Gillian Goodwin on traditional recipes for Lent.
'... Thou didest eate nothinge but symnels, honny & oyle: marvelous goodly wast thou & beutifull, yee even a very Quene wast thou...'. The Lord shows Jerusalem her abominations through the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel in Miles Coverdale's 1535 translation of the Bible.
Bishop Coverdale's tone shows that simnels were special, a quality product, whereas the 'fine flour' of the King James' Bible and more recent translations is much less telling.
Simnels were indeed made from the finest white flour, coarser than it would be today because bolters (or sifters) were made of cloth but, given honest millers and bakers, without present-day extractions and additives. By 1535 simnels had been around a long time: thirteenth-century Fleta's account of the regulations of bread mentions them; bakers were allowed to charge more for them because they had to be cooked twice, 'quia bis coctus erit'. The dough was boiled or scalded (the French called them eschaudez) and then baked in the oven. The phrase 'well sodden and well baked' occurs frequently in the York bakers' 'booke'.
The combination of cooking techniques gives a fine result, a crackly shiny outside from which an alternative name, cracknel (and thence American 'crackers'), obviously derives and, depending on the recipe, a contrasting bap-like centre (related to wig buns) or crisp throughout: a disc with a hollowed-out centre.
Possibly King James' translators' preference for 'fine flour' was because simnels were already becoming less popular. For some people they undoubtedly had religious connotations for they were sometimes stamped with a Christian symbol like church wafers. They were certainly associated with Lent. In February 1417 simnels and certain other types of fine bread were forbidden for Lent; in Paris in the 1430s there was a similar prohibition in an attempt to get citizens with good grain to stop hoarding it in time of dearth. Lent buns was another name for wigs. The most masterly recipe I know is French, available in English in a 1655 translation, where 'eschaudez ou craquelin au beurre' appear as simnels, cracknels and wigs.
Earlier simnels were not spicey, but in later centuries a taste for spiced breads or cake developed (the distinction was not between bread and 'gateau': fine bread was often called cake). By the 1590s the York bakers had difficulty in keeping up an expertise in baking their special 'mayne' bread because of their customers' fickle taste for spicey novelty; simnels moved in the same direction. Today's simnel cake is quite unrelated to Fleta and is really Christmas cake with, properly, marzipan through the middle – although it may just appear on top (without the white Christmas icing) along with marzipan decoration.
Marzipan, traditional banquetting sweetmeat, was especially popular in Lent for health reasons, as was the rose-water with which it was mixed and the saffron which coloured it if it was not gilded. The latter tradition survives in degraded form in cookery books which tell you to 'flash' your almond icing. The Lent association has stayed and simnel cakes are still for mid-Lent or Mothering Sunday, although now appearing at Easter too.
Some writers frowned on these fine breads, 'simnels and cracknels and all other kinds of delicious stuff', because they were often not leavened nor even lightned with barm or ale-yeast or egg. Dr Johnson, in his Dictionary, quotes Bullein in 1595 calling simnels 'unwholesome'. A later description from the Welsh Marches also calls them 'indigestible'. These were like mince pies with a carapacious crust.
As distinctions between bread and cake have shifted and varied over many years, partly depending on who was allowed to bake and sell which, so simnels have altered. By the middle of this century a bakers' dictionary considered simnels were either richly fruited cakes with marzipan in the centre or heavily fruited shortbreads. Cracknels, a name known since at least the fourteenth-century, remained light and brittle, boiled then baked.
Here is a recipe from The Pastry-Cook's Vade-Mecum of 1705 for cracknels. It does not need yeast and is not as daunting as a first glance might suggest. Use a food processor and reduce the quantities to 1 lb plain ordinary flour, 1oz butter, 1 egg, 2ozs sugar; cider may be used instead of wine, and spices to taste. (It is an interesting comment on relative costs that a mid-seventeenth-century recipe suggests that if you do not want to go to the expense of eggs use spices instead.) The water should be boiling. If you make the cracknels about 3½ inches wide with a 1 inch hole in the middle, about half an inch thick, they will need about half an hour in a 350F oven; if you make them smaller they will not take so long. Bake them in the top part of the oven; they should be tawny when cooked:
To make fine Cracknels for Breakfast Meat.
Take two pounds of fine Sugar, one ounce of large Mace, one ounce of Cloves, one ounce of Cinamon, one ounce of Nutmegs, one ounce of large Ginger, let these Spices be well beaten; to the Number of 18 or 20 Eggs, and 1 pound of Butter let there be mixed to the quantity of a peck of Flower or more, and for to temper these together you must have Claret or White wine, and when you have made the Dough, as you make a piece of other Dough, let these Cracknels be first boiled, and then when they swim up, take them, and put them into cold Water, and as soon as they have lain a quarter of an hour in cold Liquor, take them forth and prick them, and after that bake them in your Oven, let not your Oven be too hot.