Our Christmas Cake feature is brought to you by Tasti – Proudly New Zealand owned and picking out the best quality ingredients for kiwi bakers since 1932.
Written and researched by Sally Cameron.
A Christmas cake is one of those things that when served up on the festive table there are those that do and those that don’t have a nibble. For many, it is an immediate choice and relived every Christmas. In fact, Christmas cakes are traditionally given as gifts which the happy recipient will peck away at well into the New Year. But, no matter what, as every aunty, granny, nana and dedicated home baker will tell you this is a cake prepared with a little planning, and a whole lot of love. The recipients of such sincere baked slabs should be genuine enthusiasts.
Described as a ‘rich fruit cake’ the base of this cake come from the autumn harvest the season before. Customarily the fruits that aren’t scoffed fresh or baked in pies and desserts, are dried and sugar coated so that they will store well for a long cold winter. These fruits are valuable resource in the repertoire of a baker. A well-made Christmas cake is the best way to show off the finest preserved and seasonal ingredients.
Why make a Christmas cake?
Feasting and festivals go hand in hand. Some rituals go unchanged over time even in our ‘modern’ culinary society. The true Christmas cake has a distinct Anglo Saxon heritage. Remembering that Christmas is in the Winter in the Northern Hemisphere, is the first validation to why this cake comes out at this time of year.
The Christian church celebrates 6 January as Epiphany, the day on which the Christ child was shown to the three kings. This date is also Twelfth Night, or the last of the twelve days of Christmas. A Christmas cake is often thought to be an adaptation of the twelfth night cake or galette des rois.
Interestingly, although Christmas is suppose to be celebrating the birth of Christ, there are many other pagan festivals that occur around the same time including the winter solstice. Therefore the Christmas cake is more or less symbolic to all of these winter rituals. These cakes were also designed to last through the seasons, as previously in our kitchens we didn’t have refrigeration.
Here in New Zealand, we continue to make it because we too can showcase our own dried fruits bought or home grown in the same traditional way all simply as a make your on gift. It may not be first on the wish list in a traditional Christmas feast, but with a little tampering a cake can be made to suit the fussiest of palates.
What is a Christmas cake?
Christmas cake is considered more a sweet bread, rather than a butter cake. Original recipes, from the time of the stone ovens and straw covered kitchen floor, excluded such things as dairy fat and utilised un-refined flours and the sugary sweetness of the fruits to bind it all together. Over time fruit cakes developed into buttery batter-cakes compiled with a mixture of dried fruits and nuts.
Nowadays, even and proportional quantities of butter, eggs, sugar and flour are combined to provide the mortar between the fruits. The cake can be embellished with the flavour of citrus, spices, Muscat grapes, roasted nuts and even chocolate to give extra depth and body.
The heart of a good cake
One thing I do know about a Christmas cake is that it needs to be made with time and love. Personally, I have rushed cakes, trying to get them in the oven and tick that chore off my long Christmas to do list. And boy, does the final product suffer. You can feel the haste in every crumb.
Considering the time it takes for the tree to develop the fruit for our supply, the greatest respect should be given to that fruit as the building blocks of the cake structure and overall taste. It is important to take time to prepare the fruit well. Mix the ingredients properly and even take care when prepping the tin. Let the oven cook it slowly. Store well and ice it with finesse.
The long list of ingredients for a Christmas cake is usually the first thing that can put any cook off. But a lot of it is complimentary store cupboard ingredients and are used to provide layers of flavour within a perfect cake.
Dried fruits – Freshly dehydrated, glace or candied fruits make the flavour and ‘bricks’ of the cake. Before adding dried fruits to any mixture check them for quality, plumpness and freshness. Use juicy looking fruits especially if choosing not to soak, they will not get any plumper in the baking process. Older more wrinkled fruits can be bought back to life with soaking, steaming or pouring boiling water over for a few minutes. Soaking of fruit usually means using a fruit syrup, liqueur or even fruit juice for saturation. Overnight will be a good start but the fruit can handle being soaked up to a week in cooler areas for maximum benefits. Sticky fruit is easy to chop with scissors dipped in hot water.
Citrus zing – Use citrus like lemon, lime or orange, to give natural zing to the cake. Grate the zest only, not the white pith which gives a very bitter taste. Marmalade is often a good store cupboard alternative to also give a citrus taste to the cake. Candied peel provides texture as well as citrus taste. Make your own candied peel or use store bought.
Booze or not to booze – Alcohol works to give a rich flavour, moist crumb and to keep the cake free of mould spores throughout storage. Brandy, sherry, Muscat wines, rum, whiskey or even liqueurs work to preserve and flavour. Don’t skimp on the quality of the alcohol – it will make a difference.
Nuts – Nuts like fruit give the cake texture. They can be ground or roughly chopped, or simply arranged on top of the cake before cooking. Try to use skinned nuts, and make sure you buy them fresh. Toasting nuts gives extra flavour, but be careful not to over cook as the burnt taste can scar a golden cake.
Sugar – A basic building block of the batter. Unrefined brown sugars are usual. Different types of muscovado sugar gives a richer more robust cake, but simple light brown sugar will make the cake golden. The darker the sugar the richer the cake will become.
Butter – Makes the cake moist with a good mouth feel. Make sure the butter is soft, preferably at room temperature. The fat content of any fruit cake is high and therefore the butter needs to be well creamed with the sugar. The weight of the butter is usually equal to the weight of each of the flour, sugar and eggs.
Eggs – Fresh eggs are best. The eggs are the main aeration in the cake accounting for a little rising in the finished product. Beat eggs before adding to make mixing easier.
Flour – Flour is gluten that binds. The spices are generally sifted in with the flour. A strong gluten flour is desirable, ideally preferring a high grade flour or sometimes even bread flours are used. This cake doesn’t usually use a raising agent like baking powder. Alternative Gluten free flours can be used, selecting bread flours that have a stronger base.
Mixed spice – Generally a combination of ground cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, caraway, cloves or any mix of above.
Making the cake
Always plan to bake the cake ahead of time. Make the time to prepare all the ingredients and the tin before anything is mixed together.
Assess the oven – All ovens vary and are only ever guaranteed accurate to the nearest 10°C, so watch carefully. Gas ovens tend to be slower than electric at low temperatures. If your oven is on the hot side, reduce specified temperatures slightly. If it is slow, don’t necessarily turn up the heat, but do expect to cook it for longer.
Choose and line the tin – Xmas cakes are conventionally made in a round tin but square tins of equal size can be substituted. It is important to line the tin correctly with paper as it protects the cake from burning and forming an uneven crust.
Butter the tin first to help the baking paper stick to it. Place the tin on a large piece of baking paper which has been folded in half, and draw around it. Cut out the circles. Measure around the sides of the tin with a piece of string. Use the string to help you cut out a strip of baking paper slightly longer than the circumference of the tin and three times its height. Fold the strip in half lengthways. Fold up about 2.5cm of the bottom and make little cuts up to the fold line. Sit the strip inside the tin with the cuts at the bottom – this will form an edge to the paper. Press the paper against the sides so it fits snugly. Place the baking paper circles in the bottom of the tin and press down. Repeat with brown paper the stack the strips together to help the pieces all hold together.
Mixing the batter – Like any cake, spend time to work the butter and sugar to a cream and allow the sugar to fully dissolve. This usually takes about 10-15 minutes with an electric mixer. The eggs should be added one at time and whipped into the sugar mix before adding the next. Sift the flour and dry ingredients once or twice. The flour usually is mixed with the dried fruit before adding to the wet mixture, so that the sugary fruits especially if flavoured with booze won’t split the delicate egg proteins or sink in the end cake. The mixture needs to be well combined so that every bit of fruit is completely coated with batter.
Cooking the cake – Spoon the mixture in the tin pressing it down into the sides of the tin. Bang tin on the bench a couple of times to settle any bubbles. Smooth the top down with the back of a warm wet spoon. Put the cake into the centre of a fairly warm oven to begin with, to heat the batter through and start the cooking. After about 20 minutes, you should reduce the heat slightly. After a further 40 minutes, reduce it once more, to a low temperature that will not scorch the cake during the rest of the cooking period. Avoid opening the oven door for the first hour as this can cause the temperature to drop. If the cake browns too quickly, cover the top with foil. Allow the cake to cool in the tin.
Storing the cake – A good Christmas cake can be made 6 months ahead of serving time. An un-iced cake should be stored for at least 2 weeks before serving to let the flavours develop properly. Store in an air tight container, in a cool, dry place or refrigerate or freeze if humid.
Feeding the cake with extra brandy after baking is an old custom to help preserve the moisture in the cake. Invert the cake when cold and make several holes in the base with a skewer. Spoon 2 tablespoons brandy over the holes so it soaks in. Rewrap and feed at 1-2 weekly intervals until ready to ice. Wrap in double thickness of greaseproof paper, overwrap in foil and store in a cool dry place for up to 6 months.
Decorating Christmas cakes
A well made fruit cake is just as nice served without decoration and icing as it is with. It can be served simply sprinkled with icing sugar or decorated more elaborately with royal icing. For a smooth finish and a rich flavour, you can cover the cake with marzipan before you ice it. Apply the marzipan about a week before you plan to ice the cake: then store the cake, loosely covered with foil, so that the marzipan dries somewhat. Otherwise, oil from the almond paste will discolour the icing.
It always pays to ice or glaze a cake closer to the time of serving. This may be days before instead of hours but the devil is the detail, and it is up the baker how elaborate this festive creation becomes.
To make marzipan – Mix 450g (2 cups) ground almonds with 225g (1 ¾ cup) sifted icing sugar, and 220g (1 cup) caster sugar. Add ½ teaspoon almond essence, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon sherry, 4 egg yolks and mix well. Knead together until moist and smooth. If the mixture is still too dry, add another egg yolk. Use at once or wrap in plastic wrap until needed. To apply the marzipan, warm some apricot jam and brush it over the top and sides of the cake, discarding any pieces of apricot or pieces of dried cake.
Take about half the marzipan and roll it out on a floured board to roughly fit the top of the cake. Put the cake carefully on to the rolled-out paste and trim the paste to fit the top. Roll out the other half of the marzipan into an oblong the length of the circumference of the cake and the width of the height of the cake. Cut this in half for easier handling, then roll up one half and unroll on to the other side of the cake, pressing firmly. Repeat with the other half of the oblong to finish covering the side of the cake. Turn the cake right way up and smooth the surface and the joins of the marzipan with a rolling pin. Leave to rest for 2 days before applying royal icing.
To make Royal icing – Stir 500g (4 cups) sifted icing sugar into 4 egg whites, beating in a little at a time. When the icing forms soft peaks when pulled with a wooden spoon, stir in 1 teaspoon glycerine, which keeps the icing from setting hard. Ideally, leave the icing to rest for 24 hours before using, then beat it again before icing the cake. You can get a smooth finish with royal icing but if you prefer a ‘snow’ effect, apply the icing then whip it up into peaks with a fork. Add the decorations before the icing sets.
For a white snow effect – Brush the cake with warm, sieved apricot jam. Cover the cake with marzipan, leave to dry for 24 hours, then brush with vodka or gin (so the fondant sticks). Roll out about 1 kg of royal icing on a lightly dusted surface and cover the cake and board. Leave for up to 2 days before trimming as the icing will shrink a little. Roll out another 250g of royal icing and stamp out a selection of holly or star shapes. Brush the shapes with egg whites, sprinkle lightly with caster sugar and leave to dry. Arrange the frosted shapes on top of the cake and stick on with a little egg white. Trim the icing from the bottom of the cake. Finish with an extravagant ribbon bow.
Fruit-glazed topping – Choose from the wide range of glace and dried fruits available in good supermarkets or food stores. Brush the top of the cake with warm, sieved apricot jam, arrange your choice of colourful fruit on top, and use more apricot jam to glaze. Finish off by tying a brightly coloured ribbon round the middle of the cake and wrap in cellophane to protect.
Nutty topping – A quick alternative. Brush top of the cake with warm, sieved apricot jam and put a circle of brazil nuts around the edge. Inside this put skinned hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, almonds and a hazelnut in the centre. Heat 250g (1 cup) caster sugar and ½ cup water until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil until it begins to caramelise. Immerse the pan in shallow cold water to cool slightly. Pour the warm caramel over the nuts and leave to set. Alternatively, pour over warm liquid honey. Finish with a festive ribbon.
Rough iced cake – If you’re in a last minute panic, this icing is easy to make. Beat 2 egg whites until frothy, then gradually beat in 500g (4 cups) sifted icing sugar, one spoonful at a time. Whisk for 8 minutes until the mixture stands in peaks. Spread over the cake (which can first be covered in marzipan) and swirl into peaks. Decorate with sugar decorations and Christmas decorations.
Frequently asked questions?
Why does alcohol need to be added?
The alcohol works two ways. Firstly, it works like an antiseptic for any bacteria when the cake is stored for long periods of time. Secondly, combined with the butter the alcohol helps keep the cake moist. As the cake ages like a good brandy it also improves and matures.
Why does fruit sink to the bottom of a fruit cake?
If the cake mixture is too wet usually caused by the fruits being too soggy, then the fruit will inevitably sink. If the fruit has been washed or boiled it pays to dry it out on some absorbent kitchen paper before adding. Glace cherries in particular if stored in thick sugar syrup should be washed and allowed to dry on paper. Tossing the fruit in flour or ground almonds helps it stay afloat in the cake mixture.
What is the difference between using a wooden box or a metal tin?
Metal tins have been the choice for many generations for baking especially fruit cakes. Previous to this wooden boxes would have been standard, but with some limitations. Be it metal or wood the container needs to be prepared before time. A metal tin should be a thick metal with good conducting properties. Make sure it is the right size for the quantity of batter and no rust on the interior. Like a wooden box they need to be seasoned or “warmed” before using from new. It is only because of the slow and low temperature cooking heat and time that seasoned wood can be used effectively in this cooking technique.
Can you freeze Christmas cake?
Christmas cake is ideal to freeze. In fact if you live in a particularly humid or hot region, freezing a fruit cake is preferred. The cake will go mouldy or rancid if not stored in a cool, dry environment. For long-term storage wrap tightly in greaseproof paper, foil and seal in another plastic bag, label well and then freeze.
Why does it take so long to cook a Christmas cake?
It is the density of the cake that dictates the cooking time. To prevent the cakes surface from burning the oven temperature must be kept low and cooked for longer. A cake cooked fast is dry and very, very dense. Lining the tin with double thicknesses of baking paper and brown paper helps preserve the moisture and crust throughout the long cooking time.
What do you do with leftover cake?
A good cake can last well into the New Year and in our seasons it can still be enjoyed as winter rolls around. Try using leftover fruit cake as a fruit crumble topping, use crumbled between layers of custard and jelly for a dessert. Or toast it and serve with lashings of mascarpone. Saturate pieces of cake in rum and flambé with fresh fruits or even mix into homemade ice cream for a autumn dessert.
Some of our Favourite Christmas Cake Recipes
Or choose from one of our many readers Christmas Cake Recipes
Our thanks to Tasti –
Tasti started making their delicious crystallised ginger back in 1930’s New Zealand and before long they had built a following amongst on-to-it bakers so they started making Glace Cherries and Mixed peel and hunting down the finest fruit and the nuttiest nuts to keep their devoted customers happy. Today tasti are still proudly New Zealand owned and still dedicated to making and tracking down the best baking bits.
Tasti are giving you the chance to win one of 3 big Tasti baking packs. Each is crammed full with at least enough of our delicious fruits, nuts, cherries and peel to make all of the delicious recipes in the feature with enough spare bits and pieces that you won’t have to feel guilty about snacking while you bake.
Email your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org with Tasti in the subject line.
Competition closes November 30th 2011