Whether you enjoy Christmas Cake or not, Christmas doesn’t tend to feel the same without this traditional treat. It appears as a simple gift from your workplace, an option on many dessert menu’s leading up to Christmas Day and out of your freezer throughout the following year. Christmas cake takes on many forms with recipes which have been passed down for generations with their own little twist.
Christmas Pudding was actually sent to Australia’s first colonists in Christmas hampers from the old country. This came as a much appreciated taste of home; the spicy reminder of a cold snowy Christmas so very unlike Australia’s summer heat.
“The recipe has made some radical changes…”
Looking further into the history of Christmas cakes or the Twelfth Night Cake (a cake cut on the twelfth and final day of Christmas), it’s surprising that what we know as a delicious fruit pudding or fruit cake was not always so. Delicious? Perhaps. The recipe has made some radical changes from its very humble beginnings.
Some four or five hundred years ago, you would find today’s deliciously rich, fruity cake in a very different form; a thick meaty porridge, with a little treat of dried fruit mixed in and made on Christmas eve to fill up hungry stomachs after a long day of fasting for the religious holiday.
Dried fruit and sugar were scarce, but plums in the porridge made the ordinary (and what was then) every-day fare into something special for the holiday. Some fruits would have been gathered and carefully dried in the summer time to be saved for the mid-winter feast. While apples may have been stored away fresh in the cellar.
By the eighteenth century, sugar and dried fruit had become more readily available and were used in larger amounts. The meat, vegetables, oatmeal and whole wheat that had originally been staple ingredients were decreased or skipped entirely being replaced for sweeter ingredients and even breadcrumbs or fine flour.
A 1707 recipe for Christmas Pottage reads:
Take of Beef-soup made of Legs of Beef, 12 Quarts; if you wish it to be particularly good, add a couple of Tongues to be boil’d therein.
Put fine Bread, slic’d, soak’d, and crumbled; Raisins of the Sun, Currants and Pruants two Lbs. of each; Lemons, Nutmegs, Mace and Cleaves are to be boil’d with it in a muslin Bag; add a Quart of Red Wine and let this be follow’d, after half an Hour’s boyling, by a Pint of Sack.
Put it into a cool Place and it will keep through.
Very different to what we know today!
The traditional Christmas eve porridge gradually changed to a rich pudding, wrapped in a cloth and boiled. Upper-class homes, which boasted ovens, started baking the mixture creating what we know today as Christmas cake. These were traditionally made the Sunday before the first day of advent , a date that became nicknamed ‘Stir-Up Sunday”. The alcohol and sugar acted as preservatives as well as providing extra maturing time which gave the spices a chance to meld and fully flavour the pudding or cake.
Ovens became more common in middle-class homes during the nineteenth century, and a baked Christmas cake became possible in almost every home. There were regional differences in the preparation and presentation of Christmas cakes; some simple, with a dusting of powdered sugar; others with elaborate marzipan frostings and a touch of Christmas colour.
“…meat, vegetables, oatmeal and whole wheat..”
Christmas cakes became a combination of all the best things from the pantry: dried fruit, exotic spices, well-aged spirits. In spite of the different hands that stirred it, the variations in recipe and toppings, they are all a representation of Christmas cake.
Your Christmas cake this year is part of this grand tradition, a tradition that began as a simple meat porridge cooked over a fire, with just a bit of sweetness to make the day special. When you bite into your fruitcake this Christmas, savour its history as you enjoy its sweet, rich taste.
Merry Christmas from A Little Cake Place!
Written by: Hannah Mosher
Edited by: Caitlin Mitchell