Whilst sitting here deliberating as to whether I should make a Christmas cake this year (it’s been a trying few months let me tell you), I begin to wonder what the real meaning behind Christmas cakes is! Coming up to 50 (good god, how did that happen) and having made a Christmas cake every year since I was 21 (when my lovely mum bought me a fabulous cookery book with a particularly scrumptious recipe for a Christmas cake), I sort of feel that I should! I challenge myself every year to create a different design and this is the part that I thoroughly enjoy – taking a whole day to ‘play’ and ‘create’ while a suitably seasonal film is playing in the background.
So, having just decided that yes, of course I need to make one and researching different design options, I looked into what the actual tradition is, so here are my findings!
The Christmas cake is an English tradition that began as plum porridge. People ate the porridge on Christmas Eve, using it to line their stomachs after a day of fasting. Soon dried fruit, spices and honey were added to the porridge mixture and eventually it turned into Christmas pudding. In the 16th century, oatmeal was removed from the original recipe and butter, wheat flour (in my case gluten free flour!) and eggs were added. These ingredients helped hold the mixture together, resulting in a boiled plum cake. Richer families with ovens began making fruit cakes with marzipan, an almond sugar paste, for Easter. For Christmas, they made a similar cake using seasonal dried fruit and spices. The spices represented the exotic eastern spices brought by the Wise Men. This cake became known as ‘Christmas cake’.
With the slow decline in popularity of the Twelfth Night and the gradual increase in Christmas festivities in the 1830’s, the cake was eaten on or around Christmas Day. With this shift the bakers of the Victorian era started to decorate the cakes with winter snow scenes. They became very popular at Christmas parties and by the 1870’s the modern Christmas cake had developed. None recognisable from its plum pottage roots.
The trick with a great Christmas cake is in the timing. All Christmas cakes are made in advance. Many make them in November (I make mine in October and feed it copious amounts of brandy before decorating it), keeping the cake upside down in an airtight container. A small (small?!) amount of brandy, sherry or whisky is poured into holes in the cake every week until Christmas. This process is called ‘feeding’ the cake.
In Japan, Christmas cake is a frosted sponge cake with strawberries, chocolates or seasonal fruit and in the Philippines, Christmas cake is a yellow pound cake with nuts or the traditional British fruitcake. Both cakes are soaked in brandy or rum, a palm sugar syrup and water. Rosewater or orange flower water is usually added.
Traditionally in Victorian times, it was thought to be unlucky to cut the cake before dawn on Christmas Eve. I usually cut my cake on Christmas day, however it’s usually still going in February before the remnant being finally thrown away in March when I get fed up of seeing it. Maybe I should make a smaller cake but then it doesn’t give me as much surface to decorate! Last year I made a round and a square (see above left) and it literally took me a whole day to decorate it – the kitchen was a huge mess but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Will you be making your own Christmas cake this year? Please do send me your designs when finished as would love to see them.
Happy Christmas cake baking everyone!