A Christmas cake has always been an essential part of my family’s Christmas fare.
The cake is usually prepared and baked 4-5 weeks before Christmas and stored in an air-tight container in a cool dry place until its grand appearance at the centre of the dinner table on Christmas Day.
Following the English and Scottish traditions, the Aussie Christmas cake is a rich, dark fruit cake, liberally doused with rum or brandy prior to and after cooking. The spirit gives the cake a magical flavour and aroma, and helps preserve it. Once cooked, some folk continue to sprinkle rum or brandy on the cake weekly, which is called “feeding the cake”.
My mother, and her mother before her, always covered the cake with white marzipan icing and decorated it with silver cachous and (artificial) green holly leaves. Its decoration was completed with a fringed Christmas paper wrapping around the sides of the cake.
As I was growing up, and until recently, Christmas dinner (it’s actually a lunch-time meal, but we still call it “Christmas dinner”) typically consisted of roast turkey and/or roast chicken (along with stuffing and sauces or gravy), sliced ham (we always bought a whole ham for Christmas), baked potatoes and baked pumpkin and a steamed green vegetable (beans or peas). This was always followed by a hearty serving of homemade cloth-wrapped plum pudding and custard. No-one had any desire (or room!) for Christmas cake at the end of this meal.
The Christmas cake was cut and served at the evening meal. This usually consisted of a ham sandwich, a few cherries, plums or apricots (all in season in Australia at Christmastime), a slice of Christmas cake, and a cup of tea or coffee.
That was in times past.
Australian families today are more likely to choose a combination of cold meats (ham, turkey or chicken), fish or prawns, and salads, for their Christmas dinner. The meal is completed with a fruit platter and a cold dessert such as a cheesecake. Christmastime in Australia is hot! It’s Summer time. Most people like to be outdoors – on the verandah (balcony), in the backyard, at the beach, in the park – eating al fresco or having a barbecue. But there is still the Christmas cake!
I probably made my first Christmas cake in 1975.
Over the years, I’ve tried several different rich fruit cake recipes. What they all have in common is dried fruit: mixed fruit or various combinations of sultanas, raisins, currants, mixed peel, glacé cherries and crystallised ginger, for example. Some recipes require the fruit to be mixed with the sugar and soaked in the rum or brandy for a period of time prior to baking. Other recipes require the fruit to be boiled (hence the name “Boiled Fruit Cake”).
My favourite Christmas cake recipe is one given to me by a friend, Dorothy Gillett, a few years ago.
Dorothy says the recipe was given to her by Janice Smith, a former Rockhampton resident, whom I also knew. Great recipes are always shared around! Dorothy’s recipe is for a rich, dark, boiled fruit cake, which uses mixed fruit. It’s not only suitable as a Christmas cake. Dorothy says, “I’ve used this recipe to make birthday cakes, a wedding cake, anniversary cakes and Christmas cakes.”
Here are the reasons why Dorothy’s recipe is my favourite for a Christmas cake:
- it is simple and easy to follow
- the ingredients are few and easy to obtain
- it is relatively quick to prepare
- the mixture makes 2 or 3 cakes (of varying sizes)
- the cake is moist but firm when cooked
- the cake is suitable to store and it keeps for several months.
For many years I have made Christmas cakes as Christmas gifts. I usually make one large cake for my family and 3, 4 or 5 cakes to give away – to friends or members of my extended family. Besides Christmas cakes, at Christmastime I also make Almond Bread (Biscotti), to give away. It makes a lovely personal gift.
For me, Christmas is a time of giving, especially giving something of myself.
Hence, I like to make things to give as gifts. I make my own Christmas cards; sometimes I sew; I almost always do baking.
Over the years, I have baked the cakes in a variety of containers – small earthenware (terracotta) pots, large (1 kg) coffee tins cut in half, small cake tins and large cake tins. The Christmas cake, being a rich cake, needs to be cooked slowly. The larger the container, the longer the cooking time. Each container needs to be well-lined with a couple of layers of brown paper, to prevent the cake from burning.
Unlike my mother, I do not ice my Christmas cakes. Instead I prefer to decorate the top of the cake with whole nuts (almonds, pecans or walnuts) and glacé fruit prior to baking. In addition, I place a cup or small bowl of water in the oven along with the cake(s), to prevent the top of the cake(s) from cracking.
When the cake is cooked, and cool, I wrap it in aluminium foil, then a couple of layers of plastic wrap, and store it in an air-tight container in the pantry until required.
When ready to serve, I tie a wide pretty ribbon around the cake, complete with a large bow to enhance the presentation. Remember: Presentation is all important for generating appetite, atmosphere and appreciation of one’s creation, so I do my best to make my Christmas cakes look really attractive.
Why not try this wonderful Rich Boiled Fruit Cake recipe this Christmas? It’s not too late!
RICH BOILED FRUIT CAKE
An excellent Christmas cake or wedding cake
500 g butter
500 g brown sugar
2 kg mixed fruit
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
600 mL milk
¼ cup rum (or brandy)
1½ cups plain flour
1½ cups self-raising flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
- Combine the first SIX ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to the boil.
- Allow the mixture to simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid it sticking to the bottom of the pan.
- Set aside the fruit mixture to cool.
- Beat the eggs.
- Add alternatively to the fruit mixture the beaten eggs and the flours and spice, in 2-3 stages, until all is added. Mix thoroughly, using a wooden spoon. (I do this over the sink, because the pot is large, and the mixture requires some tough stirring. It’s quite hard work!)
- This mixture makes enough for one medium (20 cm diameter) cake and one large (24 cm diameter) cake, or two medium cakes and one small (18 cm diameter) cake. Line each tin with a couple of thicknesses of brown paper (as shown, below).
- Pour the mixture into the prepared tins, leaving about 2 cm from the top of the tins (to allow for rising).
- Bake in a very slow oven for 3-4 hours, depending on your oven and the size of the tins. I usually preheat the oven to about 100 degrees Celcius and then increase the temperature by about 20 degrees Celcius every hour up to about 180 degrees Celcius or until cooked. Don’t forget to place a cup or bowl of water in the oven. Test with a skewer towards the end of the cooking time. If the skewer comes out clean, the cake is cooked. Do not overcook, as the cake will crack, and be dry.
- When cooked, remove the cakes from the oven and, while hot, sprinkle each cake with rum or brandy. Leave the cakes in the tins until completely cool.
- When cool, remove the cakes from the tins, discard the brown paper and carefully wrap each cake in alfoil and a couple of layers of plastic wrap. Store each cake in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place until ready to use.
Recipe by courtesy of Dorothy Gillett.