Christmas. A time for family, gifts, religious observation, and of course food. And what would be better to complete the feast than a Christmas cake?
The traditional Christmas cake, as we know it today, began life as a plum porridge. Porridge was traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve as a way to line the stomach after a day of fasting in preparation for the Christmas feast. Porridge isn’t the most exciting of foods, unadorned as it is, and certainly not a celebratory meal. Soon it was smartened up with the addition of spices, representing the exotic gifts from the Three Wise Men, honey and plums or dried fruit. This mixture was then wrapped in a cloth and boiled, and hence the Christmas pudding was born.
This was the base recipe for an Easter dish as well, with a few additions. In the 16th century people would prepare a Christmas pudding mix, but also add wheat flour and eggs to a portion of the base to create a cake for consumption at Easter time. Over time, the oatmeal was removed from the recipe, as was the meat that was often included, and more butter, eggs, and wheat flour were added. This helped the mixture to hold together much better than the sloppy gruel and dense puddings previously experienced. Wealthy families that could afford an oven baked their mixture which produced a different consistency again, resulting in a firmer cake, which over time was dropped from the Easter menu but has remained a Christmas favourite.
The addition of marzipan and royal icing came later when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers, concerned with excess, banned feasting on 5 January, observed as the last day of the Christmas celebrations. Instead, people made a special Twelfth Night Christmas cake which was laden with almonds and covered in marzipan, and feasted on that instead.
Christmas cakes are traditionally made on “stir-up Sunday”, the last Sunday before Advent; this year it was Sunday 20 November. The cake is then kept upside down and “fed” with brandy or whiskey every week before being eaten at Christmas. The alcohol and sugar act as preservatives and give the spices a chance to develop and fully infuse the cake with festive flavours.
Christmas cakes come in a wide a variety as presents; large, small, heavy, light, rich, meagre, soft, firm, wrapped or unwrapped. There are regional and local variations all over the world for this festive treat. The Scots make a Christmas Dundee cake which is light and crumbly, full of dried fruit, and of course, whiskey. A Japanese Christmas cake is a sponge with icing, decorated with chocolate and strawberries or other fruit. Philippine people use either a traditional English cake or a yellow pound cake with added nuts, which is then soaked in brandy and palm sugar syrup. Those in Yorkshire often don’t ice their Christmas cake, preferring to eat it with Wensleydale or cheddar cheese.
If you feel like getting back to basics, here is a 1701 recipe for a Christmas pottage:
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.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.