The Mysteries of Christmas Cake–Unveiled (Sort of)

Ah, the Christmas cake, or “fruitcake” as it is fondly (and not so fondly) known. In the UK, they call it “rich” fruitcake, though the reason escapes me a bit–I think it’s because there is more dried fruit in it than in a “regular” fruitcake.

Now in the States, we abhor the fruitcake. We love to hate it, don’t we? I’ve never tried an American fruitcake and I don’t believe I ever will–all those green and red and orange candied fruits look, well, pretty gross. This is one thing British fruitcake has going for it–none of that scary stuff. But I have to say, it’s scary in its own right. My husband made the Christmas cake this year, a bit late (he waited until November when ideally it would’ve been done in early- to mid-June).

Here’s what the batter looked like pre-baking:

The blue paper is wrapped around the outer edge of the pan to keep it from burning. In Simon’s family, it’s traditional to use this particular blue paper (it’s actually a bag from the pharmacist saved year-after-year for the purpose, don’t ask me why). The paper is tied on with a string, also saved from year-to-year, and the batter must be stirred by the children of the family so they can make a wish and for good luck. (Perhaps they wish for a good excuse to not eat the Christmas cake.)

After all that, the cake is baked for a good four or five hours (the thing is enormous) and then set aside to cool and be iced with marzipan and tucked away for Christmas Day. I’ll post a photo of the end result here in a bit.

So what goes in a Christmas cake, exactly? Here’s a recipe that would have been used in large manor houses round about 1845:

  • 2 lb. mixed fruit (dried)
  • generous 1.5 lb. flour and butter
  • scant 1/2 lb. peel (lemon and orange)
  • 10 eggs
  • 1/2 lb. treacle

Cream the butter and whisk the eggs. Add flour and eggs to the butter and mix well until a stiff batter is formed. Add in the fruit and treacle. Mix the cake by hand (it will burn out a modern electric mixer). Turn it into a well-greased 9-inch tin and bake in a moderate oven (140 degrees Celsius/280 Fahrenheit) for about 5-6 hours. Wrap the tin in several layers of paper to stop the edges of the cake from burning.

Anyone want to give it a try and let me know how it turns out? We bought rolls of prepared marzipan to lay over the finished cake; for a view of what a finished product might look like, check here (ours looks nothing like these).

For a really large cake, the recipe recommends 10 lbs. of fruit, 8 lbs. of flour, 8 lbs. of butter, 2 lbs. of candied peel, about 50 eggs, and a little treacle. (If you make that one, do let me know. And send pictures.)

11 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Christmas Cake–Unveiled (Sort of)

  1. caralopezlee

    Disgusting and hilarious. My grandmother used to make the only fruitcake I actually liked, those nasty candied fruits aside. Hers was moist and flavorful and had raisins. If you made it with just the raisins, and left out those creepy red and green bits altogether, it would be downright delicious. However, at that point you might as well just make pumpkin-bread with raisins, which is tastier and makes more sense than nearly fruitless fruitcake.

    I made homemade egg nog the other night, another creepy holiday tradition – I usually end up with a few floaty bits of scrambled egg. This batch was fine, until I introduced the whipped egg whites. Next time I’ll try yolks-only – it was delicious and creamy at that point in the process. I’d give up, but sometimes all that cream and sugar are worth it.

    1. virginiaw Post author

      Now egg nog scares me even more than fruitcake! Don’t believe I’ve ever been brave enough to try it; perhaps it’s time I did.

  2. Rossandra White

    Thanks so much for this recipe and the lovely picture. Made my mouth water. I LOVE Christmas cake, but it must have the marzipan and hard icing on top. Whenever I return home to South Africa at Christmas-time, I always buy a couple to bring home . I’ve tried a couple of the fruitcakes here in California, but it’s not the same.

    1. virginiaw Post author

      My husband just put the royal icing on overtop the marzipan last night. Yeah, that’s some hard icing.

  3. beverlydiehl

    Okay, I looked up treacle. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be any scarier than molasses, but… really? Sounds gross. Plus, I don’t think my local grocery store carries treacle. (They might, they do carry Spotted Dick.)

    I actually have a friend who LOVES fruitcake, red and green candied fruits and all. I think I tried a piece, as a child, and one taste was enough. I hope you enjoy the one you mixed up, but that photo of the batter in process doesn’t look appealing to me.

  4. Mary

    Awesome. In Peru, they love “paneton”. Everyone asks me if we have “paneton” in the US. It’s very amusing to explain that yes, we do have friutcake, but that it is a joke and no one actually eats it. So far I have been able to avoid the “paneton” taste test.

    1. virginiaw Post author

      Mary, you should try it while you’re there–just once. Oh no, wait, you’re the picky eater…. 🙂

      1. Mary

        Picky aside, I have now eaten paneton. It has more of a roll texture. Not terrible, but I don’t think I’ll miss it next year.

  5. kelly garriott waite

    One year, having nothing to give to our piano teacher, my mother wrapped up a fruitcake someone sent to us for Christmas. Unfortunately, this piano teacher actually liked fruitcake. She ate it all. And for weeks, she pestered my mother for the name of the store where she’d bought the fruitcake. I’m not sure how Mom pulled it off, but she never gave another fruitcake away. Feeding it to the dog was much safer.


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