Growing up in England, it wasn’t unusual to have the traditional Christmas cake this time of year. British Christmas cakes, the original, are complete with marzipan, spices, brandy, and royal icing. My mom used to bake them and taught me how to bake them as well. If you’ve ever had the British version of the Christmas cake, you’d know they’re usually put into the acquired taste category. This is often because the spices can be quite strong and of course, ours have liquor in them (especially home made). And since it’s added afterward, it isn’t cooked out during the baking process.
The cake is prepared and cooked two months before Christmas so that it can be stored and ‘fed’ with Brandy or Sherry, personal preference, weekly until Christmas. It contains the usual butter, flour, eggs, but also has spices (representing the wise men), black treacle, almonds and dried fruit. The marzipan rolled on top of apricot jam (helps it stick to the cake), and is then covered with Royal Icing (my favorite). This final step in the process and isn’t applied until a few days before Christmas.
The cake takes four to four and half hours to cook. Once it’s completely cooled, it’s placed in a lined tin, turned upside down where it’s skewed with holes, and put upside in a tin for storage. Each week brandy or sherry is poured into the holes keeping the cake moist and filling it with flavor. This process is called ‘feeding’ the cake. A week before Christmas the cake is covered with the apricot jam, marzipan, and icing. The icing will harden, and the cake will be ready to served throughout the holiday season with coffee or another brandy.
My mom’s Christmas cake truly was delicious, never a slice left. The year I offered to make the cake, wasn’t a good year for the famous Christmas cake. It started off well, looked like it should when I pulled it out the oven. Once cool, I placed it in the lined tin and pierced it with holes. Thus began the process of ‘feeding’ the cake by pouring brandy into the holes. I did this for two months. A whole bottle of brandy went into the cake.
When it was time to decorate the cake, I’m not kidding I could hardly lift the tin to pull down the cake from the storage shelf. I completely understood there was a bottle of brandy in there (not sure it should have been an entire bottle), but the full bottle didn’t feel as heavy as the cake did. It felt as if it had gained three times its original weight. How did that happen? (Now I understand why there are so many jokes about heavy Christmas or fruit cakes). OMG, mine! I couldn’t lift the cake by myself to deliver it to my parent’s house, took two of us. But once I got it there, I felt so proud that I had pulled off that cake, and it did look beautiful. Didn’t taste that great, but it looked gorgeous.
My mom admired the cake, complimented how it looked and praised the work that had gone into the process. My dad picked it up and burst out laughing (rightfully so). Mom gave him the stop it stare but then she tried to lift it and couldn’t help herself, burst out laughing as well. By then we were all laughing. That moment made it worth it. Cutting into the cake the brandy had kept it moist, and the icing and marzipan were delicious. It wasn’t the best tasting cake at all, in fact, it didn’t taste like mom’s, but again the brandy made it edible.
Most of it did get eaten that year, but I’m convinced that was because of the extra brandy, not the actual cake. I love these types of traditions; they bind people and families together. Mom was great at that, holding traditions together. I’d like to teach my girls how to make a cake like this or have them join in the process at least once. I know they likely won’t like the flavor, but I hope they can appreciate the process. I’ll have to find a new tradition in the kitchen for them.
If you do like Christmas cake, you must try cooking it the British way. It’s the original, the best (for that cake), and if you’ve acquired that flavor, tastes delicious.
Recipe from BBC Food (bbc.co.uk) find the process on the site.
500 g Currants
350 g Glazed Cherries
3 Egg whites
3 tsp Lemon juice
1 tsp Treacle, black
675 g of Icing Sugar
250 g Muscovado sugar, light
250 g Plain Flour
1 1/2 Spices, mixed
75 g Almonds
250 g Butter
675 g Marzipan
1/4 pt brandy or sherry (thus would have been my problem) not a bottle
3 tbs apricot jam.