Bake a fruity cake for Christmas

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Sherry Hostler from the Cake House in Tring shares the history of Christmas cakes and gives readers a recipe to have a go themselves.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a moist, rich fruit cake taking centre stage on your dinner table this year; covered in crisp, white royal icing and festooned with all manner of seasonal décor. And what a journey it has been on to get there!

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One of the earliest recipes from ancient Rome lists pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins that were mixed into barley mash. It doesn’t actually sound too appetising, but it was apparently wonderful for sustaining energy. Then in the Middle Ages, preserved fruits, spices and honey were added and the term ‘fruitcake’ was first used. The word was allegedly derived from a combination of the Latin for ‘fruit’ which is ‘fructus’ and the Old Norse for ‘cake’ which was ‘kaka’.

It didn’t take long before the proliferation of fruitcakes throughout Europe, and by the 1400’s they had arrived in England. Recipes varied greatly between one country and the next however, and also changed throughout the ages, dependant on which ingredients were readily available.

Another factor which had to be taken into account in some instances, were church regulations which forbade the use of butter in baked goods, because the Advent was a time of fasting. Oil was used as a replacement, but made things rather bland and flavourless. Finally however, after an appeal, Pope Innocent VIII (1432-1492) lifted the ban in his ‘Butter Letter’ (also known as the ‘Butter Brief’) which he sent to Saxony, allowing them to once again use milk and butter in North German Stollen Fruitcakes.

During the 16th century, inexpensive sugar from the American Colonies and the discovery that a high concentration of sugar could preserve fruits meant that an excess of candied fruit appeared, thus making fruitcakes more affordable, long lasting and popular. Sadly, this didn’t last long, as in the 18th Century they were outlawed entirely throughout Continental Europe! They were regarded as ‘sinfully rich’ and laws were passed to prohibit their existence.

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Eventually though this ban was lifted for holidays and special occasions, and from the mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s the fruitcake once again reigned supreme. In fact the Victorians would not have held a tea party without a slice of fruitcake for their guests. Queen Victoria was said to be so smitten with fruit cake, that she waited an entire year to eat one that she received for her birthday, as she felt ‘it showed restraint, moderation and good taste’. It was also the custom of young unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of a dark fruit cake under their pillow at night so they would dream of the person they would eventually marry.

There are still many variations on modern day fruit cakes; they can be light or dark; moist or crumbly; spongy or heavy; with or without nuts, and any shape imaginable, but the one thing they must have is plenty of fruit.

These days we have a love/hate relationship with fruitcake. Many have forsaken the goodness of fruit and the moist heady fumes of brandy and replaced their fruit cake with a Christmas Log, or a rich chocolate sponge.

What will be on your table this Christmas?

Rich Fruit Cake Recipe

875g mixed dried fruit

90g glace cherries

40ml brandy

200g butter

200g muscovado sugar

3 eggs

250g plain flour

1 ½ tsp mixed spice

45g blanched almonds

Baking time 3 – 3 ¼ hours

Mix together the dried fruit, chopped cherries and brandy. Cover and leave for several hours to absorb.

Preheat the oven to 140 degrees. Grease your tin and line with baking parchment

Beat the butter and sugar and then gradually combine the eggs, beating well after each addition. Stir in the sifted flour, alternately with the soaked fruit, mixed spice and chopped almonds. Spoon into the prepared tin and smooth the surface.

Wrap a piece of folded newspaper around the outside of the tin and tie securely with string, then bake for 3 – 3 ¼ hours.

You can pour a little extra brandy over the cake when it comes out of the oven if you wish, then leave to cool in the tin. When it has cooled, remove from the tin, and keep in a cool, dry place.