If you’ve never baked a Christmas cake before, why not make this the year you start a new family tradition? Rich, fruity, zesty and boozy… nothing feels quite so festive as baking – and eating! – a classic Christmas cake.
Ever wondered about the history behind the Christmas Cake?
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 and eggs were added. These ingredients helped hold the mixture together and in what resulted in a boiled plum cake. Richer families that had 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."
Christmas cakes are made many different ways, but generally they are variations on classic fruitcake. They can be light, dark, moist, dry, heavy, spongy, leavened, unleavened, etc. They are made in many different shapes, with frosting, glazing, a dusting of confectioner's sugar or plain.
Britain's biggest ever party-pooper: Oliver Cromwell
The addition of the marzipan and royal icing came much later when a cake was banned from Christmas. The last day of Christmas is Twelfth Night (the 5th of January) and it used to be traditional to make a Twelfth Night cake that contained almonds and was covered in marzipan. Oliver Crowell, the Lord Protector of England, and the other Puritans banned the feasting on that special day in the 1640s (he also banned mince pies as well) complaining that there was too much excess. Christmas Day remained a public holiday and some feasting was allowed, so people simply made their Christmas cake and covered that in marzipan instead, and so the Christmas cake was born.
You don’t have to cover it with the marzipan and royal icing though, I like mine plain.
Kay’s Christmas Cake
I started baking Christmas cake probably 10 years ago. However, true to form, I have never followed a strict recipe, as I enjoy experimenting and add my own touch to whatever I cook.
I find it very satisfying to spend a day baking this cake, with the bonus of giving my house an amazing festive scent. Its only time when I bake the cake without worrying of sugar content in it. Christmas cake isn’t a cake without sugar. So, enjoy it!
WARNING: This recipe makes a HUGE Christmas cake! Feel free to modify the portions accordingly.
Christmas cakes take time to mature, so prepare it in advance and feed it regularly with rum, brandy, or whisky to build up the flavour and keep it moist. I recommend baking it mid-November.
This recipe makes approximately 3.9 kg of cake. It’s a lot, believe me. So, make 1/3 of the recipe if you use the same size tin that I showed on my last photo.
Depending on the size of your oven you can either use one big tin (I use 28 cm x 38 cm tin) or 2 tins (I use 34 x26 cm and 30 x 14 cm) or 3 tins of 30cm x14cm.
As you can see from photos, I used one larger 34 cm x 26 cm heavy cast aluminium tin Baccarat and 30cm x14 cm my favourite biscotti pan from USA. Its heavy gauge aluminised steel and fluted surface for even baking. Love it!
Begin with the fruit
Christmas cake is all about the fruit. You can use basically whatever you want. It is important to soak fruits overnight.
- 1.7 kg mixed dried fruits (raisins, sultanas, cranberries, figs, glacé cherries, dry blueberries). Just experiment with the fruits you love. This time I used a lot of kirschen cherries instead of glacé cherries (around 200-300 gr of total 1.7 kg of fruits were cherries)
- I also added some chopped crystallised ginger this time
- glace cherries and blanched almonds (for decoration). I used 200 gr glacé cherries and approx. 100 gr of almonds for decoration
- 100 g mixed peel (I used orange peel) You can also use fresh orange peel
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 1 cup of rum/ brandy, sherry, whisky. I use Bacardi Rum or Cherry Brandy. This time I mixed rum with cherry liquor
- 5 cups of plain flour
- 2/3 of cup of self-raising flour
- Pinch of salt
- 11 eggs
- 500 g brown sugar or muscovado sugar
- 500 g butter
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon all spice
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon of Parisian essence
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract or vanilla paste
- Place dried fruits in a large bowl, mix and pour 1 cup (or more, it won’t hurt) of rum, Parisian essence, vanilla extract/ paste, lemon juice, peel and let stand overnight. I soaked it for 3 nights!
- Heat oven to 150C/130C fan/gas 2
Line tin/tins with a double layer of baking paper. As I use heavy duty tins, I use only one layer of paper.
3. Put the softened butter into a deep bowl and add the sugar, beat with mixer, increase the whisk’s speed for about 1 minute until you have a light and creamy mixture. If you don’t have mixer, you can use wooden spoon, it will just take longer. Add eggs, one at the time, mix.
4. Add the combined flours and mixed spice and stir to combine. Mix with fruits. I drained the fruits first. Spoon into prepared tin and smooth the surface. Decorate your cake with almond and cherries.
5. Bake in preheated oven for around 3.5 hours or until a skewer inserted into centre comes out clean.
Cover the cake after 1 hour of baking (or less) loosely with foil if over browning (I forgot to cover it and it was fine)
Remove the cake from the oven, poke holes with a skewer and spoon over 2 tbsp of your chosen alcohol (I fed around 4-5 spoons because of size of cake).6. Leave the cake to cool completely in the tin. The wrap the cake in a double layer of greaseproof paper and in double foil. Keep in airtight container till needed.
Feed the cake weekly by making small holes in the top with a skewer/ needle, then spooning over teaspoonful of chosen alcohol to soak in through the holes. Don’t overdo it otherwise cake will be too moist. Stop feeding it one week prior to Christmas.
I don’t ice and don’t cover my cake with almond paste. If you wish to coat your cake, traditional coat of almond icing (marzipan) should be put on the cake a week before you want to ice it, to allow its oiliness to dry out. Cover the marzipan surface with a clean tea cloth and store out of the tin or container. Icing is best left to the last few days – until Christmas Eve.
Why Does Fruitcake Last So Long?
Fruitcake doesn't spoil for a long time, thanks to its high sugar content. Concentrated sugar causes bacteria and other microorganisms to lose water and shrivel up (this is also the reason why honey doesn't spoil.)
Alcohol also plays a significant factor in a fruitcake's longevity through a process called denaturation.
Denaturation happens when alcohol breaks down the fat encasing of a bacteria cell, leaving its critical components exposed.
What's the Shelf Life of a Fruitcake?
Fruitcakes can last between two to three months when refrigerated and up to a year if frozen. In practice? Many people report fruitcakes lasting... much longer.