Now that the winds have cooled to icy temperatures and there is snow on the hills it seems acceptable to speak of Christmas and all its preparations. I know that some stores have had items for sale for almost a month now but I really do think that even a die-hard Yuletide fan knows they need to pace themselves. This week’s column therefore is just a taste of the holidays.
If you do follow Christmas traditions then likely the first thing you work on is making Christmas cake, also known as fruitcake. Nowadays this specialty seems to be something people either adore or despise, but whether you think it is a nutty idea or a cherished tradition you must admit it does get everyone into the spirit of good cheer. Thus it seemed a good theme for this week. I doubt that I can have you all humming carols in the spirit of the season but perhaps a funny bit of Christmas season trivia will launch you into the holiday season…
If you think Christmas cake is awful in its current rendition, how about the original form of porridge that was eaten on Christmas Eve to cushion the stomach after a day of fasting as they did in the Middle Ages? (Seriously, that is what the history books say.) Gradually dried fruit and spices were added to liven it up a bit for the special day and eventually it became more solid. This version, what we now know as Christmas pudding, was tied in cloth and then boiled for hours before being eaten. In about the 16th century, they added eggs, butter and flour to create a cake that held together better on its own, and so arrived the Christmas cake.
You have to understand that cooking food in those days was a mighty task, and a recipe that contained many ingredients was something extravagant and treasured. The dried fruit and spices that went into the cake came all the way from Portugal and the Eastern Mediterranean; they were new luxuries. (You think I am trying to convert you into a Christmas cake fan, don’t you? Well, just keep reading – maybe you can gain a little respect for it, at least?) Listen to this description:
Making a rich fruit cake in the 18th century was a major undertaking. The ingredients had to be carefully prepared. Fruit was washed, dried, and stoned [taking the pits out] if necessary; sugar, cut from loaves, had to be pounded and sieved; butter washed in water and rinsed in rosewater. Eggs were beaten for a long time, half an hour being commonly directed. Yeast, or barm from fermenting beer, had to be coaxed to life. Finally, the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-fired baking ovens of that time. No wonder these cakes acquired such mystique..."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999
The interesting part about the history of this cake is that it was served all throughout the twelve days of the Christmas season, through to January 5. The cake was baked with a bean in it, and was usually served to guests during the holidays. The guest receiving the bean in their piece was supposed to be the guardian angel for the family for the coming year. The night of January 5th, the Twelfth Night, celebrates the Three Kings arriving in Bethlehem. It was common for the cake to be served as part of the feast on this night, and as the celebrations also entailed a blessing of the home on the Epiphany (the day following Twelfth Night) the visiting clergy were often served fruitcake as well. By the end of the 17th century in Britain, this party had become the event of the year and much reveling surrounded the festivities. After the Reformation however the Puritans banned these customs and by 1870 Queen Victoria had declared Twelfth Night as unchristian and banned it as a feast day.
As you well know this is not the end of the Christmas cake story. Will it surprise you to discover that much of the reason it is still around is simple entrepreneurial spirit? The bakers and confectioners who made the cakes were left with lost revenue and cake supplies they couldn’t use, so they redecorated the fruitcakes in a different way and sold them for Christmas parties. The boiled fruitcake was sent to relatives who had left for “the colonies” (Canada, Australia, etc.) as it was a special treat that would last the long voyage. As generations of immigrants spread across the world, small bakeries opened up that made the specialty they remembered, making it available almost everywhere.
There are of course many other variations on the traditional fruitcake as a Christmas specialty. Martin remembers the “Buche de Noel” as his special Christmas cake. I still make vinertarta, an Icelandic torte that is often served at Christmas. Any way you cut it, you have to admit it does help bring people together to share in the holiday spirit. In closing, I leave you with a recipe I have received from friends who are not usually fans of the stuff, but they say this is a great one to try… maybe it will convert you to enjoying the odd piece. If you're looking for simpler holiday recipes, you can check out my Happy Gourmand blog. Merry Ho Ho!
Christmas Cake Recipe
You'll need the following:
- 1 cup of water
- 1 cup of sugar
- 4 large brown eggs
- 2 cups of dried fruit
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- Lemon juice
- 1 bottle of whisky
Sample the whisky to check for quality. Take a large bowl. Check the whisky again. To be sure it's the highest quality, pour one level cup and drink. Repeat. Turn on the electric mixer, beat one cup of butter in a large fluffy bowl. Add one teaspoon of sugar and beat again. Make sure the whisky is still OK.
Cry another tup. Tune up the mixer. Beat two leggs and add to the bowl and chuck in the cup of dried fruit. Mix on the turner. If the fired druit gets stuck in the beaterers, pry it goose with a drewscriver.
Sample the whisky to check for tonsisticity. Next, sift two cups of salt. Or something. Who cares?
Check the whisky. Now sift the lemon juice and strain your nuts. Add one table. Spoon the sugar or something. Whatever you can find. Grease the oven. Turn the cake tin to 350 degrees. Don't forget to beat off the turner. Throw the bowl out of the window. Check the whisky again and go to bed.