As with most little churches, it was rather humble and not very well to do. But it was led by a gentle man named Father Jim+ who reassured my long-ago-young-mother self that offerings of time and talent would be valued as highly as monetary treasure. So it was that I offered my time to the cause of baking Simnel Cake.
Jim supplied both the recipe and the following explanation to the bakers who were charged with feeding the hundred or so souls who were expected to attend church the following Sunday:
Simnel Cakes are traditionally prepared on the fourth Sunday in Lent, called Mid-Lent or Mothering Sunday. The name Mothering Sunday originated from the medieval custom of visiting the Mother Church, or cathedral, on this Sunday. In parts of England, it was also the tradition of servants and apprentices to make a special visit to their parents on this day. Whatever the occasion, especially popular was the gift of Simnel Cake. It is a very rich cake shared during a brief break from the Lenten fast. Simnel Cake can be given as a gift: cut into small pieces, wrapped in shiny foil, and tied with a bit of colorful ribbon or string.Merriam-Webster's (at m-w.com, my favorite online dictionary) defines simnel as "a rich fruitcake sometimes coated with almond paste and baked for Mid-Lent." As with most Simnel Cake recipes, Jim’s called for currants and citron. And indeed it made sense that any mid-winter confection made centuries ago would have dried fruit in it. Unfortunately, a fruitcake is a fruitcake. And though I followed Jim’s recipe to the letter, I watched as most of the gifts were unwrapped and then surreptitiously trashed after a single bite.
Not being a great fan of dried fruit myself, I reasoned that my medieval predecessors would certainly have used fresh fruit had it been available. It didn’t take much of a mental leap to conclude that the candied lemon and orange peel in the recipe could be replaced with freshly grated citrus rind. I self-servingly passed over the issue of dried currants and reworked the recipe to my liking. The resulting new-style Simnel Cakes were offered at the little church for many years, with more than one parishioner requesting an “extra to take home.” If any ended up in the trash, they were few and far between … victims, no doubt, of stalwart fruitcake aficianados.
Fast forward twenty years. My younger daughter, now twenty-four, dropped in from St. Louis last weekend. Since eating well is de rigueur at any Ackert family reunion, I had stocked up, adding almond paste and fresh fruit to a shopping list heavy on tortillas, avocadoes and chipotles. Though I didn’t wrap them in foil, the Simnel Cakes made for a proper Mid-Lent celebration … a welcome break from the fast of missing Meliss.
3/4 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 eggs (or 3/4 cup Better’n Eggs)
1 Tbs. grated lemon peel (one lemon)
Grate the orange and lemon peel, with a microplane if possible. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and grated peel. Stir in the flour. The dough will be like a thick cake batter.
Spread half the dough in the pan (the trickiest part). Lay almond paste on top of the dough. Spread the remaining dough on top of that. Don't fuss with it too much ... it will spread out as it cooks.
Bake at 300 degrees for 50-55 minutes, until golden. Cool slightly before inverting onto a cutting board. Peel off the parchment and trim the edges (great for nibbling!)
Ice with 1 to 2 cups of confectioner's sugar, 1 Tbs. melted butter, and enough lemon and orange juice to make a thin glaze.
Cut into bars. Wrap in foil and colored ribbon to make a proper gift.