Candied Peel Christmas Cake
Where did that cake come from?
What is Christmas without a Christmas cake? A truly old-fashioned Christmas!
Until the mid-19th century, the cake was not part of Christmas Day feasts. Since the evolution of the celebration of the 12 days of Christmas, its role had been Twelfth Night (Epiphany) festivities on January 6. (Christmas Day was not set at December 25 until AD336.)
In all societies which mark time with calendars, a host of customs surround the days around the change of each year. Such customs invariably incorporate attempts to ensure good fortune for the new year.
The 12 days of Christmas absorbed many of the year-end practices of Roman times. January 6 became particularly linked with rituals involving food and drink.
A rich cake, the Bean Cake, made of the finest ingredients, was one of two key elements of Twelfth Day ceremonies that developed over the centuries. The other was the election of a mock king, the King of Bean.
A bean was hidden in the cake, with the finder becoming king. Duly crowned, he led the celebrations and sometimes also had to pay for them. The queen was either selected by the king or determined via a pea hidden in the cake. The cake, the bean and the pea embodied fertility, health and prosperity.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the bean's status changed from a life-giving symbol to one of contempt and worthlessness. The cake itself remained a central element of Twelfth Night revelries but, by the mid-17th century, the bean and the pea were no longer buried in the cake.
The cake's composition also changed over the centuries. Whilst always made of the best possible ingredients - befitting its symbolism of good fortune - its contents in early centuries are unclear. A 1620 tract lists principal ingredients as flour, honey, ginger and pepper. The English plum cake on which today's Christmas and wedding cakes are based, dates back to the 17th century. Dried fruit had become readily available then and the English began their love affair with the currant and the raisin.
Size became a status symbol and pastry cooks competed to make increasingly large cakes weighing tonnes. Little cakes were regarded as poor cousins, as reflected by a Charles Dickens comment in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870): "A poor little Twelfth Cake...such a very poor little Twelfth Cake, tha one would rather call it a Twenty-Fourth Cake, or a Forty-Eighth Cake..."
Sugar-working had become firmly established in England by Tudor times. Epiphany means manifestation and the Twelfth Cake became the manifestation of the confectioner's talent. Each year there was an official City (of London) Twelfth Cake, which the London Illustrated News reported on at length, along with other notable Twelfth Cakes, in its January edition.
Marzipan, originally called marchpane, had also been known since Tudor times but was not used on cakes until the 19th century. Originally served on its own, it was usurped by newer desserts by Victorian times. It found a new home on top of the plum cakes used for Bride Cakes. Later, its use was extended to the Twelfth Cake.
Christmas Day overtook Twelfth Night in importance in England over the latter half of the 19th century. The cake, however, was too loved to be discarded and so it became the Christmas cake. A journalist's report in 1858 referred to the Crystal Palace Twelfth Cake of that year as a Christmas cake. Its pretensions gradually disappeared and it joined the ranks of homemade Christmas fare.
The following cake is based on Orange and Ginger Cake in the enduring classic Jane Grigson's Fruit Book. Quality, moist, candied peel is critical for a rich orange scent. Unfortunately, the candied peel generally available is unsatisfactory. For best results, make your own.
GRAND MARNIERTM CHRISTMAS CAKE
6 knobs ginger in syrup, drained and chopped
175 g moist, candied orange peel, chopped
125 g slivered almonds
60 g walnut meat, coarsely chopped
625 g mixed seedless raisins, currants and sultanas (preferably sun-dried varieties)
300 g plain flour
1 rounded tsp ground ginger
1 level tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon, finely chopped
250 g unsalted butter, softened
250 g light brown sugar
4 tbsp ginger syrup
5 x 60g eggs, lightly beaten and warmed over hot water
½ level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp warm milk
150+ ml Grand MarnierTM for feeding the cake
In a large bowl, combine the ginger, peel, nuts, fruit, spices and zests. Add half the flour. Toss them together well, breaking up any lumps of fruit and peel.
Using an electric beater, cream butter, sugar and syrup until light and fluffy.
Beat the warmed eggs into the creamed mixture, one tablespoon at a time, making sure that each tablespoon is well incorporated before adding the next. Fold in the remaining flour and fruit mixture.
Dissolve the baking soda in milk. Add to the mixture. Add some Grand MarnierTM to the mixture, if necessary, to produce a dropping consistency.
Put the mixture into a 20cm tin lined with baking parchment. Around the tin, tie protective paper "collar" (3 sheets thick brown paper or 8 sheets thick newspaper) rising 1 cm above the top of the tin. Place on a baking sheet lined with paper of same thickness as the collar.
Bake in a pre-heated 140 deg C oven for 3 to 3 ½ hours or until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and pierce it in several places with a fine skewer and pour Grand MarnierTM over. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave the cake to cool in the tin. When cold, turn out onto a large sheet of greaseproof paper and wrap tightly. Wrap again with aluminium foil. Leave aside in a cool dark place. If desired, unwrap the cake and feed with more Grand MarnierTM every week.
Author's note: I prefer to feed the cake very generously (approx 250 - 300ml for a large cake) with Grand MarnierTM before I wrap it up. To get this much liqueur into the cake in one go, you need to use a hypodermic syringe to gently inject the cake at various points with the liqueur. Dispose of used needles in accordance with health regulations. They must not be thrown out in the normal rubbish. The liqueur mellows over time and the cake just gets better and better. However, if you are doing this heavy level of feeding close to the time that the cake is to be eaten, do warn your guests not to "eat and drive"!
Ice or glaze and decorate the cake as desired.
How I decorate my Christmas cake
Place the cake on a gold wrapped cake board or a serving platter. The cake cannot be moved once it's glazed.
Cut candied peel into tiny moon, star and heart shapes using cutters and arrange these in a dense topping on the cake. The topping should completely cover the surface of the cake. The cake is then gently dabbed with a glaze mixture of sieved orange marmalade and Grand MarnierTM.
Candied angelica is cut into tiny Christmas trees with tree-shaped cutters, whilst candied ginger is cut into diamonds.
Bits of gold leaf are then dabbed onto various points on the candied fruit layer and around the sides of the cake.
Let the glaze dry for at least an hour before storing it in a large air-tight container. The container should be large enough for you to be able to lift the cake in and out without upsetting the peel.
To Gift Wrap Your Cake: You can gift wrap it using stiff cellophane
(florists cellophane is excellent for this). To do this, cut very large sheet of
cellophane, place the cake (on its board or plate) and carefully pull
the cellophane up vertically and gather it in a bunch high above the
surface of the cake. The cellophane should have minimal contact with the
cake. Use sticky tape to hold "neck" of the cellophane package
together, then tie a huge festive ribbon around the "neck" for dramatic