Christmas Cake Recipe & Instructions below
by Edythe Preet
Christmas Cake Recipe & Instructions below
Not so long ago, when my daughter was a child, life was very different. The
world moved at a slower pace and I had time on my hands. It was the era before
cable TV and the internet. The phrases 'fast lane' and 'couch
potato' and 'net surfer' had yet to be coined. Time stretched
like soft taffy, begging to be filled and I industriously did so - especially
in the weeks preceding Christmas.
I sewed fancy stockings to hang on the mantle and wrote personal notes in stacks
of cards. I made pomanders and potpourris, jams and jellies, herbed oils and
garlic vinegars. I cooked up batches of nutty fudge. I baked cookies by the
score. And for decades on the post Thanksgiving weekend while the rest of the
world was busy paying homage at the altar of consumerism, I religiously made
Irish Christ-mas Cake.
Do not groan. Do not moan. Do not make the gross mistake of confusing Ireland’s
baking piéce de résistance with that ubiquitous seasonal overly
sweet sticky confection commonly called fruitcake. True, the two share some
similarities. Both are dense mélanges of spices, raisins, sultanas, currants,
nuts, and candied fruits, but there the doppelganger effect ends.
For one thing, a true Irish Christmas Cake is laced with a whole lot of true
Irish whiskey. The fruits are soaked in it. Another measure is stirred right
into the batter. Once out of the oven and cooled, the cake is wrapped in whiskey-drenched
wrung-out damp cloths and sheets of aluminum foil. And every week like clockwork,
the cake is unwrapped and the cloths are soaked, wrung out, and rewrapped about
the cake again.
Depending on just how many cakes I made, I could easily use up several bottles
of The Craitcher in the process. By Christmas week, merely unwrapping the cake
from its swathe of tinselly silver casing released such a strong whiskey scent
into the air one would swear indulging in just a few slices might exceed the
legal limit for alcohol consumption. That, however, is a far-fetched exaggeration.
Through the weeks of aging, most of the actual alcohol evaporates. The cake
is never a soggy mess, and all that’s left behind is the deliriously delicious
The other thing that sets an Irish Christmas Cake apart from its mundane fruitcake
cousin is the look of its outside. During the final week before Christmas, the
cake is encased in sheets of almond marzipan, coated in several applications
of royal icing that stiffens to a hard candy consistency as it dries, and decorated
with bits of green candied citron and red candied cherries that have been cut
and applied so that it appears the cake is wreathed in a holly garland laid
on pure white snow. The process is tedious and time-consuming, but the result
is a show-stopper.
Beautiful and delectable as it is, Christmas Cake is far more than a tasty accompaniment
to another of Ireland’s festive traditions – a steaming mug of Irish
Coffee. The latter is a 20th century concoction invented to warm the innards
of Flying Boat passengers coming in on chilly North Atlantic crossings back
in the Thirties. But both the Christmas Cake’s ingredients and its appearance
are rich with tradition and symbolism that date back to the Norman Invasion
and, even further, to the time of the Celtic Druids.
In 1066 A.D., William the Conqueror and his Norman forces successfully wrested
control of England from the Anglo-Saxons. It was the Age of Crusades, and pilgrims
returned home with a taste for the delicacies they had encountered in the Holy
Land. Chief among these were the East’s exotic spices – cloves, cinnamon,
nutmeg, ginger, and mace – candied fruits especially citrus and citron
peels, raisins, currants, date sugar, and almonds.
During the Middle Ages, spices and raisins were stirred into and sprinkled on
everything, from cakes and puddings to roast fowl and meat gravies. In savory
dishes, the exotic ingredients acted to disguise not only the salt that had
been used as a preserving agent but also the rancidity that resulted from a
lack of refrigeration. This was not fare for the common man. Ireland’s
climate did not support either citrus or grape-growing and all lemons, oranges
and raisins were imported from Mediterranean regions. Venice controlled the
traffic in spices, a shipload of which could easily command up to a million
of today’s dollars. Nevertheless, even the poorest household would scrimp
and save to purchase enough raisins and spice to bake a Christmas Cake.
Candied citrus, almonds and date sugar were another matter altogether. Copious
amounts of sugar syrup are required to candy fruit, and the sweetener most accessible
to all but Ireland’s very wealthy was honey. The same is true of marzipan,
that doughy substance made from whipped egg whites, finely ground almonds and
pulverized sugar crystals, and Royal Icing which is made mostly of dissolved
sugar. Only landed gentry and nobility possessed enough disposable income to
add these garnishes to their Christmas Cakes.
In those homes that could afford to pull out all the stops, the final embellishment
of a Christmas Cake was a culinary opus that occupied a good deal of a kitchen
staff’s time during the week preceding December 25th. First, the marzipan
had to be made, rolled into thin sheets, placed atop and around the dark whiskey-drenched
cake, and left to air dry for a full week. Next, several batches of Royal Icing
were mixed up, smoothed onto all surfaces, and each left to dry for 24 hours
before applying the next coating. Then small leaves and berries were carefully
cut and placed on the cake’s snow white surface to resemble holly, the
plant that the Nature-worshipping Druids considered a lucky talisman as it bears
fruit even in a blizzard.
If the weather cooperated by refraining from raining, the icing set and the
Christmas Cake achieved its prescribed look by December 24th and was set in
a place of honor on the festive board for the Christmas feast. These days, Christmas
Cakes are most often made by commercial bakers, but some stalwart traditionalists
– like me – still choose to take the time and energy required to make
this age-old treat from scratch. If the spirit moves you to try your hand at
the ancient art, by all means do so. Just don’t expect it to be easy. Nothing
worthwhile is. Slainte!
MAURA O’BYRNE’S CHRISTMAS CAKE
2 cups golden raisins
2 cups currants
1/2 cup candied cherries
1/2 cup candied citrus peel
2/3 cup almonds, chopped
1 lemon rind, grated, yellow part only
4-6 tablespoons Irish whiskey
2 sticks butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
7 eggs, beaten
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Place fruit, nuts and rind in a baking dish. Cover with foil and heat at 275
degrees until heated through, about 15 minutes. This will make the fruit sticky
and prevent it from sinking during baking. Let the mixture cool completely,
overnight is best.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Stir the whiskey into the cooled fruit mixture
and set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs, one at a time, with a little flour to prevent curdling. In a separate
bowl, sift the flour with the salt, then fold it into the egg mixture. Fold
fruit and nuts into batter.
Put the mixture into a deep, 10-inch greased cake pan that has been lined with
waxed paper. Cover the cake loosely with parchment paper or aluminum foil and
set it on the middle rack of the oven. Bake at 350 degrees for half an hour,
then reduce the temperature to 275 degrees and bake for another 2 hours. Remove
the protective paper and continue baking for another 2-3 hours, checking frequently
to make sure the surface is not browning too much. If so, replace the paper
cover and lower the oven temperature a bit. When the cake is baked completely,
a cake tester can be inserted and withdrawn clean. Remove the cake from the
oven, pour 2 more tablespoons of whiskey over the surface, and let cool completely.
To age the cake: soak clean dishcloths in whiskey, then wring them out thoroughly
until they are just damp. Wrap the cooled cake in the damp cloths, then encase
it in several layers of aluminum foil, or place in an airtight tin. Repeat the
process once a week.
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 cups very finely ground almonds
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons whiskey
Warm apricot jam
Sift together the sugars and the ground almonds. In a separate bowl, whisk the
egg whites with the whiskey and a drop or two of almond extract. Fold into the
sugar and almond mixture. Blend to form a stiff paste. Sprinkle a work surface
with powdered sugar, turn out the almond paste, and knead until smooth. Roll
out 1/8-inch thick and larger than the diameter of the cake.
If the top of the cake is not straight, cut it to make the surface level, then
turn the cake over so that the flat bottom becomes the top. Brush the warm apricot
jam on the top of the cake. Gently reverse the cake again to lay the apricot
side down on to the round of almond paste. Press down lightly and trim round
the edges. Put the plate on which you intend to serve the cake over it and invert.
Cover lightly with tissue paper and leave to harden for a week.
NOTE: If you want to cover the side of the cake as well, double the amount of
sugars, almonds, egg whites, and whiskey. After mixing, rolling, and affixing
the top marzipan cover, gather the bits, roll a strip long enough to wrap the
side of the cake, and trim it to size. Place the strip around the side of the
cake, pinching tightly where its edges meet the top, and smooth the seam until
it is barely visible.
2 egg whites
4 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Candied citron & cherries
Cut the candied citron and cherries in shapes resembling holly leaves and berries,
and set aside. Sift the powdered sugar twice.Whisk the egg whites until they
begin to froth. Add the powdered sugar a few tablespoons at a time, beating
well with each addition. Add the lemon juice and a few drops of glycerine. Beat
until the icing is really smooth and forms stiff peaks. Cover with a damp cloth
for about an hour. Spread icing over the sides and then top of the cake, smoothing
carefully as you go. Position the citron and cherry bits around the circumference
of the cake’s top surface. Cover the finished cake with tissue paper until
ready to serve. Do not put it in a tin or the icing will melt.
Note: If a thick double icing is wanted, the first coat should be left to dry
for 24 hours. On the next day, mix another batch of icing, and complete the
icing process as above.
Recipes from Celtic Folklore Cooking by Joanne Asala and from Irish Traditional
Food by Theodora Fitzgibbons.
Ms. Asala informs us that Mrs. O’Byrne, whose cake recipe we use here,
was a fine country cook who lived in Ballon, County Carlow. I have incorporated
Ms. Fitzgibbons’ meticulous assemblage instructions into the recipe. –