A SWEET CHRISTMAS TALE
The story of your favourite Christmas Desserts
Christmas is possibly one of the busiest times of year for a baker. Cookies, cakes and puddings are on everyone’s menus. Yule log cakes, Figgy pudding, sticky toffee pudding, rich red velvet cake, marmalade cake, the list is long for the holiday season but the one of most recognisable Christmas desserts worldwide is undoubtedly the Christmas Cake.
Christmas cakes has been known by many names and prepared in different ways throughout history. Essentially, a Christmas Cake is a fruit cake made with spices ,dried and candied fruits and often liberal doses of booze.
The earliest fruit cakes go back to the Romans who made them with pomegranates seeds, spices and honey.
The Arabs it is argued were the first to master the art of candied fruit in the early 15th century. These techniques of preservation became popular in southern Europe in the 16th century, a time of Arab domination and coincided with the availability of cheap sugar from the American colonies. Candied fruit becoming cheap and fruit cake because popular with the masses.
Christmas cakes vary- they can be light & fruity, yeast leavened some more like bread, others can be chocolatey or full of molasses. The most well known Christmas cake recipe is the English Christmas cake and is made well in advance and allowed to mature for months. In some cases it is ‘fed’ small amounts of alcohol over several weeks. This is achieved by making holes in the cake with toothpicks and pouring brandy over it as it sits inside a tin. This is called feeding a cake.
But before this, English Christmas Cakes were called by many names- plum cakes, fruit cakes, rum cakes, brandy cakes and in the case of Hannah Glasse’s cookbook a Rich Cake. The cake pictured here I made from a recipe for Rich Cake in a 1765 edition of The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse first published in 1747.
These cakes were made in huge quantities to feed a constant stream of guests who came to visit during the holiday. The icing recipe for the Rich cake contains 24 egg whites and the author Hannah Glasse expects you to beat them manually for 2-3 hours! It must have kept the author very fit because she lived to the ripe old age of 62. Life expectancy for women was below 40 in the early 1700’s.
This recipe contains many unusual terms and ingredients. Printed in old English the script employs the ‘long S’ where s is printed as an f. So sifted appears as fifted. This form of writing albeit disappeared by the 1800’s.
The recipe has some unusual ingredients. A pint of fack refers to sack, a sweet fortified white wine imported from Spain, Jordan almonds are sugar coated almonds and the author suggests baking the batter in ‘hoops’. Hoops are cake rings without a top or bottom that just go over a large plate. As this is a thick batter and bakes for several hours it doesn’t leak as much.
A Creole Christmas Cake from a 1920 copy of the Trinidad Cookbook, a Caribbean specialty, contains Angusturo bitters, cherry brandy and dark rum and is a version of the famous Black Cake. Indian Christians too have their own versions of cakes including the Allabadi Christmas cake prepared with safed petha (candied ash gourd) and the famous Goa Baath Cake made with semolina and coconut. The Baath cake also called Bolo de Rulao in Portuguese has much in common with the Greek Revani cake also made with semolina but flavoured with orange. The Lebanese Namura prepared with almonds and the Egyptian Basboosa made with semolina and yogurt and soaked in a sweet syrup.Semolina is derived from the Italian word semola. Interestingly one of the Sanskrit words for wheat is Samhita.
Interestingly the Cochin Jews also prepare a semolina and coconut cake called Apam.
The Scottish Dundee Cake, German Stollen, Romanian Cozonac and the Italian Panettone are all versions of fruit cake eaten around Christmas and Easter.One of the earliest Christmas cakes was the German Stollen of Saxon origin that dates back to the 1300’s. This bread like cake wasn’t particularly tasty because it was forbidden, by church decree to use butter or sugar in the recipe during the Advent. Prince Elector Ernst and his brother, Duke Albrecht of Saxony’s pleas to lift this ban began in 1450 and it took 5 Popes and nearly 50 years before Pope Innocent VIII acquiesced. His response in 1490, came to be called the ‘Butter Letter’ or the ‘Butter Brief’. Thanks to this the Stollen, now made with unrestricted amounts of butter and sugar is a beloved Christmas treat.
Gingerbread cake is another winter time speciality also made during the X’mas holiday. I adapted one from in Eliza Acton’s book Modern Cookery published in 1845 (I cooked from the 1864 edition). This cookbook is one of the best recipe books printed in the Victorian era with precise and detailed instructions-most other books assume that women must know how to cook and provide scant instruction. This book also contains one of the earliest recipes for Christmas Pudding ever published. It was later renamed plum pudding. I digress but I must mention that Ms Acton is also one of the first to provide recipes for Indian chutneys.
Gingerbread cakes were among the most popular desserts in England since the Elizabethan era and were made throughout the year not just for Christmas. They became especially popular in the Victorian period when ginger was easily available and the cake was considered medicinal.
Every Victorian cookbook has atleast one recipe, others many- rich gingerbread, hard gingerbread, soft, moist, dark, light economical -gingerbread was made in many forms. It was also popular because it calls for brown sugar or treacle and not refined white sugar which was very expensive even in the mid 1800’s. Gingerbread became popular in the USA where it was prepared with molasses that produced a softer cake. In Victorian cookbooks Gingerbread could also refer to hard ginger cookies.
Gingerbread Men were first served in the court of Elizabeth 1.
In modern times we are used to lighter cakes that employ baking soda and baking powder. Pure and dependable baking powder and baking soda only became available on a commercial scale in the mid 1800’s.
Take four pounds of flour dried and sifted, seven pounds of currants washed and rubbed, six pounds of the best fresh butter, two pounds of Jordan almonds blanched, and beaten with orange flower water and sack till fine; then take four pounds of eggs, put half the whites away, three pounds of double-refined sugar beaten and sifted, a quarter of an ounce of mace, the same of cloves and cinnamon, three large nutmegs, all beaten fine, a little ginger, half a pint of sack, half a pint of right French brandy, sweet-meats to your liking, they must be orange, lemon, and citron; work your butter to a cream with your hands before any of your ingredients are in; then put in your sugar, and mix all well together; let your eggs be well beat and strained through a sieve, work in your almonds first, then put in your eggs, beat them together till they look white and thick; then put in your sack, brandy and spices, shake your flour in be degrees, and when your oven is ready, put in your currants and sweet-meats as you put it in your hoop: it will take four hours baking in a quick oven: you must keep it beating with your hand all the while you are mixing of it, and when your currants are well washed and cleaned, let them be kept before the fire, so that they may go warm into your cake. This quantity will bake best in two hoops.
Modern Version of Hannah Glasse’s Rich Fruitcake
This recipe does not have brown sugar or treacle, two ingredients commonly in British Christmas cakes and it uses a white wine and brandy. This makes for a lighter fruit cake. In the absence of sherry you can use a less expensive sweet and white Samos, Muscatel, Madeira, even white port. A sweet Reisling or Chenin Blanc could also work but you may need to add some sugar to it.
Makes 1 10 inch wide 3 inch deep fruit cake
- 400 grams maida or all purpose cake flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 6 whole eggs at room temperature
- 300 grams refined sugar
- 350 grams unsalted butter
- 200 grams candied orange peel finely chopped
- 200 grams candied lemon peel finely chopped
- 200 grams candied citron finely chopped
- 300 grams golden raisins pips removed
- 200 grams black raisins pips removed
- 100 grams fine almond flour
- 1 tsp. nutmeg powdered
- 1 tsp. mace powdered
- 1 ½ tsp. cinnamon powdered
- 1 tsp. Sunth or ginger powdered
- ¼ tsp. cloves powdered
- 1/2 cups sweet white Sherry (sack)
- 1/4 cup Brandy
- Combine all the dried fruits with the sherry and brandy and let it sit ion the bowl while you prepare the cake.
- Preheat the oven to 350°.
- Evenly grease a 10-inch deep (3 inches deep) pan with butter and line with parchment paper. You will need an additional circle of parchment paper to place on top of the batter.
- Beat the butter and all powdered spices with the sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer or use a hand mixer at medium-high speed until creamy, about one minute.
- Add the eggs one at a time and beat until thoroughly combined with the butter and sugar.
- Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
- Add the baking powder, then the almond flour and then the cake flour a cup at a time and beat on a low speed until just combined.
- Add the fruit mixture and beat until thoroughly combined.
- Pour the batter into the cake pan, spreading it evenly with a rubber spatula. Smack the pan against the counter a few times to settle the batter. Cover the batter with the second piece of cut parchment and press down lightly to smoothen the batter.
- Place pan on bottom rack in oven. Bake at 350° for one hour then move to the middle rack and bake another 40-60 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.
- Allow cake to cool in the pan on a cooling rack for 60 minutes.
- Invert the cake onto a plate and then invert again back onto a cooling rack.
- Allow cake to cool completely atleast 2 hours before icing or slicing.
Photo Credit: TARA DESHPANDE