The origin and ancestry of Christmas shows us that it was actually an English tradition and that the cake was originally a plum porridge, which was eaten on Christmas Eve to line the stomach after fasting for a day. Over a period of time, honey, dried fruits and spices were incorporated, converting it into a Christmas pudding. By the 16th century, oats vanished from the pudding and were replaced by wheat flour, eggs and butter, which bound the concoction, creating a boiled plum cake. During Easter, affluent families, who possessed ovens started baking fruit cakes, with almond and sugar paste called marzipan. At Christmas, a cake quite like this one was made with seasonal fruit that was dried. The interesting addition was that of spices, which symbolised the exotic eastern spices that were brought by the Three Wise Men. This was perhaps the first avatar of what is known as a Christmas cake. In 1640, Oliver Cromwell had banned the tradition on Twelfth Night, the last day of festivity, the 4th day of January, and on Christmas, due to his austerity drives. Lily recapitulates the tradition of the Christmas cake, all over the world, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
Christmas comes every December without fail, but the ones that sailed through my wonder years were special. The excitement of putting up a manger and a nativity scene at school were just a part of the thrill of waiting for that first bite of the holy but sinfully rich Christmas cake. The foxy sly overtures towards Christian friends, whose mothers were adept at the exotic smelling cake were the beginning of my salivating for a chunky piece of the delectable cake. The greed to accumulate a healthy cache of this loot began in a meticulous manner, as my mother was beseeched to bake one as close to the real deal as she could. The memory that defies all others was the exuberance at discovering the sumptuous and lip smacking Allahabadi cake, during our stay in that city.
Christmas cake, as we know it today, is a sophisticated and classy genre of fruit cake with a robust constitution, served at Christmas time in many countries. A peep into its origin and ancestry shows us that it was actually an English tradition and that the cake was originally a plum porridge, which was eaten on Christmas Eve to line the stomach after fasting for a day. Over a period of time, honey, dried fruits and spices were incorporated, converting it into a Christmas pudding. By the 16th century, oats vanished from the pudding and were replaced by wheat flour, eggs and butter, which bound the concoction, creating a boiled plum cake. During Easter, affluent families, who possessed ovens started baking fruit cakes, with almond and sugar paste called marzipan. At Christmas, a cake quite like this one was made with seasonal fruit that was dried. The interesting addition was that of spices, which symbolised the exotic eastern spices that were brought by the Three Wise Men. This was perhaps the first avatar of what is known as a Christmas cake. In 1640, Oliver Cromwell had banned the tradition on Twelfth Night, the last day of festivity, the 4 th day of January, and on Christmas, due to his austerity drives.
Now, a cake baked around this time is malleable and flexible. It could be of any shape, leavened or not crumbly or sticky, dark or light, heavy or spongy. I know for a fact that every household gives the cake a unique character colored in their own individual personality. It might not necessarily be iced, glazed or may not have marzipan. Even though a plain Christmas cake is truly close to my greedy taste buds, I have distinct memories of lush, iced versions, with decorations of fir trees, Santa Claus and of snow covered houses.
To be honest, it was only after years of gorging avariciously on this divine creation that I realised that the secret ingredient in these winter wonders was a spot of alcohol! In Britain and other Commonwealth countries, the most popular version is the Scottish Christmas cake, popularly known as the Whisky Dundee. Currants, sultanas and raisins, with the addition of scotch whiskey make this light and crumbly cake a hot favorite. As the name suggests, it originated in Dundee. There was a tradition to add sixpence or silver coins as a symbol of good luck. They may be covered in grease proof paper. Mincemeat or vegetarian mince was also added to the egg and flour batter to make a different genre known as mincemeat Christmas cake. It could even be used in a Christmas pudding. Yorkshire fruit cakes were mostly eaten accompanied with Wensleydale cheese.
There is another cake, popular in the United Kingdom, during Christmas. It is a Swiss Roll coated in chocolate and is made to look like a log of wood. It is called a Yule log or chocolate log. The French word, Buche de Noel, referred to the actual log of wood that was actually lit in the hearth traditionally. By 1945, the cake came to be known as Yule log. It is traditionally made of Genoese and is a form of roulade served as a Christmas dessert in Belgium, France Lebanon, Quebec and other French colonies, basic yellow sponge cake with chocolate butter cream are the basics. A texture resembling a bark is reproduced by running a fork through the icing and some powdered sugar sprinkled to mimic snow. An end if the log may be cut off and placed on top, sticking out to look like a chopped off branch. It often has a decoration of holly leaves and cherries.
I often wonder if the traditions that were once associated with the preparations around baking are still observed or not. A few such traditions I know about. One is the ‘Stir Up’, which traditionally takes place on the last Sunday before Advent. The cake was made in November according to the tradition. It was allowed to mature for a month. The other tradition was that of ‘feeding of the cake’. Alcohol, such as sherry, brandy, whisky is added in minuscule amounts through tiny holes in the cake. All this while, the cake is kept in an air tight container. Another lesser known one is that cutting the cake before dawn in Christmas Eve is considered unlucky.
Italy’s sweet, spicy and dense Panforte, Germany’s Stollen and the Caribbean Islands Black Cake (a descendant of Britain’s plum pudding), must have been closely related to the modern fruit cake. People in the USA give fruit cakes as gifts on Christmas though they don’t have a name as such, while the Canadians do it the British way.
In Japan, the cake is a normal sponge with cream frosting and adorned with strawberries or chocolates. Western style desserts were the rage in Ginza, in Tokyo. This was during the days when the country was going through massive westernisation amongst the upper strata. Girls, who were unmarried at 25 years, those days, were known as Christmas cakes with scorn (unsold after the 25th ).
Huge amounts of rum and brandy mixed with a palm sugar syrup are used to soak the fruit cakes and pound cakes, in Philippines.The expensive Civet Musk is not used as before though rose water and orange flower water are still used in this liquor heavy cakes. Quite obviously they stay fresh for days!
I have already told you about the rich Allahabadi Christmas cake in the holy city of Triveni Sangam, where three rivers meet. The cake is made with the addition of petha (a kind of ash gourd preserve), marmalade, nuts, ginger and fennel, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon along with pure ghee (clarified butter). Bushy’s on the Kanpur Road has acquired cult status after being in business for four decades or so. Allahabad has a sizable Christian population and excellent schools full of hungry boarders. The bakeries dotted around town were famous but every Non Resident Allahabadi, who comes home to Allahabad for Christmas, will stand in the queue outside Bushy’s to wait their turn for the hand beaten cake after buying fresh ingredients from Lokenath galli. Did I mention that there is something called cake ka jeera, which is also added?
Ever since, I became aware of their perky temperament and frisky nature, I cut a thick slice with a guilty and furtive glance, at no one in particular, as I am truly a teetotaler. How silly can this Lily be!
Let me bid you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays with this recipe from BBC Good Food
I kg mixed dried fruits (raisins, sultanas, currants, cherries, cranberries, prunes or figs)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon and 1 orange
150 ml brandy, sherry, whisky or rum plus extra for feeding
250 g pack butter softened
200 g soft brown sugar
175g plain flour
100 g ground almond
Half tsp baking powder
2tsp mixed spice
1tsp ground cinnamon
One fourth tsp ground cloves
100 g flaked almond
I tsp vanilla eggs
Put the dried fruits, zest and juice, alcohol butter and sugar in a large pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes. Leave to cool for 30 minutes Heat oven to 150 C. Line a deep 20cm cake tin with a double layer of baking parchment and wrap the outside with double layer of newspaper. Tie with string to secure.
Add remaining ingredients to the fruit mixture taking care there are no air pockets in the flour. Tip into prepared tin, level the top with spatula and bake in the Centre of the oven for 2hrs.
Remove cake from oven. Poke holes with skewer and spoon in chosen alcohol. Let cake cool in tin. To store, peel off the parchment, wrap well in cling film and feed it with one or two tablespoon of alcohol every fortnight until you ice it. Don’t feed it on the last week in order to keep the surface dry for icing.
(From Good Food magazine)
Photos from the internet.
Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.