St. Luke’s Altar Guild Makes Simnel Cakes

Toni McManus greases and flours the pans. She rolled out the almond paste in Paul Johnson’s absence.
Photos by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

Toni McManus greases and flours the pans. She rolled out the almond paste in Paul Johnson’s absence. Photos by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

Again this year, as in the past 63, Jamestown’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church passed out individually wrapped slices of Simnel cake. The tradition was started in 1955 by Miss Annie Oates, who came from England bringing the tradition with her and who continued until 1968 when the church’s Altar Guild took over the custom.

“I remember her,” says Jay McManus, while overseeing the electric mixer he was running. “She was a sweet old lady.”

His wife, Toni McManus, the leader of the group, took charge of greasing the long pans and rolling the almond paste. Paul Johnson, who was attending a meeting in Buffalo, was mentioned for his almond paste rolling and shaping expertise.

The group of five bakers talked while each manned his or her station. They pointed out that the cakes were forgiving and how the almond paste, brandy and currants “made the cakes.”

“We almost had a currant emergency,” says Lisa Yaggie as she tells about finding only three boxes of currants at Wegmans when she was shopping for ingredients three days earlier. There were no currants on the truck that came in the next day, causing her to have to stop on the way to the baking event in search of boxes of the sweet, dried fruit, which she found on the store’s shelf.

Janet Card bastes the cakes weekly.

Janet Card bastes the cakes weekly.

“It takes a village, all of Jamestown,” says Yaggie, who has been assisting with the baking endeavor for about nine years. “We order the almond paste from Ecklof’s Bakery.”

Janet Card and Darcy Kell also man mixing stations, this being Darcy’s first year. Once the loaves are baked, Janet goes in every week to baste with brandy or apple juice. She refers to herself as “the newbie,” even though she has been at the process for seven years.

“The Altar Guild is a large group. There are certain parts that other people have manned,” Lisa says. “This is always one of the fun days, a lot of camaraderie. It’s just fun. We usually laugh a lot.”

On the day before Mothering Sunday, a few members of the baking team meet at the church to slice the seasoned cakes into 3/8-inch slices. Each slice is individually wrapped. They begin distributing them at that evening’s service. Two Altar Guild members give out about 60 pieces at the 8 and 10 a.m. services as the people leave on Sunday. Approximately 55 slices are saved for the Wednesday lunch group.

Mothering Sunday, celebrated in the United Kingdom, is sometimes known as Mother’s Day and is held on the fourth Sunday of Lent, the period from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. It usually falls in the second half of March or early April. It is a day for honoring and taking gifts or cards to mothers, grandmothers, step-mothers, mothers-in-law and mother figures much like Mother’s Day in the US. It may be celebrated by taking the mothers to brunch, lunch or high tea. Flowers, jewelry, clothing, chocolates and cakes are common gifts. Children make special cards for the women at school and church. Unlike the United States, banks are open on this day.

Lisa Yaggie is responsible for shopping for the ingredients for the Simnel Cakes.

Lisa Yaggie is responsible for shopping for the ingredients for the Simnel Cakes.

Originally, this day was used to attend the church of ones youth, where they were baptized. Families were reunited as they returned to the towns and villages where they lived as a child. Traditionally people fasted for Lent and did not eat sweet, rich foods or meat. Many people ate Simnel cakes on Mothering Sunday, when the fast was lifted temporarily. Traditional Simnel cakes are light fruit cakes that are covered in marzipan with another layer inside the cakes. They may have been decorated with 11 or 12 balls of marzipan, representing the Disciples and sometimes Jesus Christ. According to legend, the cakes were named after a man named Lambert Simnel, who worked in the kitchens of England’s King Henry VII around 1500.

Ingredients for Twelve Simnel Cakes

4 dozen extra large eggs

10 lbs flour

8 boxes currants

6 lbs butter

4 tsp nutmeg

4 lbs almond paste

8 lbs sugar

4 tsp salt

1 qt brandy

Simnel Cake (Make 4 batches at least one month in advance)

1¢ lbs butter

3 § c sugar

12 extra large eggs

8 c sifted flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp nutmeg

2 boxes currants

1 lb almond paste

Cream butter. Add sugar slowly, beating until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Beat well. Dust currants with a bit of the flour and set aside. Gradually fold in flour, salt and nutmeg. Fold in currants. Divide half of dough into three extra long loaf pans, which have been greased and floured.

Divide almond paste into thirds and roll each between two pieces of plastic wrap, folding edges under while keeping it in a rectangle as close to the dimensions of the pans as possible. Layer the sections of paste over each of the pans of dough.

Place in an oven that has been preheated to 250 degrees and bake for 1¢-2 hours or until tests done. Cool in tins on rack. When cool, remove and brush sides and top of each cake with brandy. One-third cup brandy should cover three cakes. Wrap in plastic wrap and store in a cool place. Brush sides and top of cakes with the brandy once per week for the next two weeks. Re-

wrap and refrigerate.

On the Saturday before Mothering Sunday, after the cakes have been blessed, slice each cake into thirty pieces. Wrap each slice in foil. Twelve cakes should equal 360 pieces.

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