Christmas really wouldn’t be Christmas without a slice or two of deliciously dense and fruity Christmas cake, the perfect way to round off the Christmas feasting. All over the world you will find a myriad of recipes for this sweet and sticky cake, with many families passing down treasured recipes that have stood the test of time, year after year.
History of Christmas cake
It is believed that the cake originated centuries ago in the U.K., when people used to eat plum porridge on Christmas Eve, primarily a sturdy dish to line the stomach after the day’s fasting. Gradually, spices, dried fruits, honey and so on were introduced to the porridge, which eventually turned into a pudding which would be boiled for many hours. Later, in the 16th century, butter began to be included, and flour replaced the traditional oatmeal, along with eggs, to help bind the cake. This became boiled plum cake, an early version of the Christmas cake we know today.
As with the tradition for Christmas pudding, coins were also occasionally added to Christmas cakes, an omen of good luck for those who found them. The usual choices were silver sixpence pieces, sometimes wrapped in grease-proof paper packages.
Nowadays, Christmas cake can take many forms: It can be light or dark, crumbly, sticky or even wet, spongy or heavy, and can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, decorated with marzipan, icing, glaze, a dusting of sugar, with dried fruits or nuts as decoration, or just plain.
Cayman’s unique twist
In Cayman, much preparation goes into making the traditional Christmas cake, often starting months ahead of time with the soaking of dried fruits in liquor, most likely rum. Indeed, sometimes it’s just called rum cake, no doubt a reference to the quantity of rum added to the cake! Caymanians sometimes follow the Caribbean tradition of black cake – a particular favorite in Jamaica and Trinidad – which has fruits soaked in rum up to a year ahead of time, as cooks begin the soaking process just as Christmas ends, for the next year’s cake.
Ben Kallenbach, executive pastry chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, makes a good many Christmas cakes at this time of year, especially for Christmas brunch, a specialty of the resort. He shares with Weekender his special recipe.
Making Christmas cake is really a two-step process. First, you need to ensure all fruits are properly immersed in your liquor of choice, for as long as possible ahead of the actual preparation of the cake.
Ingredients for the soaked fruits
- 14oz / 400g golden raisins
- 14oz / 400g dried currants
- 2 oranges, zest only
- 2 lemons, zest only
- 2 croissants
- ½ apple, grated
- 3oz / 80g candied mixed peel
- 1.75oz / 50g candied cherries
- 3.5oz / 100g brandy
- 5oz / 150g dark beer
A word about the fruits: Chef Ben says you can be creative with the fruits you introduce at this stage. Dried cranberries, dried chopped dates, figs and apricots all make lovely additions as long as you keep to the overall volume of fruit. You can also vary the liquor that you add. Instead of dark beer (Chef Ben’s uses Newcastle Brown Ale for depth of flavor), try Guinness, whiskey, rum or even the apple liqueur, Calvados. Again, ensure you use the same volume of liquid for immersing the fruit.
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl; toss to ensure everything is coated and mixed.
Place in a covered container and put in a cool, dark place. Let sit for 48 hours, then mix everything again. Let sit as long as possible; remember to mix fruits every week or so.
Ingredients for the cake mixture
- 4 eggs
- 10oz / 280g butter
- 5.6oz / 160g brown sugar
- 5.6oz / 160g bread flour
- ½ tsp / 2g salt
- 1tsp / 4g all spice
- ½ tsp / 2g cinnamon
- 2tsp / 8g baking powder
Place butter and sugar into mixing bowl with paddle attachment. Chef Ben says it doesn’t really matter what type of sugar you use – it can be light brown, soft brown or even turbinado, but it must be brown to give a nice molasses flavor and deep color. Cream together until well combined. Chef Ben recommends you cream room temperature butter, otherwise the mix will take longer to come together into a nice, smooth batter.
Slowly add the eggs (also at room temperature) and mix until fully combined. Adding the eggs one by one means you should avoid curdling the mix, again furthering a smooth batter. Chef Ben says this is important for the structure and body of the cake.
Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and spices. The beauty of making a Christmas cake is that you can mix up many of the ingredients to suit your palate, and this includes the spices. Chef Ben chose cinnamon and allspice, but you could add nutmeg, cloves and/or dried ginger. Add sifted dry ingredients and mix until fully combined. It’s very important to scrape down the sides of your mixing bowl at this point to ensure a good even mix of the ingredients. Add soaked fruits mixture and mix until fully combined. Here Chef Ben mixes the batter by hand as he says it’s easier to incorporate all the batter this way. And don’t worry if the mixture seems disproportionately heavy on the side of the fruits – you just need enough batter to cover the fruits. Pour mixture into desired cake pan, mold or bundt pan that has been sprayed with pan spray.
Bake at 350 F until brown and cake tester comes out clean. This may take a couple of hours, so watch the cake carefully, checking every 20 minutes or so to ensure it’s not browning too quickly. If it is, either turn the oven down to as low as 330 F, or put foil over the cake. While still warm, brush cake with desired liquor (rum, brandy, whiskey, etc.). It’s important to add the liquor while it’s still warm, to ensure good absorption of the liquid.
To decorate, brush with warm apricot jam, then cover in marzipan and fondant icing, or why not showcase what’s inside the cake, with a beautiful array of dried fruits or nuts atop your splendid creation?