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This Traditional Christmas Cake Is Worth the Wait

Whether it’s trimming the tree, caroling or icing the perfect gingerbread house, most families have their holiday traditions. For our producer Karen, that tradition involves baking a certain Yuletide sweet — well before Christmas is even here.

Frosted English Christmas Cake on Glass Cake Stand

Traditional British Christmas cake is a dense butter cake made with preserved fruit and brandy.

The actual cake is baked four to six weeks in advance, and is preserved with brandy in an airtight container.

Karen Eating Christmas CakeThis particular dessert is as rich in flavor as it is in history. To this day, Karen’s family still bakes a symbolic silver coin into the cake for good fortune, and they all take turns stirring the batter for luck.

While Christmas cake and its traditions have been around for quite some time, this holiday favorite didn’t always resemble the sticky sweet treat that we recognize today.

In fact, Christmas cake originated as a meaty, plum porridge. Gradually, ingredients were added and removed, and plum porridge transformed into Christmas pudding, and then again into Christmas cake.

Though there are now as many Christmas cake recipes as there are families who make it, all Christmas cakes include candied fruit, exotic spices and aged spirits.

If you’re ready to serve up a slice of tradition this Christmas, or just don’t want to worry about making dessert the day of, try out Karen’s traditional Christmas cake recipe! (Bonus points if you stick to the English way and set it on fire before serving.)

Slice of Traditional British Christmas Cake

Traditional Christmas Cake

Makes one 8” round cake

Ingredients for Traditional Christmas Cake

Ingredients:

  • 9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice*
  • 8 ounces (1 cup) butter
  • 8 ounces soft brown sugar
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1½ tablespoons black treacle*
  • 12 ounces raisins
  • 12 ounces golden raisins
  • 12 ounces currants*
  • 2 ounces candied orange peel*
  • 3 ounces candied cherries*, quartered
  • 2 ounces almonds, blanched and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons brandy or whisky

*See recipe notes below for substitutions.

Note: Christmas cake should be made at least a month before Christmas (or whenever you plan to serve it). This gives the cake time to soak up the brandy and “mature.” The longer the cake matures, the better it tastes, but it’s OK to make it a little later, too — it will still be delicious.

Directions:
  1. Line the base and sides of an 8″ round or square cake pan with waxed or parchment paper. Cut two strips of brown paper to the circumference of the pan and 1” wider than the depth of the pan. Wrap these two strips of paper around the outside of the pan and tie with kitchen twine.

  2. Into a large bowl, sift together flour, salt and mixed spice into large bowl.

  3. In a separate bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar until pale and creamy. Beat in egg a little at a time.

  4. Stir in flour mixture, treacle, raisins, golden raisins, currants, candied orange peel, candied cherries and almonds.

  5. Once combined, pour the batter into the prepared pan.

  6. Bake the cake in a 300 F–oven for 3 hours. Then reduce the heat to 265 F and continue baking for another hour, or until a skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

  7. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the pan for 10 minutes (or a bit longer). Turn out the cake onto a wire tray and remove the paper.

  8. When the cake is almost cold, turn it upside down and pierce multiple times with a skewer. Spoon brandy (or spirit of your choice) over the cake.

  9. Leave until completely cold (even overnight).

  10. Wrap in waxed paper. Place the wrapped cake in an airtight container or wrap in foil. (Do not let foil come into contact with cake.)

  11. If desired, you can “feed” the cake several more times over the next few weeks with additional brandy.

  12. Before almond pasting (if intending to ice(frost)) spoon a little more spirit over top of cake.

Frosted English Christmas Cake

Recipe notes:

Mixed spice

Don’t confuse mixed spice with allspice! If you can’t find ready-made mixed spice, you can create your own mix by combining 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg, 2 teaspoon ground mace, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, 1 teaspoon ground ginger and 1 tablespoon ground allspice. It’s also similar to pumpkin pie spice, which you can use in a pinch.

Black treacle

If you can’t find black treacle, you can easily substitute an equal amount of molasses.

Currants

While you should be able to find currants in your grocery store or online, you could also substitute them for dark raisins. So instead of 12 ounces each of raisins, golden raisins and currants, you would use 24 ounces of raisins and 12 ounces of golden raisins.

Candied orange peel and cherries

Again, you likely will be able to find candied orange peels and cherries online or in specialty food stores. Or, you can make your own! Check out this simple recipe for candied cherries, and this one for orange peels.

If you enjoyed this recipe, or just want to take a peek at a few more of our favorite festive goodies, go ahead and download our free holiday recipe book.

16 Comments

Nonie

This seems a good recipe – I am a Brit and have been making Christmas cakes for too long to own up to. The only thing I would say is that you don’t set fire to cake – you do to a Christmas pudding though! ?

Reply
Gill

May I point out, as a long time eater of Christmas pudding and cake and disliker of nuts, that the nuts are not necessary in either, and ONLY the pudding is set alight, the cake is iced and served at tea time. This recipe or similar can also be used for a wdding cake

Reply
VickiT

I have one question regarding Step 1 above. I want to be sure I’m understanding correctly. The recipe says to cut strips of the parchment paper 1 inch wider than the depth of the pan and then wrap around the outside of the pan. Because it states to then tie kitchen twine around the pan, it for sure goes outside the pan. But, do you wrap the inside circumference of the pan with paper so it doesn’t stick when removing the cake from the pan after baking?

This brings back memories, although not quite the same as this recipe. My Grandmother made quite a few “Plum Puddings” each year. As a child, I remember how much I did not like those but I’m fairly positive she used the traditional British recipe you described below which started with meat. She also did not frost hers; instead she made a Hard Sauce to pour over top just before eating. My Uncle, who is now gone wanted her recipe when she died because he wanted to carry on the tradition. Now I wish I had her recipe just to make it one time. I recall she did not bake hers, but wrapped it in, I believe cheesecloth and then steamed it for hours and just like your recipe, it was always made far in advance of the holidays so it could ‘ripen’ so to speak.

Thank you so much. I’m going to try to get a few of these made in the next week. One of my sons has tried multiple fruitcakes he’s bought from many places and can’t find one he likes. I’m wondering if he might like this one; especially with liquor in it. LOL

Reply
Elisabeth Price

Parchment paper is used to line the inside of the pan. It is brown paper that is tied around the outside. It may be to ensure that the cake doesn’t get too brown on the outside. They do in fact state this step correctly.

Reply
Lynn Sandweiss Kukes

How does one “almond paste” the fruit cake? No instructions are offered…

Reply
Elisabeth Price

Nowadays most people just put a half-inch layer of almond paste on the top surface of the cake, as it is hard to get it to stick to the sides. My mother used a bit of apricot jam to stick it to the sides, but she still had trouble. You can buy a roll of marzipan (usually from Denmark or Germany) and mix it 50/50 with powdered sugar. This is the way most people I knew Ade their alone paste. Of course, you can also make it with ground almonds, but it’s actually harder for me to find ground almonds than it is to find marzipan.
Note that you don’t put this on until the cake finished maturing with the brandy and you are getting ready to use the cake. On top of the almond paste you ice it with Royal Icing. This is just powdered sugar stirred up with an egg white. It becomes as hard as rock eventually, and you can sculpt fancy designs and figures with it on top of the cake. If you want it a little bit less rock-like you can stir in a drop or two of glycerine. (Beware – not too much!)

Reply
bdejong

I have wanted to bake a Christmas cake, but with 3 alcoholics in the family I can’t use any recipe with alcohol. I know that the spirits acts as a preservative…any tips on a work around for this?

Reply
Elisabeth Price

Make a different kind of fruit cake that doesn’t need maturing in the same way. You could use any number of American recipes for fruitcake. I don’t think this recipe is worth eating without the brandying because it is apt to be very dry and even a bit bitter as the ingredients are extremely strong tasting. The brandy turns it candy-like. It should be eaten in very small pieces, like 2 or 3 sq inches of a half inch slice. It is not normally cut in wedges like other round cakes. For weddings, the couple buy little cardboard boxes and send out a small rectangular piece of cake to those who were not present. These boxes are quite small and are meant to serve two!

Reply
Mischka

You can substitute black tea for the alcohol. I haven’t done it but I’ve seen recipes that use it – sometime plain black tea and sometimes Earl Grey.

Reply
Elaine

I make a very similar fruit cake, but only bake it about 2 weeks before serving. Before covering and decorating I feed it with apple or grape juice to make it nice and moist. (Recipe on my blog)

Reply
Meredith

My mother used to make an applesauce fruitcake for our Christmas cake, which she covered with marzipan and icing just the same as the traditional English fruit cake.

Reply
Nonie

Christmas pudding is set alight prior to serving, NOT Christmas cake!

Reply
Karen Knox

Both my grandmothers (born at the end of the 19C) made Christmas fruitcakes rather like the one in this recipe, but the icing they used on theirs was caramel icing, which is what I use as well. This recipe and others like it make a really fine Christmas cake, and it’s well worth the time spent on it! I usually use a loaf pan for mine.

Reply
Linda

A few of the American commenters are confused between a Christmas cake and a Christmas pudding. Silver coins or trinkets were put in the pudding and then before it was cooked everyone in the family would stir the mixture for good luck. The pudding is steamed in a pudding basin or boiled in a cloth. There is definitely an art to wrapping a pudding in a cloth for boilingwhich I’ve never mastered! The pudding was traditionally drenched in brandy and lit before serving but I don’t think that tradition travelled here to Australia. The cake is traditionally coated in marzipan (almond paste) and then a thick layer of royal icing, although I haven’t seen an iced cake for some time. My Mother used to decorate her cakes with almonds and glace cherries. I’ve just made one and decorated it with glace orange slices and cherries.

Reply
Keshia

What a nice Christmas cake.
I definitely want to try this one.
nice pictures too…

Reply
simran

What a lovely and sweet cake. I love the decoration of this white frosting cream roughly spread on the cake full of colorful cherries.

Reply

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