You may love it, or you may despise it, but when it comes to Christmas cakes, there is no in-between. But, considering the fact that you’re reading this article, we will assume you’re either a Christmas cake cult-ling or simply curious as to what all the big fuss is about. And, we’re happy (but also a little hesitant) to tell you that you’ve come to the right place to find out.
Christmas is as synonymous with fruit cake as is with stuffed turkey and cranberry sauce. The key difference? Stuffed turkey is less controversial. However, despite this confectionery being the holiday punchline of the 21st century, it still forms part of Christmas celebrations across the globe. Read below as we dive into the festive and fruity tales of Christmas cakes around the world. And, why it will probably land up on your Christmas dinner table this year.
What is a Traditional Christmas Cake: Fruit Cake and the Festive Season
Christmas cake haters are already convinced that this violently red and green bread has very little going for it. So, to mention that it was initially a porridge seems like an unproductive attempt at its redemption. But, like we said, we’re riding on the assumption that you’re, A: the Christmas cake cult leader, or B: neutral but curious. Besides, its story gets a little sweeter.
Back in the 16th century, the English would traditionally eat plum porridge on Christmas Eve, using it to line their stomachs after a day of fasting. Soon, dried fruit, spices, and honey were added to this mixture and it eventually became a Christmas pudding. Oatmeal was then removed from the original recipe and replaced with butter, flour, and eggs – creating what was known as a boiled plum cake.
Richer families decided to get a bit fancy with it by baking this mixture in the oven and coating it in marzipan (an almond sugar paste). This became the first rendition of what we now know as ‘Christmas cake’. Today, they are made in many different ways. Some are light, dark, moist, or dry, while others are coated with frosting, glazing, dusting, or simply left plain.
Christmas Cakes vs Christmas Puddings: Which One Should I Make?
If you are thinking about serving some form of traditional Christmas-themed dessert, you may be deciding between Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. We’ll be frank and say that making one is definitely easier than the other, and here’s why:
Christmas Cake Prep
Preparing and making Christmas cake is pretty straightforward, and follows the steps of creating any old fruit cake. They are denser and heavier than normal sponge cakes as they contain more fruit than batter. It’s probably from being soaked in alcohol for months at a time – yes you can prepare fruit cake months in advance and soak it in brandy to preserve it until Christmas! Some usually cover their fruit cakes in marzipan and royal icing.
Christmas Pudding Prep:
This dessert originates from the plum porridge we mentioned and includes multiple dried fruits like figs, raisins, prunes, cherries as well as nuts. You can moisten the pudding with molasses or treacle or flavor it with nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and other spices. A combination of egg, suet (beef or mutton fat from around the kidney), and breadcrumbs help to hold all these ingredients together. These ingredients are then pressed into a bowl and covered in a parchment (in a pear treeee) and steamed in a pot for several hours. Intense.
Whichever you decide to make clearly depends on your dedication to the activity. Many Christmas cake and pudding recipes are passed down through generations!
Christmas Cakes From Around the Globe
Now that we know more about the origin of Christmas cakes and how they are made, we can dive into how people around the world are preparing and serving this holiday staple. Read below as we share some of the traditional Christmas cakes from around the world:
British Christmas Cake: The Traditional Christmas Cake
Christmas cake is known to have started in Great Britain, so it’s only fair that the monarch is featured on this list. The British still refer to this cake as a ‘plum cake’ and often prepare it two months before Christmas. They ‘feed’ it spoons of brandy over this time and believe that the more alcohol you feed the cake, the better it will taste. And, they’re probably right.
Italian Christmas Cake: Panettone
According to legend, this Christmas cake originates from a love story about a nobleman from Milan who falls in love with a poor baker’s daughter. Naturally, because of their difference in classes, he would be forbidden from marrying her. He devised a plan to help the father become rich by posing as a baker and in doing so invented a sweet bread that included non-traditional ingredients such as raisins and candied fruit. It became very popular, and, big reveal; the father’s name was Toni, hence ‘Panettone’. Today, Panettone is a dome-shaped Italian sweet bread with raisins and candied fruit.
Japanese Christmas Cake: Strawberry Santa
Christmas cake in Japan is quite different from the fruit-filled brown-bread loaf we’ve come to know. In fact, their festive dessert is made of sponge cake, whipped cream, and just one fruit – strawberries! These cakes are everywhere in Japan during the festive season, even in the 7-Elevens!
German Christmas Cake: Stollen Bread
Stollen can be traced back as far as 14th century Germany and began as a fasting cake made during Advent when people couldn’t use milk, butter, or fruits. Today, it is a bread-like fruitcake filled with dried fruit, spices, and nuts, and coated in powdered sugar. Its fold-over dough with a white top layer is symbolic of baby Jesus wrapped in a swaddle cloth.
Jamaican Christmas Cake: Rum Cake
Think original Christmas cake with a Caribbean twist. Jamaican black cake has all the spicy and booze-infused flavors that people love in fruitcake. But it is scented with orange peels and lime zest. Many households have their own version of this Caribbean dessert and are sure to make an appearance at the Christmas table.
The Best Christmas Cake Recipe
If you’re willing to give Christmas cake a try this holiday season, start with this simple recipe:
- 700 g raisins
- 300 g currants
- 100 g glazed cherries
- 150 g chopped pecans (or walnuts)
- 400 ml bourbon or brandy
- 300 g butter
- 180 g dark brown sugar
- 2 tsp lemon zest
- 4 large eggs
- 2 tbsp molasses
- 1 tsp almond essence
- 300 g plain flour
- 150 g ground almonds
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- Place all the dried fruit in a saucepan, and add the bourbon/brandy. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat, covering once cooled to steep overnight.
- Preheat your oven to 150 C/gas mark 2, and prepare your tin. Cream the butter and sugar together, then beat in the grated lemon zest.
- Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each egg, then mix in the black treacle and almond extract.
- Mix the dry ingredients together, then mix the soaked fruit alternately with the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, mixing it thoroughly. Fold in chopped pecans/walnuts
- Place cake mix into the prepared tin and bake in the oven, for between 2 ¾ – 3 ¼ hrs, or until a cake tester inserted comes out clean-ish.
- Brush with a couple more tablespoons of bourbon/brandy or other liqueur of your choice. Wrap immediately in its tin – using a double-thickness of tin foil – as this will trap the heat and form steam, which in turn will keep the cake soft on top.
- When it’s completely cooled, remove the cake from the tin and re-wrap it in foil, storing, preferably in an airtight tin or Tupperware, for at least 3 weeks to improve the flavor.
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Alex is a hopeless romantic who was supposed to be born in Italy (her dream destination), but proud to be South African nonetheless. She lives by her heart, and, consequentially, leaves a little bit of herself in everything she writes. She wholeheartedly believes that mermaids (and fairies) exist and is deadly afraid of the age ’30’.