The Joy of Christmas Cakes


by Tehreen Islam


‘There was so much to enjoy about baking cakes then decorating them, it was an art in itself, and I got to do it on a daily basis.’

Darcie Boleyn, Wish Upon a Christmas Cake

The festive season is here and Christmas is just around the corner. This is the time of Santa, gifts, red and green and a time for celebration. And this celebration is never complete without a delicious Christmas cake. But where did this tradition begin?

It is believed that in medieval England, it was a popular tradition to observe a period of self-denial, fasting, and restriction from every kind of indulgence in the weeks leading to Christmas. Later on the eve of Christmas, a rich porridge would be cooked and eaten to ‘line the stomach’ for the upcoming feast. The porridge would usually be made with oats, dried fruits, spices, honey, and sometimes even meat.

As time passed, more ingredients made their way into the porridge. It is believed that sometime in the 16th century, flour replaced oats, and eggs and butter were also added to the mixture. This batter was then bound in a muslin cloth and cooked in a pot of boiling water in some households while baked in the richer ones who owned ovens. The cake varied from family to family, depending on the preferences of each family.10-11

Commonly known as a plum cake or plum pudding, some Christmas cakes are made with nuts and raisin while some are made up of cream cheese and whipped cream. Why is it called a plum cake? It is believed that raisins, or currants, were also referred to as plums or plumb in England. The cake usually had plenty of raisins and thus the name. Some believed that dried plums, or prunes, were used as the main ingredient of the original porridge, so it was named accordingly. Around 19th century, there were people  working in British colonies in Australia, America, Canada and other parts of the world and their families would make their cakes , in advance and send it to them with other presents. And that is how the first Christmas cake travelled out of England.

Christmas cakes can be made in many different ways, but generally they are variations on classic fruitcake. They can be any type – light or dark, moist or dry, heavy or spongy and more. They are made in many different shapes, sometimes with frosting, glazing, and a dusting of confectioner’s sugar or sometimes just plain. Different countries have different recipes and names for their cakes.

In United Kingdom Christmas cake is a type of fruit cake which is usually made two months before Christmas so that it can soak in brandy. Recipe ingredients vary; some cakes are made into different shapes, and others may be covered in icing. Dundee Cake, a Scottish fruit cake is made with Almonds, orange zest, and whisky. It is decorated with a circle of almonds. In Germany the Christmas cake is called Christstollen or  Weihnachtsstollen which is a traditional fruit cake that was first baked in 1545 at the Council of Trent in what is now Italy. The recipe has dried fruit, nuts, and spices, and is covered in sugar, powdered sugar, or icing sugar.

IMG_7436 IMG_7437An interesting fact about this cake is that there is a Dresden Stollen Association, which ensures that any cake bearing the brand name Dresden Christstollen is made from the official recipe, using correct proportions of butter, fruit, and almonds. Celebration is a bit different in France. Gallette des rois, a flaky cake filled with almond filling is served around January 6. Panettone, sweet sourdough bread with a distinct cupola shape, is traditionally eaten at Christmas in Italy. It has raisins and candied citrus fruit and is prepared over several days. In Japan, a sponge cake is known as Japanese Christmas cake, frosted with whipped cream and topped with strawberries. Allahabadi, an Indian rum cake is baked throughout India during the Christmas season. It’s traditionally made with clarified butter, petha (an Indian soft candy), ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, and fennel seeds along with Rum. In USA, fruit cake is usually eaten during Christmas.  The list goes on.

Speaking to  baker Deneb Zeenat Latif of Sweet Sensation about the Christmas cake, she says, ‘ Like other traditional festival food, Christmas cake is more than just a dessert. It is about tradition, bonding and sharing among loved ones, carrying forward a recipe that is often passed on from one generation to another. Christmas cakes invoke a feeling of warmth, richness, indulgence and joyful memories. All these things make it special.’ She also added the few things that she always keeps in mind;

Use the best: To use the best possible ingredients especially the dried fruits and nuts. They are the star if the cake and quality ingredients make a world of difference.

Patience: These cakes often require a process spanning over a few days. You need to give time to soak the fruits to ensure they are nice, plump and really give the cake the right moistness and richness. Rush through and you will miss out a great cake in the end.IMG_7440

Sugar: Using a nice dark muscovado sugar (if you can get your hands on it) can elevate the cake to a new height.’

All these cake talk must have made you craving for a nice Christmas cake. With the crisp chill in the air, a perfect Christmas cake will surely warm up your Christmas and this is the time when you must have the cake and eat it too. Merry Christmas!!


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