Of all the varieties of cakes in the world, the traditional Christmas cake must be the most popular of them all. Packed with dried fruits, spices, sugar, and alcohol, the Christmas cake is definitely a grand affair. But what’s the story behind the cake, why is it often called “Plum” cake, and how did a fruit cake become associated with Christmas?
Nothing defines Christmas more than Christmas cake. While in the ’90s, Christmas cake was only baked by bakeries and premium confectioneries, we have seen the surge in cake demand over the last two decades, which has led to the simplest of roadside grocery stores to stock up on packaged, mass-produced Christmas cakes, from the second week of December. The packaging has all the well-publicised and commercialised emblems of Christmas — a fat-old-white Santa, mistletoe, wreaths, snowmen, and whatnot. Like the irrelevance of Santa to Christ’s birthday, the Christmas cake, also, has nothing to do with the Immaculate Conception.
Its roots are rather debauched.
The first examples of a “cake” being the centre of a celebration are found in the Roman Saturnalia. The Saturnalia, a week-long celebration of all things Saturn, from December 17 to December 23, was a bacchanalian period of feasting, revelry, gambling, and merrymaking. It aligns with Saturn sitting at the centre of Capricorn during this period, and the celebration also commemorated the winter solstice on December 21. Amongst various activities and events, a cake would be baked, with a bean hidden inside it. Whoever found the bean, would be crowned the king, for a day, and titled the “Lord of Misrule”. Whatever he said was law, and had to be followed. Rest assured, things got quite naughty. The Romans were not necessarily known for keeping it kosher.
Later, during the Victorian era, this cake turned into the King’s Cake, or the Twelfth Night Cake, which was brought out on the twelfth night of Christmas (roughly around January 6, depending on whether you counted the 12 days of Christmas from Christmas Eve or Boxing Day), or Epiphany Eve, and while early iterations used to only have a bean (as illustrated in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night), later, a bean and a pea would be hidden in the cake. The man who finds the bean would be the king, or Lord of Misrule, continuing the Roman tradition well into the 1700s, and the woman who finds the pea, the queen. The Twelfth Night cake was nothing more than a dry dough French bread, topped with sugar frosting and candy. Later versions started having more elaborate toppings, including fruits, and various trinkets or figurines.
But another English tradition was quickly finding popularity during Christmas in the 1700s. The Plum Porridge, an outrageously unappetising sounding stew made with a whole leg and shin of beef (boiled down to a soggy mash), thickened with bread, heavily spiced, and mixed with dried fruit, sugar, and wine, was picking up tempo. While the French were busy laughing at this abomination — although chefs who have recovered old recipes say that it sounds far worse than it tastes — the English were laying down this porridge, or pottage, for Christmas feasts. One must also note that the ingredients are not exactly cheap. Literature of that time talks about how the rich dumped their Plum Porridges with sultanas, black currants, raisins, plums, and nuts, while the poor could not even throw in a few prunes. The spices depended on what was fashionable in that century — cinnamon, ground ginger, and cloves in the 17th century, and mace and nutmeg in the 18th. By the end of the 18th century, the Plum Porridge had slowly faded away, giving way to a more sophisticated Plum Pudding. While the Plum Pudding and Figgy Pudding became grand additions to the dessert menu in the holiday season, the tradition of baking a cake merged with the ingredient-heavy Plum Porridge, transforming into what we know as the Christmas cake, or, rightfully, a fruit cake, or historically, a plum cake. Different countries of course have their own additions, while the basic syntax of the cake stays the same around the world. In India, for example, it is common to find the Agra petha in the Christmas cake, along with tutti-frutti, that disgusting synthetic ingredient that kids love. The candied cherry, another oft-found cake ingredient in the country, also heavily features in the cake.
Store-bought Christmas cakes are definitely not the real deal. Even renowned confectioneries are not able to deliver it to perfection due to various restrictions — the cake is high on sugar, eggs, and alcohol, and is definitely not vegetarian or halal or keto friendly. Baking the Christmas cake at home is always the best bet. Every year, I make it a point to soak all the fruits, along with candied ginger and orange peel, in rum, brandy, and orange juice, for at least a month. I also steep my own cherry brandy for over a month. On December 24, I bake the cake, and then brush it generously with cherry brandy every two hours. The cake is cut on Christmas, and is moist, succulent, and decadent. It is important to be generous with spices — cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg — and to also remember to use flour and almond meal, and both brown and white sugar. Pair the cake with a home-made Mulled Wine, served warm, like a hug.
Merry Christmas, and happy holidays!
Arnesh’s kick-ass recipe for Mulled Wine:
A litre red wine (cheap is fine)
A litre port wine
250 ml dark rum (we all know it’s going to be Old Monk)
100 ml of any French brandy
200 ml fresh orange juice (not packaged, please)
2 big oranges, peeled
The peels of those oranges, with the white skin scrubbed off
As much cinnamon as you like
2 tablespoons nutmeg powder
12-14 cloves (pro-tip: stick them into the oranges)
6-8 whole star anise
Sugar to taste
Dump everything into a cauldron, turn on a low heat, and stir well till the sides start to bubble. Bring it down to a no-bubble simmer for half an hour at least. Turn off the heat, and cover and steep for 4-5 hours. Before serving, warm it up again — don’t allow it to bubble this time round. Strain and serve into individual glasses, and dust the top with some cinnamon, and wipe the rim of the glass with an orange peel. Yeah, I’m hella fancy.