Christmas is a time of joy, festivities, and of course, delicious food. One of the most beloved and time-honored Christmas traditions is the baking of Christmas cakes, including homemade Christmas cake. These cakes, rich in history and tradition, have been a centerpiece of Christmas celebrations for centuries. In other countries, different shapes and styles of Christmas cakes are released across the countless numbers of confectionery stores in the country; the cakes are no longer tied down to the traditional form of round white cakes with strawberries and Santa Claus on top. In this blog, we will delve into the rich history of Christmas cakes, explore different variations of this delectable treat, and discover why Christmas cakes hold a special place in our hearts during the holiday season.
The Rich History behind Christmas Cakes
Christmas cakes have a long and fascinating history, dating back to the 16th century. The tradition of Christmas cakes, including the English tradition of making them with moist Zante currants, sultanas, and raisins soaked in rum, is deeply rooted in the festivities of the holiday season. Initially, Christmas cakes were a symbol of wealth and prosperity, as only richer families could afford the exotic spices, dried fruits, brandy, and the English tradition of making them. The story of Christmas cakes in India starts way back in 1883, when a British planter in Thalassery, Murdoch Brown asked the local baker, Mambally Bapu to taste the rich plum cake he had brought from England. Brown explained the baking process, and asked Bapu to prepare a similar cake for him.
The industrial revolution of the 18th century played a significant role in popularizing Christmas cakes. The availability of wheat flour, a crucial ingredient, became more accessible, making baking cakes a common practice during Christmas time. As a result, Christmas cakes became a symbol of joy, abundance, and celebration.
Traditional Christmas cakes are often soaked in copious amounts of brandy or rum, allowing them to mature gradually and intensify in flavor. This tradition of dousing the cake with alcohol originates from a time when cakes were baked in advance for Christmas, typically on Stir-Up Sunday, five weeks before Christmas day. Many make them in November (I make mine in October and feed it copious amounts of brandy and sherry before decorating it), keeping the cake upside down in an airtight container. The cakes have a long shelf life, usually lasting many months, just like the traditional British fruitcake.
The Origin of the Christmas Cake Tradition
The tradition of Christmas cakes is said to have originated from the “Twelfth Night” cake tradition, which dates back to medieval England. The twelfth night cake, similar to a fruitcake, was a sponge cake filled with spices, dried fruit, and a mixture of flour, butter, sugar, and eggs.
Over time, twelfth night cake evolved into what we now know as Christmas pudding, a dense, moist fruitcake, often steamed or boiled. Christmas cakes, similar to Christmas pudding, were once served on Christmas Eve, a day before Christmas day. However, as baking techniques evolved, cakes became a more popular choice, and Christmas pudding took a back seat. The traditional holiday cake eaten at Christmas, known as Christmas pudding, originated from plum porridge. People used to eat the porridge on Christmas Eve to line their stomachs after fasting. As time went on, dried fruit, spices, and honey were added to the porridge mixture, transforming it into Christmas pudding. Spices that had started to be brought over from the east were incorporated into the cake to symbolise the three wise men. The Christmas Cake originally was called the Twelfth Cake, and would have more traditionally been served at parties on the Twelfth Night ending the 12 days of Christmas on the 5th of January. And these cakes actually started out as enriched fruit cakes, something more akin to an Italian Panettone.
The cake’s circular shape, often a traditional fruitcake, symbolizes eternity, making it a staple for Christmas festivities. In England, Christmas cakes became a cherished part of the Christmas tradition, with families baking and decorating their cakes weeks, sometimes months, in advance of Christmas day.
How Various Countries Celebrate with Christmas Cakes
While Christmas cakes have a strong association with England, different countries around the world have their own unique ways of celebrating with these delightful treats.
In Japan, Christmas cakes are a popular tradition, often adorned with strawberries and cream. These sponge cakes, light and fluffy, are a symbol of Christmas festivities and are enjoyed by families during the season.
The Philippines, greatly influenced by Spanish colonization, celebrates Christmas with a variety of fruitcake recipes. These cakes often incorporate local ingredients such as raisins, currants, cherries, and candied fruit peel, creating a distinct Filipino twist on the traditional fruitcake.
In India, Christmas cakes are a fusion of traditional spices and seasonal fruits. Cakes infused with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom are a delightful addition to Christmas celebrations in the country.
In the United States, Christmas cake variations abound. Some families opt for lighter sponge cakes, while others prefer fruitcake recipes passed down through generations. The variety of Christmas cake recipes reflects the diverse cultural backgrounds of different states and regions.
What Makes Christmas Cakes So Special?
Christmas cakes hold a special place in our hearts during the holiday season, and for good reason. These rich fruitcakes, often made months in advance, are a labor of love, a tradition passed down through generations.
The cake’s dousing of brandy, rum, or whisky allows it to mature and intensify in flavor, creating a rich, moist, and bursting fruit cake with festive spices. Traditional Christmas cakes, such as the Whisky Dundee, are often decorated with marzipan and royal icing, a painstaking process that adds a touch of elegance and beauty to the cake. Christmas cakes are made in many different ways, with variations on classic fruitcake. They can be light, dark, dry, heavy, spongy, leavened, unleavened, and more. Other types of Christmas cakes, like apple crème cake and mincemeat cake, are also popular choices during the holiday season.
Beyond the flavors and decorations, Christmas cakes are a symbol of unity, family, and tradition during the festive season. Baking a Christmas cake together, sharing recipes, and indulging in a slice of cake on Christmas day creates a sense of togetherness and joy.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there any variations on the traditional Christmas cake recipe in different cultures or regions?
Yes, there are variations on the traditional Christmas cake recipe in different cultures and regions, each adding a unique twist to this time-honored tradition.
In Italy, panettone is a popular Christmas cake made with dried fruit, such as raisins, currants, and candied citrus peel. This light, airy cake has a tall, cylindrical shape and a buttery, sweet flavor, making it a favorite Christmas treat.
In Germany, stollen, also known as Christstollen, is a Christmas cake that contains marzipan and dried fruit. This traditional fruitcake, dusted with powdered sugar, is a beloved Christmas delicacy that is enjoyed throughout the holiday season.
In Japan, Christmas cakes are typically sponge cakes decorated with whipped cream and strawberries. These beautiful cakes, often light and fluffy, are a must-have for Christmas celebrations in the country.
What are some traditional ingredients used in Christmas cakes?
Traditional Christmas cakes boast a delightful blend of spices, dried fruits, nuts, and of course, a touch of brandy or rum. Some of the traditional ingredients used include raisins, currants, cherries, candied fruit peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and a mixture of exotic eastern spices.
The cake mixture is often baked with a mixture of flour, butter, sugar, eggs, and a generous helping of brandy, rum, or whisky, infusing the cake with a rich, festive flavor. Marzipan and icing are commonly used to decorate Christmas cakes, adding a touch of sweetness and elegance.
In conclusion, Christmas cakes have a rich history and are a beloved tradition in many countries around the world. The origin of the Christmas cake tradition can be traced back centuries, and each country has its own unique way of celebrating with these festive treats. What makes Christmas cakes so special is the combination of traditional ingredients and recipes passed down through generations. While there may be variations in the recipe across cultures and regions, the essence of a Christmas cake remains the same – a symbol of love, joy, and togetherness during the holiday season. So, this year, embrace the tradition of Christmas cakes and create lasting memories with your loved ones as you indulge in these delicious creations.