Crafty Christmas: Christmas Crackers

‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the expat house we were contemplating some slightly odd but fun English Christmas traditions. All hail the Christmas Cracker! (And featuring a make-this-at-home tutorial.)


Homemade Christmas Crackers.

First, a history lesson. In 1847, one Tom Smith, a baker, invented the Christmas cracker, which evolved from a ‘bon bon’ he discovered in Paris. The bon bon was a sugared almond wrapped in a twist of tissue paper. Smith developed the bon bon into the cracker of today, including within it a love motto as well as a sweet. Eventually—and this is very much about marketing, dear reader—he had the idea to include a teeny, tiny bang—a strip of cardboard running the length of the cracker impregnated with a chemical that, when pulled, creates the distinctive “bang” of a cracker.

Today, a Christmas cracker is placed at each person’s seat at the table on Christmas day, and, when everyone is feeling suitably merry, usually halfway through the meal in my family’s case, we start to pick up our crackers, present one end to our neighbor, and pull. Some people like to say the person who ends up with the longer portion of cracker gets to keep the prize inside, others say that whoever the cracker belonged to originally gets to keep the prize. You decide.

Today, every cracker—at least the bog standard ones—contains a paper crown (it’s history, folks: the wearing of hats at Christmas dates back to Roman times and Saturnalia celebrations, sources tell me), a very bad joke (and it must be a very bad joke) and a cheap, usually plastic, prize. (There are exceptions to this; more below.)

Examples of bad Christmas cracker jokes:

How do snowmen get around?
  They ride an icicle.

What does Santa do with overweight elves?
 He sends them to an Elf farm.

Why couldn’t the skeleton go to the Christmas party?
 He had no body to go with.

Why are pirates called pirates?
   Because they arrrrrr!

You can make your own Christmas crackers, as I did—examples in the photo above—or you can buy them. The robin cracker was from a kit and included the paper hat, the joke, and the “bang” but no prize, so I could choose my own. I chose a nice fake mustache for that one because I happened to have one lying around. (No, really, I did.)


Put the prizes inside the cracker before you roll it up.

Ta da!

It’s easy enough to use a kit, and they’re available in many places, but there’s an easier way to make a cracker using toilet paper tubes, tissue paper, and a bit of glue. And, of course, your prizes.


Collect all these items, insert your prizes—I like chocolate myself—cut your tissue or wrapping paper, glue your tube and wrap the paper around, tying the ends with some festive ribbon. Easy peasy.

Here’s a photo of Christmas cracker prizes from years past—not plastic ones, because they always get thrown away (except for the mustache, it’s definitely plastic)—because doesn’t everyone keep their cracker prizes forever?

Christmas cracker prizes from years past—because doesn’t everyone hold on to this stuff?

Now, if you want to talk posh, rather expensive Christmas crackers that the other 1% might have at their Christmas dinner, I’ve found a selection for you. Try Harrod’s first. Their crackers (I’ve chosen to share the most expensive crackers available) are filled with things like cashmere socks, a leather credit card case or an 18-carat gold bangle. Six of these crackers do not come cheap, but of course, when money is no object, well, enjoy. These will cost you £499, or roughly $748.50. But it’s Christmas, so why not?

Perhaps you fancy the crackers from Selfridge‘s, which contain a tea infuser, golf tees, wooden dice, and a mini whisk, among other prizes. This set of 6 will set you back £60, which is about $90. Joke and paper crown included.

Last, I’ll send you over to Harvey Nichols, or Harvey Nick’s, as the Brits call it. This box features six crackers, each filled with a miniature bottle (a 3cl dram, to be exact) of gin along with the party hat and joke, and will cost you £57, or roughly $85.50. Cheers!


Tasty Tuesday Repeat: Christmas Cake

As it is the festive season and I’m feeling a bit tired and unoriginal, I’m giving you, dear readers, a repeat post from 2011. The Mysteries of Christmas Cake–Unveiled (Sort of). Enjoy!

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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.)

Tasty Tuesdays on

This Week in England

It’s been a funny week here in the Expatrimummy household, and by funny I mostly mean looong. The littlest Expatrimummy had his tonsils removed last Saturday and there has been much fetching and making and worrying. He’s fine, though still a way off from a full recovery and is looking forward to the day when he can talk without worrying that “my throat is going to die” from pain.

Adding to the funny-ness of the week is that great culinary delight known to Americans as jello. It’s been a popular food item here this week, along with ice cream, and in the nation itself.
Jelly—as they call it here—with ice cream is a popular dessert for children’s parties, and I decided to mix up a batch of jello, er, jelly, for my youngest. I’ve never made it here before but at least knew to expect that jelly comes as a cube, not a powder, like in America. (Envision my teenager shrieking, “It’s wrong! That’s not jello! Jello is meant to be a powder not a cube!”)

This, my American friends, is the start of English jello. Jelly. (Not to be confused with the American jam/jelly that you spread on your toast.)  Look at this massive cube of gelatinous, um, gelatin, and you will understand why Brits think a peanut butter and jelly sandwich sounds disgusting. You can actually eat this cube on its own, but if you want to make jello, you get a whole little pack of cubes, about 12 in all, that you break up and pour hot water over, then stir to dissolve. Top it up with cold water, stick it in the fridge, and, ta-da! Jello. Jelly. Whatever.

In other oddities, how about this:


Yep, that’s a bit of ivy that has grown up the outer wall of the house, into the roof, and through a crack between the roughly 350-year-old oak beam that supports our ceiling and our living room wall. Now, if we could just get some holly growing indoors too, the Christmas decorating would be finished.

Parkin Cake

Parkin Cake

Parkin Cake

Here’s another recipe I pulled out of a magazine over a year ago with a view to making and sharing on the blog. Parkin cake is, apparently, a tradition in the North of England and not the South, where we live—which may explain why I’d never heard of it before. It dates back to about 1728 and is associated with Guy Fawkes night, or bonfire night, when Brits celebrate the man who tried to bring down the government by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. He failed and was hung, drawn, and quartered. Ouch.

Parkin cake was known as the cake of the poor, because it used oats—the staple grain of the poor—as one of its main ingredients and was traditionally made in early November, after the oats were harvested, which is probably why it became associated with bonfire night, the 5th of November. Essentially, it’s a gingerbread with oatmeal in it and makes a tasty snack on a cold autumn night.

Parkin Cake
Serves 12-15

100g / 4 oz / .5 cup butter
100g / 4 oz / .5 cup soft dark brown sugar
1 tbsp black treacle/molasses
4 tbsp golden syrup/corn syrup
225 g / 8 oz / 2.5 cups oatmeal
100 g / 4 oz / 7/8 cup self-raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda/baking soda
pinch of salt
2 tsp ground ginger
2 beaten eggs
2 tbsp milk

  1. Preheat oven to gas mark 2/ 150°C / 130°C fan / 300°F.
  2. Melt butter, brown sugar, black treacle/molasses and 4 tbsp golden syrup/corn syrup in a pan over low heat.
  3. Let the butter and molasses mixture cool a little, then stir it into a bowl with the oatmeal,  self-raising flour, bicarbonate of soda/baking soda, pinch of salt and ground ginger.
  4. Mix in the eggs and milk. Spoon into a greased and lined 20.5cm/8 in square cake pan and bake for about 1 to 1.5 hours, until golden.
  5. Allow the cake to cool in the tin, then turn out. Wrap well in greaseproof/waxed paper and store in a container for up to three days.


Tasty Tuesdays on