggs then the dry ingredients together with all the spices, fruit and enrichments.

Half the batter is then spooned into the tin, making space for the middle, traditional marzipan layer.

The best approach is to roll it out beforehand to the tin shape, then chill it on a rimless tray so it can slide into the tin. The remaining batter goes on top and, importantly, the top surface is covered with a disc of parchment, to keep the cake surface level and stop the top from burning.

assembling simnel cake

Icing on the cake

If you want to stick to the classic and top the baked cake with a marzipan layer, make double the amount in the first place. You’ll then need to cook the top layer either blasting it with a blowtorch or placing the whole cake under the grill. Either way, far too much hassle. Cheerful yellow icing is a much better idea.

And it is delicious icing, made with melted butter and lemon juice beaten into icing sugar, with a drop of yellow colouring. And then all you need is a couple of fluffy Easter chickens!

english simnel cake

More Easter recipes

Koulourakia are Easter Greek butter cookies, rolled and snailed and coiled into twisty shapes. This recipe is with traditional ammonia as raising agent and the exotic mahlep spice.

Best hot cross buns ever: wholemeal, with tons of raisins, piped crosses and delicious sticky honey glaze. There’s no better spring breakfast than a buttered hot cross bun.

Colomba di Pasqua, Easter Dove is the traditional Italian cake baked for Easter in cases shaped like a dove. A gorgeous, almond studded and orange flavoured colomba is perfect for Easter Sunday.

More traditional English recipes

Bakewell tart with a smudge of raspberry jam, soft frangipane filling, almond crust and a cherry on top. Gorgeous textures and flavours in a classic English cake.

Raspberry and lemon Battenberg cake made in a regular square cake tin, wrapped in homemade marzipan which makes it taste simply heavenly.

Classic Victoria sponge sandwich cake filled with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, the traditional and delicious staple of every English tearoom.

simnel cake for mothering sunday

Simnel cake

Servings: 12-14Time: 3 hours


  • For the marzipan:
  • 100g (1 cup) ground almonds
  • 100g (scant 1 cup) icing sugar, plus extra to dust
  • 2 free-range egg yolks
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • For the cake:
  • 150g (34 cup) raisins
  • 150g (34 cup) sultanas
  • 40g (3 tbsp) brandy, vin santo or white rum
  • 5 tbsp milk
  • a pinch of saffron
  • 50g (13 cup) whole bleached almonds
  • 175g (113 cup) plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 45g (12 cup) ground almonds
  • 12 tsp fine salt
  • 2 tsp mixed spice
  • 180g (112 stick) butter, at room temperature
  • 180g (1 cup) soft, light brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup
  • zest grated from1 lemon and 1 orange
  • 50g (14 cup) glacé cherries, halved
  • 50g (14 cup) mixed peel, chopped
  • apricot jam, to brush over the cake
  • For the icing:
  • 30g (2 tbsp) caster sugar
  • 25g (2 tbsp) butter
  • 20g (112 tbsp) lemon juice
  • 110g (1 cup) icing sugar
  • yellow food colouring


1. To make the marzipan, place the ground almonds, icing sugar and egg yolks in a bowl. Mix with a spoon, gradually adding the lemon juice, until the marzipan is smooth with a doughy consistency. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate.

2. Place the raisins and sultanas in a mixing bowl or a small zip lock bag. Heat up the spirits to almost boiling, pour it into the fruit and mix well. Seal the bag or cover the bowl and leave for at least an hour to soak.

3. Butter and line with parchment a 20cm (8 inch) deep cake tin. Prepare another disc of parchment the size of the tin to place on top of the cake, to stop it from burning. Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/gas 2.

4. Warm up the milk and add the saffron strands to soak. Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan or in hot oven on a baking tray for 10-15 minutes until they turn golden. Cool and chop roughly.

5. Mix the flour with the baking powder, ground almonds, salt and mixed spice and put to one side.

6. Beat the butter with the sugar until the mixture turns pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating continuously, alternating with a little flour mix. Beat in the rest of the flour, golden syrup, zest and the milk with saffron.

7. Drain the soaked fruit if necessary but all the liquid should have been absorbed. Stir into the cake batter together with the chopped almonds, mixed peel and glace cherries.

8. Take the marzipan out of the fridge and roll it out on a surface dusted with icing sugar to a disc the size of your tin. Spoon half the cake batter into the tin, place the marzipan disc in and spoon the rest of the cake mix on top.

9. Smooth the surface with a spatula and place the parchment disc on top. Bake the cake for about 1¾ - 2 hours until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.

10. Cool in the tin, unmould and brush the top and sides with the apricot jam.

11. To make the icing, bring the butter, caster sugar and lemon juice to the boiling point then pour it over the icing sugar. Whisk to a smooth paste and add yellow food colouring. Spread the icing over the top of the cake with a palette knife, making sure it's crumb free. Leave to set before cutting.

Originally published: Thu, 17 March, 2016

NEW recipe finder

Ingredients lying around and no idea what to cook with them? Then use my NEW Recipe Finder for inspiration!

Recipe Finder

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published

Characters left 800
Recipe rating
Email address*
Web site name
Be notified by email when a comment is posted

* required

Cuisine Fiend's

most recent

About me

Hello! I'm Anna Gaze, the Cuisine Fiend. Welcome to my recipe collection.

I have lots of recipes for you to choose from: healthy or indulgent, easy or more challenging, quick or involved - but always tasty.


Sign up to receive the weekly recipes updates

Follow Fiend