Nuttier than a fruitcake

With the now-dreaded expression that we are in unprecedented times, it has been hard to retain even a few morsels of our lives from before the pandemic.

This week’s column, therefore, is a taste of Christmas past. Being a gourmand I am giving a generous taste, but, I hope, you will humour me and endure for the reward at the end.

A centuries-old holiday tradition that exists across many countries is fruitcake. There is German stollen, Swiss birnebrot, Portuguese Bolo Rei, Italian pannetone and panneforte. The Scots have Dundee cake, many Eastern Europeans make keks, the Filipinos have crema de fruta and in much of the Caribbean there is black cake.

Of course, we cannot leave out the ubiquitous British Christmas cake. It, like all the others, has some sort of preserved fruit, and many of them are soaked in spirits.

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 they do represent the holiday spirit of good cheer.

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.

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

This rich cake was served in the Late Middle Ages throughout the twelve days of the Christmas season — to Jan. 5, called Twelfth Night.

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.

Unfortunately, the partying got out of hand 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 the new, shorter Christmas parties.

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, bakers in their new shops 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.

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. Merry Ho Ho!

Christmas Cake Recipe (not for the faint of heart)

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
  • Nuts
  • 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.

More Happy Gourmand articles

About the Author

Kristin Peturson-Laprise is a customer experience specialist by trade, which means she is someone passionate about people having a good time. 

Her company, Wow Service Mentor, helps businesses enhance their customer experience through hands-on training, service programs, and special event coordination.

Kristin enjoys her own experiences too, and that is what she writes about in this column. She and her husband Martin Laprise (also known as Chef Martin, of The Chef Instead) love to share their passion for food and entertaining.  

Kristin says:

"Wikipedia lists a gourmand as a person who takes great pleasure in food. I have taken the concept of gourmandise, or enjoying something to the fullest, in all parts of my life. I love to grow and cook food, and I loved wine enough to become a Sommelier. I call a meal a success when I can convey that 'sense of place' from where the food has come . . . the French call that terroir, but I just call it the full experience. It might mean tasting the flavours of my own garden, or transporting everyone at the table to a faraway place, reminiscent of travels or dreams we have had."


E-mail Kristin at:  [email protected]

Check out her website here:  www.wowservicementor.com


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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