The traditional Christmas cake is the merger of two dishes traditionally eaten around the Christmas period, Plum porridge or pottage and the Twelfth Night cake. The plum porridge was first cited in 1573 and was traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve. It was also the origins of the Christmas pudding and like mincemeat it contained meat and dried fruit.
During the 16th Century the mix would have been boiled and it was not until richer families had ovens in the home, that the mix was baked. The Christmas cake evolved when dried fruit of the season and spices (the spices were symbolic, the spices bought by the Magi) were added at then eaten at Christmas. The cake was originally eaten not at Christmas but on the Twelfth Night (5th January.)
With the slow decline in popularity of the Twelfth Night and the gradual increase in Christmas festivities in the 1830’s, the cake was eaten on or around Christmas Day. With this shift the bakers of the Victorian era started to decorate the cakes with winter snow scenes. They became very popular at Christmas parties and by the 1870’s the modern Christmas cake had developed.
There are a couple of traditions surrounding Christmas Cake; The first is the ‘Stir Up’ which traditionally takes place on the last Sunday before Advent. The second is the ‘feeding of the cake’ when alcohol, usually brandy, sherry or whisky is added in small amounts through small holes in the cake and the final tradition which is not so common now but was in Victorian times, it was thought to be unlucky to cut the cake before dawn on Christmas Eve.
Here is a recipe for a 15cm (6 inch) cake;
50g Glace Cherries
50g Dried Apricots or Apple
25g Candied peel
2 tbsp. Brandy / Whiskey / Somerset Cider Brandy
100g Plain flour
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
100g softened butter
100g Dark Muscovado sugar
2 Large eggs
25g Chopped almonds or walnuts (optional)
1/2 tablespoon black treacle
1/2 the rind of a lemon
1/2 the rind of an orange
Place the cherries, dried fruits and brandy together and leave overnight.
Add everything else and beat well, then spoon in the soaked fruits and mix well.
Place into a well buttered and lined 15cm round baking dish
Bake at 140 C / 120 C Fan for 3.5 hours
Allow to completely cool before removing from the tin, wrapping in baking parchment and then foil and storing in an airtight container. Then once a week add additional brandy if required into holes made with a cocktail stick and wrap up again.
Prior to serving or the week before Christmas roll out a round of marzipan and fondant icing and decorate.