Simnel cake is a light fruit cake covered in marzipan, then toasted, and eaten during the Easter period in the United Kingdom, Ireland and some other countries. It was originally made for the middle Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday; also known as Refreshment Sunday, Mothering Sunday, Sunday of the Five Loaves, and Simnel Sunday - after the cake. The meaning of the word "simnel" is unclear: there is a 1226 reference to "bread made into a simnel", which is understood to mean the finest white bread, from the Latin simila - "fine flour", though John de Garlande felt that the word was equivalent to placenta cake, a cake that was intended to please.
A layer of marzipan or almond paste is baked into the middle of the cake, and the top is covered with toasted marzipan. Sometimes twelve marzipan balls are used to decorate the cake, with a story that the balls represent Jesus and the apostles, minus Judas. This tradition developed late in the Victorian era, altering the mid Victorian tradition of decorating the cakes with preserved fruits and flowers.
The cake is made from these ingredients: white flour, sugar, butter, eggs, fragrant spices, dried fruits, zest and candied peel.
Simnel cakes have been known since at least the medieval times. They would be eaten on the middle Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday (also known as Refreshment Sunday, Mothering Sunday, Sunday of the Five Loaves, and Simnel Sunday), when the forty day fast would be relaxed. More recently, they became a Mothering Sunday tradition, when young girls in service would make one to be taken home to their mothers on their day off. The word simnel probably derived from the Latin word simila, meaning fine, wheaten flour.
A popular legend attributes the invention of the Simnel cake to Lambert Simnel, but this is clearly false since the Simnel cake appears in English literature prior to Lambert's escapades.
Different towns had their own recipes and shapes of the Simnel cake. Bury, Devizes and Shrewsbury produced large numbers to their own recipes, but it is the Shrewsbury version that became most popular and well known.