In today's busy world I think we have had to sacrificed tradition in favor of ready made convenience. It's so simple when the grocery store has everything you need for a holiday on a ready made platter. But that feels so empty to me and many others. Instead many of us at this time of year will pull out favorite family recipes that we make each year that are special to our family and connect us to generations past.
It's still different than times gone by and the Christmases that my mother and father remember from their childhood. My mother is 83 now, and was a child in England prior to WWII when times were very different. Her family had a separate room that was shut off from the children during the weeks preceding Christmas called Bluebeard's Room. This room was not opened up to the children until Christmas morning when for the first time the children would see the Christmas tree all lit up with presents spread below. The excitement of anticipation was hard to bear. During the night Santa would have delivered a Christmas stocking on her pillow filled with candy, small treasures and a tangerine in the toe. She always received one very special present from Santa. One year she remembers her special gift was a beautiful doll despite her mother having said she was too old for dolls that year and a twinkle in her father's eyes.
One way that I feel connected to my English heritage is though traditional English fare around the holidays. My mother always made a Christmas Cake that was decorated with tiny plastic reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh. I'm not going to share her recipe, though, as it makes too large a cake (it uses a dozen eggs) and, frankly, was sometimes a little undercooked.
Instead I'll share the recipe I used this year. The pictures in this post are my cake from last year (except for the one immediately above). I did this so that you see could see what the cake looks like when decorated, because I will not decorate my cake this year until the night before Christmas. The recipe I used last year came from Denise of The Knitting Den who was kind enough to share her friend's recipe. It made a wonderful cake, but was a little vague on instructions and ingredients so this year I searched and found a very similar recipe here, that I've slightly modified and/or clarified to incorporate aspects of Denise's recipe.
Recipe for A Traditional English Christmas Cake
One 8 inch (20 cm) round or 7 inch (18 cm) square cake pan. Pan should be 3 inches deep. If you don't have a cake pan in this size, the link above to the original recipe gives the recipe for a variety of different sized pans.
Preheat Oven: 300 F (150 C) Approximate cooking time 2.5 hours
Ingredients (ALL ingredients are BY WEIGHT):
12 oz. currants (or I prefer 10 oz. currants and 2 oz. dried figs (or dried dates))
5 oz. sultanas (i.e. golden raisins)
5 oz. dark raisins
2 oz. mixed chopped peel (i.e. lemon and orange)
3 oz. glazed cherries (washed and cut in half)
6 oz. unsalted butter
6 oz. dark brown soft sugar (I like to use organic brown sugar with a rich molassas flavor)
1 tablespoon molasses or black treacle
7 oz. all Purpose (i.e. plain) flour
1 oz. almond flour or Ground almonds
1 tsp. All Spice
1/4 tsp. nutmeg (optional)
Brandy (I buy a very large bottle and it's enough for two cakes)
Marzipan (I use 2 of the 7 oz. tubes)
Royal Icing Ingredients:
powered sugar 1 lb. (sifted)
3 egg whites
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Ribbon and Ornaments for decorating
Wax Paper (to line cake pan)
1. Begin by soaking dried fruit, mixed peel and cherries overnight in brandy. I use enough to cover the fruit mixture entirely plus an extra 1/2 inch so that all the fruit is soaked well because, if I haven't mentioned it yet, I enjoy a strong brandy flavor to my cake. Almost all of it will be absorbed by morning. Drain off excess prior to using.
2. Prepare cake pan. Trace a liner in wax paper by using your cake pan as a template. Cut out forms to fit bottom of pan and strips to line sides. Use butter to moisten pan which will hold the wax paper in place. Set baking pan aside while you prepare your cake mix.
3. Soften butter prior to using. Measure out all ingredients ahead and have ready to combine as needed. Eggs should be at room temperature.
4. Beat butter, sugar and molasses until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. A small amount of your flour may be added at this stage to prevent curdling.
5. Remove mixture from mixer. Add all purpose flour and ground almonds (alternately) and stir by hand with a wooden spoon. When mixture is well combined stir in dried fruit (drained).
6. Spoon cake mix into prepared cake pan and bake approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Because I have an oven that runs hot, I only needed to bake mine for 2 hours and 30 minutes. The cake is done when tester comes away clean.
7. Cool your cake completely in cake pan sitting on a wire rack or your stove top. When cake is completely cool poke holes in the top and drizzle with a small amount of brandy. Then wrap cake in cheesecloth and store in an airtight cake tin.
8. Feeding your cake. You will need to "feed" your cake brandy periodically during the maturing phase. It should be clear by now that I like a strong brandy flavor to my cake. Remove the cheesecloth and drizzle with approx. 1 tablespoon brandy and reapply the cheesecloth. Feed your cake brandy once a week by adding approx. 1 tablespoon brandy until ready to ice and decorate. If, however, you don't like a strong brandy flavor (and bear in mind the cake already has lots of brandy in the fruit) you can periodically add a couple of apple slices to the cake tin to keep the cake fresh, but remove them after a day so that they don't go moldy. I actually have begun doing this the past few years instead of adding so much brandy and actually like it better.
9. Allow cake to mature for several weeks. Decorate the day ahead of serving.
DECORATING YOUR CAKE:
Begin by applying a thin layer of apricot jam to the entire surface of the cake. Then unwrap your marzipan and kneed until soft and pliable (coat your hands with powdered sugar to prevent sticking) and roll out your marzipan as you would a pie crust. Make sure it is large enough to cover the top and sides. Press the marzipan into the jam which should help it to stick and smooth with your hands. Now you are ready to make the icing. N.B. Do not prepare your icing until you are ready to decorate your cake (i.e. gather any ribbon and/or ornaments that you need) as the icing will quickly dry into a hard surface.
PREPARE ROYAL ICING:
Whip egg whites until creamy. Add powdered sugar and lemon juice and whip until soft peaks form. Quickly ice cake and immediately decorate before the icing sets (which happens very quickly).
Step back and admire your creation! Remember, if all fails and your cake is not "all that" then just smoother it in more brandy, light it on fire, and serve with a side of custard and call it a Christmas Pudding! If it is a success (and I'm sure it will be) then enjoy it on cold afternoons with a cup of tea or a glass of sherry.
Of course, wearing an appropriately saucy apron while doing your holiday baking does help put one in the proper mood! As will listening to cheery holiday music. My favorite holiday CD is Martina McBride's White Christmas which was recommended by the lovely Renee of Renee Knits too last year. Thank you Renee, I love listening to this CD!
I know that not everyone enjoys Christmas Cake, but there is no need to stick your tongue out and go ewww. Thank you Puff, that's quite enough. If you are like Mr Puffy who does not enjoy the flavors of brandy and dried fruits then it is probably not for you either. Instead, you might prefer these holiday cookie recipes shared in years past: Old Fashioned Gingerbread Men; Walnut Cookies; and Almond Crescents.
Until next time, be well, love well, and happy holiday baking! Up next are some quick knits and other last minute Christmas gift ideas!
I've added below a recent picture (from 2019) of a cake that I made for my mother's 93'rd birthday. I asked her a few years ago what kind of cake she would like for her birthday and she wanted a Christmas Cake and so that is what I've made her every year since. I wanted to show that this cake is versatile and can be decorated in a different style and enjoyed year round!
The small flowers are handmade in royal icing that I purchase from Etsy.