Christmas Cake Time

Yes, it’s Christmas Cake time and by that I mean it’s time to eat the cake, not make it. The actual making of the cake should have happened weeks ago.

My Accumulated Wisdom On The Subject of Christmas Cakes

I suspect that the majority of those that follow this British Christmas tradition don’t bother with homemade cakes anymore. Or like me, we just bake one cake. After years of study, I have gathered the following statistics:

Xmas Cake table
A very colourful chart

There are many cakes that are eaten at Christmas time. Panettone, Stolen, Yule Log, Clementine Cake and Dundee Cake are just a few examples of delicious Christmas baking. Many of these are similar in that they contain varying percentages of dried fruit. They are all cakes and they are all made at Christmas time, but they are not Christmas Cake.

There is only one true British Christmas Cake.

Traditionally Christmas Cake is a rich dark fruit cake chock full of dried and glacé fruits and peel. Christmas cake began in a square format, not round like the Dundee Cake, although round Christmas Cakes are becoming more common. Also unlike Dundee Cake, it does not contain any nuts. Neither should it contain any raising agents.

Typically the finished cake is sprinkled with brandy (or sherry) to ward off mould, and just like the Christmas pudding, improves with age. This is why it is cooked some weeks ahead.

Unlike Christmas  puddings, such as plum pudding and figgy pudding, the Christmas Cake does not contain coins or tokens for luck. Though some eejits have been known to add coins to their cake in the mistaken belief that they will win the Lotto or something equally ludicrous. Though the biggest win they are likely to get is Uncle Jim storming off to the dentist in a huff.

In any case, Christmas cake should be sliced into tiny squares, and the inclusion of coins would make this impossible. This is also why a square or rectangular cake is preferable to a round one. Round Dundee cakes are much lighter and therefore they can get away with cutting large wedges.

Beware the Christmas Cake Amateurs

One of the major mistakes that amateur Christmas Cake bakers make is saving the cake for Christmas Day. There is so much food on that day, that nobody will fully appreciate the finer points of a rich Christmas Cake. Aficionados know that it should be served in the days prior to and just after Christmas to any and all guests who bring Christmas greetings to their home. It is a well known fact that Santa’s favourite treat is a tiny piece of Christmas Cake, so a slice should always be plated up on Christmas Eve in readiness for his arrival.

Icing the Christmas Cake

Typically a Christmas Cake is stored uniced, and sprinkled with alcohol periodically to prevent mold growing on the surface. If desired, the cake may then be adorned with royal icing. This requires a layer of marzipan underneath to prevent the oils from the fruits bleeding through. Fondant has no business being anywhere near a true Christmas Cake, so put away your rolling pins people. Royal icing should be slathered on with something like this. If a smooth surface is desired, then royal icing will behave if you use a trowel like object like this.

Tradition requires that the icing be decorated with kitschy trimmings. Reindeer, bells, holly, trees and snowmen are typical adornments. Save your sophisticated decor for another day and leave your bah humbug comments at the gate. Christmas is all about tinsel, gaudy baubles and off-key carol singing. It’s a time for home-made, home-grown and home-ly. It’s all about home and the family inside the home.

Feast Your Eyes On This Year’s Christmas Cake

A typical home-baked Christmas Cake complete with tacky decorations
A typical home-baked Christmas Cake complete with tacky decorations

Making the above cake was a big thing for me because for years I’ve claimed that I don’t really like the iced cakes. I used to say that I hated marzipan and I generally pulled the icing off the cake. I might even have been known to facetiously claim that because my gt-grandmother was from Dundee, I was only going to make Dundee Cakes at Christmas.

Last year, I rediscovered marzipan in a brand new way. Rachel Allen on her popular Cake Diaries television show produced a Cooked Almond Paste Fruit Cake, that was both unique and delicious.  I just had to try it. Link here. The marzipan, or almond paste, is actually cooked onto the cake. The family loved it and we all agreed home-made almond paste does not have the manufactured taste of store-bought marzipan.

Cutting a square of almond paste to cover the top of the cake.
Cutting a square of almond paste to cover the top of the cake.

So this year, I decided to revisit traditional iced Christmas Cakes with a home-made almond paste (uncooked) and home-made royal icing. I started with my favorite recipe, Pineapple Christmas Cake by Alison & Simon Holst. This involves soaking the mixed fruit in crushed pineapple and its juice on a warm windowsill for a few days. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere this is a … piece of cake. 

My home-made almond paste recipe—flavoured with Benedictine—is so delicious. I admit I tasted too much and there is a little patch on the back of the cake that didn’t get fully covered. Oh my word, it was devine.

Almond paste is made with ground almonds and if these are hard to source, simply grind up some blanched almonds in your food processor.

And then I had a hideous Christmas Cake flashback …

I also made home-made royal icing and it was while I was busy slavering this on I had a hideous flashback. My mind wandered back to a particular Christmas morning when Christmas Dinner was delayed so the family decided to cut into my beautifully decorated cake to keep us going. We soon discovered the royal icing had set like concrete. Even mum’s new electric knife (lucky her!) would not penetrate through the tough outer shell. In the end, the undercoat of apricot jam shifted allowing us to lift the entire shell off the cake. The sticky marzipan was stuck to the underside of the rock hard white stuff. I remember we threw it out into the chook pen where it stayed for weeks. Neither hen, nor rat, nor sun, nor rain could dissolve the thing. The family told me in no uncertain terms, not to go icing Christmas Cakes again … and for 18 years I haven’t been tempted, until now. Damn you Rachel Allen, with your wickedly decadent recipes.

Well here I am, crowing about making one iced Christmas Cake. In the good old days, when people rode around on dinosaurs and watched black and white tv (as my 13 year old often quips), the womenfolk in my household would run to several cakes, a Christmas pud and a bottle of fruit mincemeat for throwing together last minute Xmas mincemeat pies. Those long hours slaving in the kitchen are behind us. Thankfully.

The ratio between crumb and fruit is personal preference. As a general guide, too much fruit and it becomes a plum pudding, too little and it is not special enough to deserve the title "Christmas Cake"
The ratio between crumb and fruit is personal preference. As a general guide, too much fruit and it becomes a plum pudding, too little and it is not special enough to deserve the title “Christmas Cake”

In the last decade, I’ve found the quality in the supermarkets to be as good as or better than we can make at home. If you pick the right brand, they can be succulently moist, rich and with just the right ratio of crumb to fruit. Ah the Christmas Cake. Bought or home-made, it’s one of my favourite things about Christmas. Long may it live on in our traditions.

3 thoughts on “Christmas Cake Time

  1. Ally this is wonderful! I haven’t had Christmas cake for years, it used to be a traditional part of our Christmas growing up, especially with the older relatives, who took great pride in their baking. And don’t get me started on marzipan, I’m a big fan, though it’s definitely an acquired taste, as a lot of my friends hated it! I find it funny that in reading your post, I feel like I’m reading a post from someone back home and not in New Zealand. I like your obsession with Christmas and the British traditions and I am very tempted to take a look at actually having a go at a Christmas cake myself, even though I may be coming a tad late to the game. Thanks for this awesome nostalgic post Ally 🙂

    1. It is never too late for Christmas Cake – anytime of year, I reckon. I say it improves with age, but that’s not to imply you can’t just hoe in the day it is baked. Thanks for your retweet.

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