Monday, November 29, 2010

Making cake... and eating it

I’m always surprised to hear people say that they don’t like fruitcake. I’ve even found sites on the web that tell you how to get rid of your unwanted (fruit) Christmas cake that ‘nobody wants or eats’! Really? I suppose my up-bringing was very English and fairly traditional – Christmas wasn’t Christmas without a proper (preferably marzipanned and iced) Christmas fruit cake.

Many years ago, a work colleague gave me his wife’s ‘boiled fruit cake’ recipe. It was a wonderfully moist rich cake, eminently suitable for Christmas. And very easy to make; no beating of butter and sugar, no sifting of flour etc. I used this recipe for many Christmases, and I used it for my children’s christening cakes. But a couple of weeks ago I looked everywhere and could not find it. I started asking friends if they had a recipe for me to try, and two of them did – both are boiled fruit cakes, so last weekend I tried the first one. This weekend we ate most of it (with a little help from visitors). It was pretty good, though I felt it needed more fruit; in fairness, the dried fruit I used had been in the cupboard for a while so maybe it wasn’t as ‘plump’ as it should have been. Next weekend I’ll have to try the other recipe. And hope the cake lasts, uncut, until Christmas.

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the web to try and find out how and why Christmas cake evolved. I do like to know the ‘why’ of things. I know that the spices are supposed to represent the Wise Men from the East, bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. In the early years, the fruit used must have been ‘sun-dried’ (a process used as early as 6000BC). The spices and fruit would have been imported and very expensive.

Christmas (fruit) cake is a particularly English tradition that has evolved over the years. It started out as plum porridge which was eaten on Christmas Eve, after a day of religious fasting, before attending midnight church services. Wealthier people started to add dried fruits, spices and honey to the mix, and this is the basis of today’s Christmas pudding.

By the 16th century, the oatmeal in the porridge recipe was replaced with wheat flour, eggs and butter and people who had ovens then baked the pudding, instead of boiling it – ta-da, Christmas cake. In the late 1700s Carollers were offered slices of this cake as ‘payment’ for their singing, and around the same time laws were put in place to say that ‘plum cake’(fruit cake) could only be eaten at Christmas, Easter, weddings, christenings and funerals!

People tend to make Christmas cakes in November, and ‘feed’ them with brandy each week up until Christmas. The high sugar content of the fruit preserves the cake, while the brandy keeps it moist.

So now I see the ‘how’, but I still don’t understand the ‘why’.

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