Cooking with my grandmother: traditional Christmas cake

I don’t make a Christmas cake every year – it depends on where we will be spending Christmas. This year we will be having Christmas at our own home in Adelaide (‘though we fly home to NZ a few days later), so I have made a traditional Christmas cake. Traditional in my line of women, that is: the recipe is the one that my mother got from her mother. I think that Mum eventually got Nana to give her the recipe by sitting in the kitchen as Nana was making the cake one year, and writing down what she did. I don’t know where my nana got her recipe from, but it almost certainly wasn’t her mother, who died when Nana was just a girl. Every time I make this cake, I think of my nana.

There’s quite a ritual to making the cake. The first two steps need to be completed the night before you make the cake.

First, you need to prepare the dried fruit. You will need:
1/2 lb sultanas
1/2 lb currants
1/2 lb sticky raisins
4 oz glace cherries
2 oz glace citrus peel
a few dates

Chop the sticky raisins and the dates and the glace cherries into chunks that are about the same size as the sultanas (or a little larger). Put all the fruit into a large bowl, and add 1/4 cup brandy. (You can use gingerbeer instead, but that’s for wimps. Or sherry, but I prefer the taste of brandy.) Stir it all through, then cover the bowl (my nana would have used paper, or simply put a plate over the top of the bowl; I used cling wrap) and leave the mix to marinade overnight. You don’t need to put it in the fridge; on the bench will do.


Second, prepare the cake tin. I’ve used a 22cm round tin this year, giving me a very deep cake. The cake needs to be cooked long and slow, and because it is so dense, the outer edges may get too dry before the cake is cooked through. Also, you need to ensure that the temperature around the cake is as even as possible. So line the tin with several layers of tin foil, and put a wrapping of brown paper around the outside of the tin too. Nana called for three layers of tin foil, greased, inside the tin, and two layers of brown paper outside it. But, Nana was cooking in a coal range, where it was difficult to maintain an even temperature, especially the lower temperature that the cake requires. With modern tins and ovens, a couple of layers of foil inside the tin and one paper layer outside should be ample. You could probably use even less, depending on how reliable you think your oven is, but I have never quite dared to play too fast and loose with Nana’s rules. When you grease the foil, use a bit of butter smeared onto some paper, and grease every layer. This helps to smooth the tin foil out, so that you get a nice even surface for your cake. Here’s my lined cake tin. Ideally, the edges of the paper layer will go a little higher than the cake tin.


As you can see, preparing the cake tin takes time, which is why it’s worth doing it the previous night.

The next day, preheat the oven to about 140 degrees Celsius (275 Fahrenheit).

Soften and cream 1/2 lb butter, and 1/2 lb brown sugar.

While the butter and sugar are creaming, sift the dried ingredients – 1/2 lb flour, and spices. The type and amount of spices you use are optional. This year, I used about 1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, allspice and ginger, and some freshly grated nutmeg. You could also add ground cloves, and maybe even a tiny bit of chilli powder, to zing things along.

Once the butter and sugar are well creamed, add some essences – about 1/2 tsp each of vanilla, almond and lemon essence. Then, start adding eggs. Nana’s recipe calls for 4 to 5 eggs, added one at a time, and beaten in well. That’s a lot of eggs to beat into just 1/2 lb of butter, and if you add too many, you can end up with the mix curdling. So, just before you add each egg, mix in a spoonful (about 1 tablespoon) of the sifted flour and spices. Then beat each egg in well. After you’ve added 4 eggs, have a careful look at the mix. If it looks faintly streaky and grainy, then you are probably on the point of ‘turning it’, so don’t add any more. If however, the mix still looks smooth and glossy, then possibly you could add another egg. Nana was using eggs from her own chookies, which varied in size, so she may have added five small eggs. This year, I had large free range eggs on hand, so I only used four.

Once all the eggs are beaten in, add the remaining flour, and mix well.

Then, add some coffee. This is my mother’s tip, to help make a lovely dark cake. Before you start adding the eggs, get 1 tablespoon full of instant coffee, and dissolve it in a tablespoon full of hot water, then leave it to cool while you beat the eggs in. Alternatively, put 2 to 3 tablespoons of very fine fresh coffee grounds into a jug, and pour in a little hot water, enough to get the grounds to release their flavour and colour, and leave it to steep while adding the eggs. Then, when you have added the flour mix, strain the coffee, and add about 1 tablespoon to the cake mix, and stir through. This should darken the colour of the cake, and round out the flavour.

Next, add the fruit, and mix thoroughly. And if you like (I never have), you can also add a tablespoon of marmalade at this stage. Then put the cake batter into the tin and smooth it out.


The surface of the cake can dry out too much while it’s cooking, but there’s two things you can do to minimise that. First, wet your fingertips, and shake a little water over the surface of the cake. (Mutter a blessing while you do this, if you like.) Then, put a hat on top of the cake! That’s a square of folded baking paper, sitting on top of the paper wrapping, and covering the cake without touching the surface of the batter.

Put the cake into the oven, and WRITE DOWN THE TIME at which you put it in. Write a note to yourself about the time that you will test it, and the time that you expect to take it out. This is because it is all too easy to forget the details. Nana also recommended putting a baking slide sprinkled with salt under the cake, an inch or two lower, depending on the level of the racks in your oven, but I suspect that this was to do with the uneven temperature coming up from the bottom of her coal range. After many years, Mum and I managed to convince ourselves that we didn’t really need to do it, ‘though both of us felt faintly sacrilegious when we omitted it for the first time. But the world didn’t end, and the cakes we made were still good, so we’ve never done it since (put the salted baking tray in, that is).

Once the cake is in the oven, call your mother, or your daughter, or your sister or aunty or cousin or good friend, and let them know that you have put your Christmas cake in the oven, and that you are thinking of them, and of family and friends, and the love that binds you. This year, I called my mum, and a week or so later, she e-mailed (!) to let me know that her cake was in.

The cake needs to cook for a long time, four or five hours, or maybe even six hours, depending on how big and deep it is. Check the cake at around four hours, and take the hat off. If the cake is singing to you, then it’s in good condition. If it has stopped singing, then you have probably overcooked it.

Singing! Has she gone mad?

Well, no. You will hear a faint sound of popping and bubbling and hissing. That’s the cake singing to you. Test the cake for readiness by gently pressing the top, to see if it feels cooked. A cooked cake will feel quite firm. Most cakes will also feel a little springy, but this is a very rich and very dense cake, so it shouldn’t really feel as though it’s bouncing back at you. You could also use a skewer test.

Once you have taken the cake out, leave it in the tin until it has cooled completely. Then unwrap it, and carefully pour some brandy through it. Pour about 60mls into a small cup or shot glass, then using a teaspoon, dribble about 1/2 the brandy into the cake, and drink the rest yourself. Wrap the cake up in a couple of layers of greaseproof paper, and then put it into an airtight cake tin, or if you don’t have one big enough, cover it up with layers of plastic bags (supermarket bags work well for this). Store it at the top of your pantry. Every few weeks, take it down and unwrap it, and add more brandy (to the cake, and to yourself – you’ll be needing it in the pre-Christmas frenzy).

cakebrandy spooningbrandy

Ideally, you would make this cake two or three months ahead of Christmas. I have never in my life ever been so organised. This year, I managed to make it about six weeks ahead. Maybe next year…

Ordinarily, I would have given metric measurements for this cake, but that would seem to break faith with my grandmother. But for everyone who has been brought up in the new money, 1/2 lb, or 8oz, is about 225gms, or very roughly, 1/4 of a kilo (250gms). If you look at the measures, this is a one-measure cake – 1/2 lb or 1/4 lb of each ingredient. The only tricky bit is adding the right number of eggs, but if you stick to a rule of thumb of four to five eggs per 250gms (about 1/2 lb) of butter, you should be right. I have on occasion doubled this recipe, and cooked it in a 24cm square tin, and the cake was just fine. If you do double the recipe (or multiply it 1.5 times), then don’t add exactly double (or 1.5 times) the amount of spices and essences. The flavours can become too strong if you simply double up.

Just before Christmas, I will ice the cake, with one layer of almond icing, one of royal icing, and some decorative icing on top. I will try to blog it, but that may well depend on just how much brandy I have been pouring into the cake.


28 responses to “Cooking with my grandmother: traditional Christmas cake

  1. Awesome recipe/memory thingy. My family has no Christmas Cake tradition and last year I made Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Christmas cake which was the best.cake.ever. Even my partner who hates fruit cake liked it. I am forming my own rituals around it and it feels great to be starting what I hope to be a tradition. Tip – you need to wear cashmere and lippy while baking it 🙂

  2. Lovely post 😀 And it sounds like a fabulous cake too.

    My grandmother used to make a Christmas cake each year, I should find out what her recipe was, I’m sure it’s floating around somewhere and she can probably still give me all the hints and tips that aren’t written down.

    My mother-in-law took over Christmas pudding duties from her mother-in-law at some point way back but it’s been 2 years since she last made the puds for us.

    My Christmas baking traditions in the making are all about fruit mince pies and gingerbread houses. Last year I cooked 144 pies.

  3. Should you care to pass on your fruit mince recipe, I would be very grateful… you could blog it and let me know?

  4. My mother makes a very similar cake (and she’s from NZ as well). I’m not sure that her mother did, though. I’ll have to aske her. She leaves the fruit marinating for a few weeks, first, though (funny, as she’s mostly a teetotaller otherwise). I do remember the ceremony of it all.

    Reading this makes me want to take on the tradition, which I never have because (1) she always makes them for me and (2) Mr Penguin hates fruit cake.

    She also makes mince pies, but her recipe is mostly bought mince plus a few additions, rather than entirely from scratch, like the cake.

  5. Lovely post. I’ve only ever made the Alison Holst mincemeat, which doesn’t have suet in it, but is lovely and fresh-tasting and almost citrusy. Let me know if you’d like the recipe.

  6. Ahh… I think I’ve got those recipes – one for uncooked mincement, and one cooked, in her book, Cooking for Christmas. They both call for lemon and orange peel. Those recipes aren’t on-line, but there’s another recipe here.

  7. Oh wow. That’s one fine-sounding cake.

    My nana was extremely fond of fruitcake, and such cakes always make me think of her, but she didn’t bequeath any recipes to us . Lucky you!

  8. Deborah – your call for the fruitmince recipe reminded me of our family one. I think I would be thrown out of the family if I gave the secret away though

  9. “Once the cake is in the oven, call your mother, or your daughter, or your sister or aunty or cousin or good friend, and let them know that you have put your Christmas cake in the oven”

    I love it!! 🙂

  10. Funny, I was making christmas cake yesterday. It would have been family-traditional Alison Holst’s recipie, except that’s in Dunedin with Mum. I confess to a rather large baking manual and pound-cake variation (dark fruit cake). Both are fairly like yours – maybe more fruit, just enough batter to hold it together. And almonds! I considered putting coffee in too, as it happens. Didn’t though – sounds nice.

    Also made vastly too much and had too shuffle some of it into a smaller tin. I still buy the fruit in the full Holst quantities, which fills a rather large square tin we had at home.

    Handn’t seen this, so I didn’t think to call anyone.

    Last year I made a pudding thinking of a midwinter thing and managed to keep it till christmas. Magic. And amazing how important the custard or similar is to the whole package.

    I’m with Delia on the skewer test. It *always* comes out with something on it in a decent christmas cake – probably explains my tendency to lightly blacken the edges. Which doesn’t tend to do too much damage.

  11. Ah, now I feel inspired to make panettone – I always recoiled in cowardice, the recipe looks hellish. But try I must!

  12. oh dear. The Chairman and I have decided to have ‘christmas bake-o-rama’ at the weekend (to make christmas mince and a cake). I had thought that making a cake looked quite easy but now I’m not so sure (I’d been thinking of going for the Lois Daish recipe although the Chairman appears to be a Nigella fan). We’re also currently disagreeing about the suet versus non-suet christmas mince recipe. I have to say your foil lined tin looks nauseatingly tidy. I just made some fudge and managed to rip about 5 holes in the foil in the tin lining process….

  13. donnasoowho – the Nigella Chocolate Christmas Cake recipe is disgustingly easy. I used a silicon cake pan and didn’t do all the brown paper and foil wrapping

  14. oh really? Although is a chocolate christmas cake wrong?

  15. Well it hasn’t really got that much chocolate in it – more of boiled fruit cake with cocoa.

  16. In our family it is a bloke that make the Xmas Cakes.
    Must be linked to the fact that my generation is the first in five that does not have a baker in it. My dad, his dad, etc were all bakers, but I have taken on the task, this year I will make fourteen Xmas Cakes for Family and Friends.
    I like the comment about ring people as you bake your cake, Next year I will think of that as I make each persons cake.

  17. Deborah I’ve got my fruit soaking in brandy.. and am looking in trepidation at the friggin’ cake tin lining instructions… I don’t think mine’s going to look quite so tidy. Does it matter if perhaps there is only 1 layer of foil (and that it’s a bit wrinkly?).

  18. No! Especially not in modern ovens.

    Let me know how it goes.

  19. I love the tradition of making Christmas cake. I soak my fruit in a rich red wine, for a week or two covered on the bench.
    The recipe otherwise is Nigella Lawsons, it always comes out right. It is a time of memories and phone calls definitely. Thanks for sharing

  20. Just put my cake in the oven so blogging to a friend…

  21. Excellent – a recipe with provenance and that actually works! Thank you!

  22. The cake is oven. Yah!

  23. Well done! I’m not doing one this year – we’re heading home to NZ for Christmas. But I will ice my mother’s cake on Christmas Eve, as has been our habit for many years now.

  24. My mother has called to say that she has her cake in the oven.

  25. I want to cook 6 eggs cake by using 250gms of butter, I want yo know the measurement of sugar and flour by using tin of the butter that is my measurement because you tell me I have to use flour may be 1 cup so which kind of cup?

    I think I better use tin of better please tell how many tins of flour and sugar

  26. It’s a little difficult trying to convert measuring systems, but if you are using 250gms of butter, you should use 5 eggs. I think that 6 eggs would be too many for that amount of butter.

    You really need to use scales to get the right amount of flour and sugar. However, if you don’t have scales, try using 1 cup of flour, and 1 cup of sugar. My cup measure is 250mls.

    This is a very old recipe, so it’s not very precise. If you’re looking for exact instructions, you might be better off looking at a published recipe book rather than my report of my grandmother’s recipe. However, I’m fairly confident that if you use 250 grams of butter, no more than 5 eggs, 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of sugar, it should work out well enough.

    I hope this helps.

  27. I am Malaysian,every x’mas my late mum will baked fruit cake that she inherited from her best friend since i was small.It’s about 10 months she had left us and this x’mas we baked a cake without her and it really put me on tears.
    I’ve just baked x’mas fruit cake yesterday,and while downloading the photo to Facebook i felt like to goggled about fruitcake in the web and that brings me to this page. Surprisingly,we did the same fruit cake (but ours baked in a steamer,because only a few people have the oven) and we as a tradition did what you mention below:
    “Once the cake is in the oven, call your mother, or your daughter, or your sister or aunty or cousin or good friend, and let them know that you have put your Christmas cake in the oven”

    I am really glad that we had the same tradition:)
    love ya…