Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Cake (an escape to warmer climes)

This year I wanted to bake a Christmas cake - my first. I have made Christmas puddings and mince pies aplenty, but despite having polished off many a slice of Christmas cake I have never created my own. I love Christmas cake, love fruit cakes dense with fruit, nuts, peel, spices, and whatever other treasures can be packed in. I love the marzipan layer, and generally I like the royal icing on top (although sometimes this is too hard or too sweet). Lots of people don't seem too bothered about this element of Christmas food, some positively dislike rich fruit cakes of this type, and some (nutters) don't even like marzipan. Well, Christmas is a time of giving, and this year I wanted to give myself a lovely cake. Maybe I could also share a little of it if I felt the spirit of Christmas strongly enough.

I had a suspicion that the British Christmas cakes that enthusiasts such as myself tuck into, are not all that ancient as a tradition of the season. From my research I learnt that the oldest cake associated with the British Christmas period is the Twelfth cake (King cake or Bean cake). Many other countries have their take on this - such as France's La Couronne (or Galette) des Rois, Mexico's La Rosca de Reyes, Switzerland's Dreikönigskuchen or the Gateau des Rois of New Orleans. Twelfth cake was served on the Twelfth Day/Night of Christmas (Epiphany - the twelfth night after Christmas, a Christian holy day commemorating the visit by the Three Wise Men to the Christ child), and was a spiced fruit cake - originally a yeast-raised fruit bread or a light cake made from breadcrumbs, but by the 19th century had become more densely packed with fruit, heavier, and closer in consistency to the traditional Christmas Plum Pudding (which has a much older pedigree). Twelfth cake contained tokens (a dried bean for the King and a dried pea for the Queen) that would determine who had a one-night stand as a monarch, and those elevated could expect other party-goers to act out their every whim. The Twelfth Night feast was known also as the feast of fools, where misrule reigned and the lowest ruled over the highest, servants took precedence over their masters and chaos was celebrated. The feast itself predates Christianity and has links to the Roman feast of Saturnalia. The Puritans banned Twelfth Night activities, but with the Restoration the custom was also restored and the partying continued until late into the 19th century. In 1870 the revels came to Queen Victoria's attention and she deemed that they were irreligious and irreverent. She deleted the feast from the British calendar of feast days and festivals. But that, my friends, was not quite that. Victorian bakers, not wishing to miss out on the sale of the cakes that they produced for Twelfth Night, simply offered the same cakes for sale at an earlier date and rebranded them as Christmas cakes. According to the food historian, Bridget Ann Henisch, by the 1830s the bean and pea were no longer hidden within the cake, but instead were illustrated cards, slips of paper or ceramic figures, drawn from a hat or bag. Henisch suggests that by 1870 public enthusiasm for Twelfth Night had waned, and Christmas Eve and Day had become the focus of what had become a shorter (thanks to the Industrial Revolution) holiday period. Twelfth cakes were sometimes decorated with raised sugar figures or lattice designs, and these decorative elements continue in the use of marzipan, icing, and the odd rogue (although, some might say, obligatory) element of tastelessness on the top of Christmas cakes.

There is no single recipe for Christmas cake, and I imagine it is probably a recipe which most people feel free to adapt to suit what they like (less peel, more booze, no glace cherries, extra stem ginger etc.). It is not a recipe to be precious with, it is a generous cake both in terms of its content and its spirit. I have decided to take this notion and run with it, as the recipe I am going to bake comes from beyond the shores of Britain, I am also drawing upon the Victorian connection and my recipe comes from one of the countries that the Victorians couldn't help themselves but meddle with. That country was known by the Brits as Ceylon, and is now called Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Christmas cake is a local variation of what would have appeared on Victorian Christmas tables back home. The Sri Lankan cake is made with semolina, dried fruits, chow chow, cashew nuts, almonds, spices, rosewater, honey, brandy, butter and eggs. It is topped with a marzipan made from cashew nuts, icing-free, and is generally served cut into squares. Some of the ingredients betray the influence also of Portuguese and Dutch tastes, two other European countries that passed through.

My recipe comes from 'Cakes From Around the World'. I roughly halved the ingredients given as I only wanted to make one cake. This recipe omits the chow chow - probably because it is not an easy ingredient to find here. To see a recipe that includes it, click here.

Quantities given below will produce two 20 cm/8 inch square cakes.

115g chopped stem ginger
115g chopped mixed peel
225g raisins
225g sultanas
225g currants
225g chopped crystalized pineapple
225g chopped cashew nuts
115g chopped almonds
115g chopped bright red glace cherries
115g chopped dark red glace cherries
3 tablespoons brandy
3 tablespoons rosewater
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon ground cardamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
450g soft pale brown sugar
450g softened butter
225g semolina
12 large eggs, separated (you actually only use 6 of the egg whites, so keep the other 6 back for meringue making etc.)

For the cashew nut marzipan:

225g cashew nuts
450g icing sugar
1 egg white
4 tablespoons brandy
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


1. In one large bowl put the peel, fruits, nuts, brandy, rosewater, honey, vanilla extract and spices. Give a good old stir up with a metal spoon, then cover and leave overnight for some flavour mingling.
2. Line two 20 cm/8 inch square cake tines with greaseproof paper, and preheat oven to 150C/300F/Gas 2.
3. Using a hand mixer, unless you have wonderfully strong wrists, cream the sugar and softened butter until light and fluffy. On a slow speed, add the semolina and egg yolks a little at a time to avoid curdling. Take a metal spoon and stir in the fruit mixture until blended.
4. Take the 6 egg whites and whisk until they stand in peaks, then using a metal spoon stir the egg whites gently into the cake mixture.
5. Divide the cake mixture between the two cake tins and bake until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out cleanly - about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Leave the cakes to cool in their tins, then wrap in foil and set aside for 3 or 4 days to mature (you can feed with brandy during this time).
6. To make the marzipan put the nuts into a food processor and whizz until finely chopped. Add the icing sugar and other ingredients, processing at the lowest speed until the mixture comes together into a ball (my mixture seemed quite wet so I used extra icing sugar to help dry the marzipan). Dust your work surface with icing sugar and roll out the paste - you want to create a sheet large enough to cover only the top of each cake (roll into rough shapes and trim).

I decorated the top of the cake with snowflakes cut from marzipan - which looked quite tasteful and therefore my fingers felt itchy for a bit of tinsel to strew around. It was served for Christmas tea, that meal not eaten for reasons of sustenance or nutrition, but somehow necessary a few hours after the consumption of the largest lunch of the year. Several of us managed to enjoy a small piece, and found although it was bursting to the seams with fruit and nuts it was lighter than many Christmas cakes. Despite the fruitfulness of the slice, the spices were still evident, and this helped to evoke warmer climes and banished Hertfordshire drizzle. The marizpan also benefited from the extra flavourings of brandy, rosewater, almond and vanilla extract it contained, it was sweet but it didn't have the single dominating flavour that almond marzipan. If you aren't keen on marzipan usually, then I do recommend that you give this one a go - and the cake too!

Merry Christmas!


alice c said...

Hello, I stumbled across your blog and I can see that I could become seriously addicted. Lovely photos, tempting recipes and interesting research - I will be spending some quality time in your archive in January!

diva said...

i'm not too much a fan of marzipan but yours looks well good. i'll be sure to try it the next time i'm up for something wintry like fruitcake seeing that christmas is long over :(
happy holidays and thanks for sharing! x

David Hall said...

I'm still munching through my 2 month old whisky doused cake now!

Hope you had a fantastic break.

Happy New Year, all the best for 2008


Gigibird said...

Crumbs, I wish I could get an invite around to yours for a piece of that cake.....I didn't make one this year as mine has trouble competing with all the other stuff that finds it's way into the house:(
I've decided to make one in Feb/March when it will be the centre of everyone’s attention.
Hope you and your family had a lovely Christmas.

Jeena said...

What a beautiful cake recipe it looks delicious. I love your blog. :-)

IRIS said...

Your Christmas Cake is fantastic! Congratulations!

Happy New Year!

pistachio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pistachio said...

Hello Anna, I've only just discovered your blog and found your Christmas Cake post very interesting and informative. The cake looks fabulous too!

Love the history aspect. Thanks for a very enjoyable read.

pi xxx

vero0oo said...

Mmmh ! Christmas is over (and it's now time for "galettes des rois") here, but I'll keep you recipe for next year in a sure place ! - if I am able to resist it until next Christmas !
I wish you all the best for the new year !

Sorina said...

Great recipe love it :) thanks looking forward to more recipes

Christina from Thorngrove Table said...

Sounds delicious and looks wonderful! Hope your Christmas and New Year were excellent. :-)

shannon said...

Hi Anna,

My name is Shannon and I'm the editorial assistant at Foodbuzz.com. I am very impressed with the quality of your posts and to that end, I’d like to invite you to be a part of our newly launched Foodbuzz Featured Publisher program. I would love to send you more details about the program, so if you are interested, please email me at Shannon@foodbuzz.com.

And it looks like your Christmas cake turned out famously! You mentioned even people who weren't keen on marzipan would like this, but what about the people who already adore marzipan? Would we just melt with glee?


Shannon Eliot
Editorial Assistant, Foodbuzz.com

anna said...

Hello all,

...and a belated Happy New Year to you too! I look forward to sharing more recipes and history in 2008, and to visiting blogs from around the world.

Best wishes.

Valentina said...

Anna, what a lovely cake. Great decoration ! I learned to love fruit packed cakes after I moved to Britain and I make them for Xmas as part of tradition.Loved to read about the origins of this type of cake.

K said...

I've just found you by googling "Scotch pancake"... and have ended by browsing through all your archives. I love your writing style - and the topic. (It rather shames me to admit that I don't know how to make Scotch pancakes, since I'm Scottish).

The Twelfth Night tradition is alive and well in my family - though we always used a glacé cherry instead of a bean. Three glacé cherries, indeed, so as to prevent arguments among the children over who got to wear the paper crown.

My mother has always made apple-sauce cake for this (I think from considerations of taste alone, rather than tradition, since it's an American recipe).

chuck said...

I hate Christmas cake, but, that picture looks so good. I may have to change my mind :)

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Lara said...

i've just copied your recipe and hope to make it for our english christmas in NZ (to maintain my roots!) i love your blog and regularly dip in for inspiration.

Thank you for your recipes and all the information you provide with them, Merry christmas 2008 and Happy New year x

Jane Stevenson said...

I once made a yeast raised Twelfth Night cake, which was terrific – I edited a 17th century cookery book (Sir Kenelm Digby’s Closet Opened) with my husband, and before we published it, I tried out some of the recipes (this was for Prospect Books, do check out their website. I think you’d love their marmalade book, for instance). My Twelfth cake was his ‘Another very good cake’ cut down to manageable quantities. 2 lb white bread flour, yeast (I use easyblend/Fermipan), generous 1/4lb melted butter, 1 ½ oz sugar, 3 egg yolks and one white, grated nutmeg and mace, 2 oz ground almonds, 2 tbs sherry/white port/marsala or similar, 2 oz ground almonds, 4 tbs cream, 1 lb currants, ½ lb raisins. Mix flour, sugar, nutmeg, mace, almonds. Add a sachet of easyblend yeast, or cream ½ oz yeast with a little warm water. Add eggs, cream and a little water to make a light, easy to handle bread dough. Leave this to rise in a warm place, covered, for an hour or as convenient. Put the sherry in with the melted butter and gradually beat this into the dough with a wooden spoon, or the dough hook of a food processor (come to think of it if you soaked the currants and raisins in the sherry you’d probably do even better, but I was following Sir K). Once butter is completely absorbed beat in the raisins and currants, and put it in one well buttered 10 inch cake tin or two ordinary loaf tins – paint top or tops with a little milk. Leave to rise again for half an hour or so, till it’s definitely moving up the pan, and bake in a moderate oven, starting at 180 or so for about an hour and a half. Remove from the tin after an hour and tap the bottom. If still very soggy, put it back in upside down and continue cooking till it sounds done when you tap it. This is a sort of brioche/teabread. I was quite surprised by it – the recipe involves 12 eggs, pints of cream, etc. and I thought it would be incredibly rich and sweet till I worked out just HOW much flour was involved and did my sums. It did make a very nice cake (dried bean for the King of the Feast, optional)

Sue Patt said...

To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year. ~Elwyn Brooks White

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