Christmas Cake Traditions
Christmas Cake Traditions From My Great Aunt
Christmas was always a wonderful affair at my Aunty Jenny's. She always baked the best Christmas cake and the best Christmas puddings, but it was the traditions and customs surrounding the food, and the cake in particular that always made it so very special.
My Aunty Jenny was really my great aunt, for she was my mother's aunt. Never-the-less we children called her Aunty and she was much beloved by all of us. She was also known as 'Jinny fer Jarra', (translated as Jenny from Jarrow) or that was how it sounded to me because, although all our family lived in York, England, during my childhood, they originated in Tyneside and Northumberland and all had that cosy, lilting Georgie accent. This is partly an article about the traditions surrounding the Christmas cake in my own family, and partly a tribute to my Aunt. I hope you enjoy it.
Jenny Wetherall Goodwin
My Aunt was a great cook, although, like most northern women, she cooked plain food and had a rather narrow range. Her mince and dumplings were superb and she made super jams, chutneys, apple pies and - yes - fruit cakes. She would make a fruit cake for every member of the family for Christmas and birthdays, so, when I set about to make my cake this year, of course my thoughts turned to my Aunty Jen.
This is my Aunty Jenny as a young woman, and not at all the round, motherly figure that I knew. She was born into a working class, Baptist family in Tyneside and typified the working class woman who kept a clean house, went to church, managed the finances, looked after the children and kept her Geordie husband, prone to a little too much cameraderie and largesse, on the straight and narrow. They maintained strong family ties and traditions and I'd like to share just a few of them with you here.
The picture below is of my cake made with this recipe - hot from the oven.
My Great Aunt's traditional Christmas cake recipe
- Traditional English Christmas Cake Recipe
This is a real, traditional English Christmas cake recipe passed down to me from my Great Aunt. It is a wonderfully moist, heavy fruit cake that we used to cover in marzipan and ice. We also gave it to first footers at New Year.
A Bit of Christmas Cake History
Christmas cake traditions go way back
The origins of Christmas cake can be traced back to the English tradition of eating plum porridge on Christmas Eve. Over time the porridge was enriched with dried fruit, spices and honey and it eventually evolved into what we now know as Christmas pudding.
In the 16th century, oatmeal was removed from the original recipe, and butter, wheat flour and eggs were added. These ingredients helped hold the mixture together in what resulted in a boiled plum cake. Richer families that had ovens began making fruit cakes for Christmas using the plum pudding recipe as a base and adding seasonal dried fruit and spices. The spices represented the exotic eastern spices brought by the Wise Men. They combined with marzipan, an almond sugar paste, used in the Easter cake and this then became I knew as a "Christmas cake." It is interesting that here in France there is a cake eaten at Epiphany, a celebration of the Three Kings, that is basically a sweet pastry filled with Marzipan. It's interesting to trace the links between all these traditions.
Christmas cakes are made in many different ways, but they are basically variations on classic fruitcake. They can be light, dark, moist, dry, heavy, spongy, with or without a rising agent, and are made in many different shapes, with frosting, glazing, a dusting of confectioner's sugar or plain. The traditional Scottish Christmas cake, also known as the Whisky Dundee, is also a very popular cake at Christmas. A light, crumbly fruit cake this time, laced with, of course, Scotch whisky. In Italy the cake, still a fruit cake and delicious, is quite different. Other types of Christmas cakes include an apple crme cake and a mincemeat cake.
Of course ours was of the dark, heavy, moist, rich variety fragranced with brandy and chock-a-block with fruit and cherries. In my opinion - the only true Christmas Cake.
My Christmas traditions come for northern England so it would be interesting to see how many of these have crossed the water to America.
Get An Early Start With Your Cake
Make your Christmas cake before the end of October
Traditionally, the Christmas cake was made before the end of October. It was then wrapped in foil and put into a box where it would mellow until Christmas. My Aunt, unlike me, was always on the job and had her cakes made up and boxed by November. Not only do the cakes mellow, but they were 'fed' frequently to ensure that they were full of 'Christmas Spirit'.
Feed Your Christmas Cake Well
It enjoys a sip or two of brandy
Although my Aunt and Uncle were Baptists and little alcohol was consumed in the house, an exception was made at Christmas, and the only one to consume 'hard liquor' was the cake! My Aunt would make several small holes in the top of the cake and then pour a small amount of brandy into holes every week until Christmas. This process is called "feeding" the cake. You can also use sherry or whisky, depending on your local and family traditions.
This is what my cake looked like when I served it. The texture would be a little different if I had been able to buy currants here in France, and I would serve stilton cheese or cheshire cheese, not the Fourme d'Ambert in the picture. Still delicious!
This is Exactly How We Used to Ice Our Christmas Cake
Nothing fancy but easy to do and fun
We even had the same, the exact same cake decorations. We didn't tie a ribbon but had a commercial band with clipped paper at the top which was used on all cakes: birthday, Christmas, the lot. The same tiny range of decorations came out year after year and they were part and parcel of our family's traditions. Would we have been delighted with new ones? Or disappointed? I'm not sure. My mother said that in the past times were hard and if families spent hard-earned cash on decorations, they would save them, carefully wrapped up and stored, year after year.
Before icing the cake was covered in marmalade and a layer of marzipan was put over the top, followed by a good, thick layer of Royal Icing. I remember my Mother showing me how to make it. I suppose raising the icing up into points covered up the fact that these women didn't have either the skill, the time or the inclination to attempt a smoothly iced cake.
Celebrity Chef Nigel Slater Talks About His Memories of Making the Christmas Cake
Cake baking in his autobiography 'Toast'
In his autobiography, Toast, Nigel Slater writes about his memories of childhood through the medium of food. I loved this description of his not-such-a-good-cook mother's attitude to preparing the Christmas Cake. I'd have loved to quote you a passage where he talks about stirring the cake, the ingrdients, families and love, then on the other hand his mother's less than motherly attitude to baking, but have been warned about copyright, which is a shame because his evocative memories are deliciously warm and comforting. You'll just have to take my word for it and buy the book.
If only we all had is love of cooking and the leisure and skill to really enjoy it!
Read about his poor Mother's attempt to line the cake in my lens How to line a cake tin
Nigels Slater's 'Toast' is such a good read - And you'll love his other books about cooking and food
If you liked this story, why not read the book? Nigel Slater is famous for his good, wholesome, nourishing food and his quick and simple recipes. Surely that is what cooking should be all about!
Heart warming memories of food and childhood
The Cake Would be Served at Christmas Day Tea Time
Christmas cake and cheese with sherry
In the north of England we had breakfast, dinner, tea and, if you were lucky, supper. In our case supper was a sandwich before going to bed, and not at all the southerner's supper, an informal dinner. We ate Christmas dinner at 'dinner time' around one o'clock in the afternoon. We would have chicken or turkey, pork, vegetables and all the trimmings, followed by Christmas pudding then. Needless to say tea was a simle affair and we would prepare turkey sandwiches and a slice of Christmas cake and cheese.
The cakes were large ones because they not only served for Christmas day tea, but were also offered to visitors and guests, and lasted until the New Year when they were given as 'New Year's Gifts'.
"The Little Cook" Vintage Photo
Buy this from Zazzle
This is me as a child cooking in my Grandmothers's Kitchen. There's a tale to go with this involving a goldfish and fish pie. To read the story and see some of my Granny's pie recipes have a look at Pie Recipes From MY Grandmother's Kitchen
This image appears on a host of products and gifts, all of which you can personalize yourself by adding text. You can buy everything from buttons and badges to Aprons and T Shirts. Great gifts for cooks - and non-cooks alike. (I guess that's everyone)
You need a tall, dark, handsome man for this.
This is my great aunt's husband, my (great) Uncle Bob. To us children he always seemed old, but as you can see from this photo, he was a fine looking young man. He would have been ideal for the Geordie tradition of First Footing.
He started out in life as a coal miner. Coal mining and ship building were the two main industries in Tyneside in those days, so first-footing has an additional resonance in that part of England.
The Geordies share the tradition of first footing, like so many other things, with the Scots. Northumberland abuts Scotland and shares many common words, sayings and customs. On New Year's Eve (in Scotland, Hogmanay), everyone would be up, waiting for the church bells to chime midnight to receive the First Footer. This person should be dark haired man, preferably not a member of the family, must enter the house carrying (depending on the local traditions), bread, coal, sugar and money. This would bring luck to the house, and ensure that they wouldn't lack food, warmth and sufficient income for the family that year.
It was important that the man be outside before the bells so that he could then re-enter for the first time on New Years Day so if they were guests at the time, they had to go outside and wait until it was officially the 1st of January.
In our family, the 'tall, dark, handsome stranger' would then be sat down and given his New Year's 'Gift', a piece of Christmas cake, a slice of rice loaf, a slice of cheese and a glass of sherry. The cheese would normally be Cheddar rather than a blue cheese like Stilton. My family had simple tastes.
It was great fun to go out first footing as a group, with the said dark-haired man in tow, and visit house after house to bestow the luck and receive your 'gift'. Of course all the other guests also received cake and sherry; the more first footing the merrier, so to speak.
Find out more about Christmas traditions so that you can make the season not only more fun, but more meaningful.
Celebrity Chef Christmas Cake Recipes
Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Nigel Slater. Go right to the top!
Christmas Traditions around the world
The myths are lovely but it's also nice to know the truth behind them. Find out what is the meaning behind the myth
Read More About Christmas Traditions - There are many more traditions to find out about
It's nice to make Christmas more special by ringing the changes, so why not find out about what other people do to celebrate, the history and mythology behind our greatest celebrations are just so fascinating.
Why not have a look at a few Christmas recipes? - Food is one of the central parts of this religious feast
Cookery books always make wonderful presents at Christmas and will be used year after year. Have a look at some of the ones available to order on line.
© 2010 Barbara Walton