The origins of the modern-day Christmas Cake complete with almond paste or marzipan and white royal icing are obscure. Early versions, during the Middle Ages, tended to be more in the style of sweetened bread with fruit added. No mention is made, in these early recipes, of marzipan which, at the time, was called marchpane and used, along with fresh fruits of the season, candies, nuts, sweetmeats, spiced cakes and other delicacies on or around the 6 December. This was the day when Saint Nicholas was reputed to visit the house with gifts of gold1 and sweets including gingerbread and marchpane.
A recipe dating from 1730 shows that the UK was already preparing rich fruit cakes although it was actually called 'Plumb Cake'. Among the ingredients for this were (with original spellings):
currants, flower, cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmegs, pounded and blanced almonds, sliced citron lemon, orange piele, Rong water, ale, yest, cream and butter milke.
The method employed was to simply mix all the components together and leave for a few hours to 'prove' and 'rise', then cook in an open fire. The Icing was formed from
doubt icsind sugar' and 'ye whites of 4 eggs put in but one at a time. Beat them in a bason with a silver spoon till tis very leight and white.
This early forerunner of the Christmas Cake would have only been available to the more well-off families due to the high price of the ingredients.
During the next 100 years conditions in the kitchen improved with the introduction of stoves equipped with ovens and water boilers. More cooking utensils, including a better range of pots and pans, became available and flour was 'rolled' rather than 'stone-ground' to produce a much finer grain. By the early 1830s more exotic foods were being imported and packaged goods sold in shops. Self-raising flour, baking powder, quick-acting yeast, custard powder and tinned goods opened up a whole new world to the cook, as did reductions in the price of sugar, fruit and other imports. Almond paste and icings of all varieties were now used for most cakes and cake decoration was considered an art form.
The Rich Fruit Cake
Try to make the cake a few weeks before Christmas to allow the outer edges time to dry before applying the almond paste although freezing the cake seems to do the same trick. If you do decide to freeze it make sure that no water can get in. A basic rich fruit cake will keep for several months or even years if it is cooked properly. If you intend icing the cake make sure that you use plain flour as self-raising flour may cause the top to crack. This recipe requires a 9" (22.5 cm) cake tin, 3½" (10cm) deep.
- 12oz (340 grams) butter or margarine
- 12oz (340 grams) Demerara sugar
- 6 eggs
- 1lb (454 grams) plain flour
- 1lb (454 grams) sultanas
- 1lb (454 grams) currants
- 4oz (113 grams) raisins
- 6oz (170 grams) candied peel
- 2oz (58 grams) maraschino cherries
- 4oz (113 grams) chopped almonds
- ½ tspn (2.5ml) mixed spice
- 2 tblspn (30ml) black treacle
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1 wineglass brandy or flavoured liqueur
- Greaseproof paper
- Thick brown paper or newspaper
First prepare the tin. Mark and cut out a double round of greaseproof paper to fit the bottom of the tin. Then cut a double strip 1½" higher than the sides of the tin. Fold a half-turn and cut across this with diagonal cuts ½" apart. Grease the tin with butter or vegetable oil and place the strip around the side so that the ½" fold lies evenly on the bottom. Put the double circle in the base and grease the paper lightly.
Cream the fat until it is soft. Add the sugar and continue creaming until the mixture turns a lighter colour and the sugar is completely blended in. Beat in the eggs one at a time adding a little flour with each to prevent the mixture 'curdling'. Now add the sifted flour and salt, the rest of the ingredients and combine them well. The mixture should be quite stiff, but if you are worried just add a little more brandy.
Put the mixture in the tin and tie the brown paper or newspaper around the outside securing firmly with the string. Cover the top with a triple round of greaseproof paper.
Bake for 6½ hours on Gas Mark 1 - 140°C or 275°F on the bottom shelf. Remove the top cover of paper after 3 hours. Try to resist opening the oven door too much and cook the cake alone as the presence of other food may affect the cooking time.
To check if the cake is cooked through properly gently insert a metal skewer. If, when you pull it out, there is no mixture clinging to the skewer the cake is done.
Allow to cool completely and remove the paper before freezing or storing in a cake tin.
A tip for those who like more alcohol in their cake. About 1 week before you intend adding the almond paste unfreeze the cake. Use a metal skewer to make a few small holes in the top and gently pour in a few drops of brandy or another liqueur. Cointreau or Grand Marnier are compatible flavours but avoid coffee or chocolate-based ones!
There are many ready-made pastes available but making your own allows for adjustment of the flavour. This recipe should make enough to cover the cake with some left over. With the addition of a little food colouring the remaining paste can be shaped and formed into leaves, flowers and fruits. Alternatively you can paint the colouring on with a small brush as the paste will absorb it.
If preferred, only the top of the cake need be iced and the sides wrapped with a festive cake band. In this instance use a quarter of the ingredients to make the following two recipes.
- 1lb (454 grams) icing sugar
- 4oz (113 grams) caster sugar
- 10oz (283 grams) ground almonds
- 3 eggs
- 1 tblspn rum
- ½tspn almond essence
- 1 tspn lemon juice
- Apricot jam
- Extra icing sugar
Sift the sugar to remove any lumps and mix with the ground almonds. Beat the eggs in a bowl over a pan of hot water until slightly cooked. Add gradually to the sugar and almonds, incorporating the rum2, essence and lemon juice. At first use a wooden spoon, then, when the mixture starts to thicken, use your hands to form a smooth paste.
Sprinkle a pastry board or work surface with plenty of sieved icing sugar. Roll out the paste and, using the cake as a template, cut out a circle for the top and strip for the side. Try to use only one strip for the outer edge. If the cake has slightly burnt edges or is uneven on the top, carefully slice off the top and invert the cake. This should provide a flat base for icing.
Sieve the apricot jam and warm gently in a pan. Use a pastry brush to completely cover the top and sides of the cake.
Turn the cake onto its side and roll it over the strip. Trim the edges so that they touch without a bump and apply a little more jam to seal the join. Add the top using the same method. Place in a cake tin and leave for at least three days before completing the decoration with Royal Icing.
Traditionally this icing should be pure white and set fairly hard. It can either be smoothed over the cake in order for more intricate piped decorating or teased into 'peaks' for a 'snow scene' effect. There are plenty of ornaments available for Christmas Cakes, both edible and inedible and some excellent ready-to-use piping sets in a variety of colours.
- 1lb (454 grams) icing sugar
- 1 tspn lemon juice
- Whites of 2 eggs
- A few drops of blue food colouring
- 2 tspns glycerine (optional)
Sift the icing sugar. Mix the lemon juice and egg whites in a bowl and gradually add the icing sugar. Beat with a wooden spoon for 10 to 15 minutes until the icing is smooth and white. A few drops of blue will stop the icing turning yellow when kept and the glycerine will prevent the icing becoming too brittle. It should be beaten until stiff enough to hold the spoon upright. Keep the icing malleable by covering the bowl with a damp cloth.
Cover the cake and use a knife dipped in hot water if requiring a smooth surface. The peaked effect works better with a dry knife but don't extend them too far as they can be quite sharp when completely set! Remember to leave room between the peaks for the ornaments.