Christmas Cake advice sought.

by Harry on November 10, 2004

The election, kid’s birthday party, and work in general, have delayed my Christmas Cake making to the coming weekend. Still, I’m now on track for Saturday morning. Making Christmas Cake generates several challenges. The first is the absence of edible glace cherries (which tend to be way too sweet here, if you can manage to find them) and appropriate chopped peel (can’t get the Whitworth’s kind, just candied muck). I overcame these problems last year rather well, by substituting dried cherries and dried strawberries. Expensive, but worth it. The second is keeping it moist enough. I’ve finally acknowledged that our oven overcooks everything, so am just doing everything at 50 degrees lower, and a bit longer — hope it will work. I’m also going to add more butter than my recipe says (I use Katie Stewart’s from the 1975 edition of the Times Calendar Cookery Book). But the unsolved problem is how to get it boozy enough. She demands just two tablespoons of brandy, which is nowhere near enough for a 3lb cake; so I have been doubling it the past couple of years, as well as sprinkling it over the cake sporadically in the weeks before Christmas. Still not enough. Should I be soaking the fruit in brandy beforehand? Should I be using even more brandy? Does anyone have experience of adding Port? While I am in my non-cake eating life all-but-a-teetotaller, I like boozy cake, but am constrained by the fact that I don’t want it to be so boozy that my kids will reject it. Advice? (And if anyone can tell me an easy way of getting edible glace cherries and Whitworth mixed peel in the Midwest that’d be great too).

Update: here’s the recipe (as modified by me from Katie Stewart):

10 oz plain flour
1 ts mixed spice
1tsp salt
10 oz butter (up from her 8)
8 oz soft brown sugar
4 large eggs (that is, extra large in US terms)
1 Tablespoon black treacle (i.e. light molasses)
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
8 oz each of currants, sultanas (golden raisins) and raising
4 oz each of dried cherries and dried strawberries, chopped, but not too small
2 oz chopped blanched almonds
4 Tablespoons brandy (my doubling of her 2 Tbs)

Cream butter and sugar; mix eggs, molasses, and vanilla essence, and then beat into creamed mixture. Add nost of the flour with the last bits of egg.
Mix the fruit well with a little flour and the brandy.
Then fold together. Spoon into an 8-inch cake pan and cook in a pre-heated over at 300F for 1 1/2 hours, THEN lower temperature to 275F and bake a further 2 1/2 hours.



Abraham Bhutt 11.10.04 at 5:00 pm

Is it possible for you to post the recipe, as it is yours, not the one from the book (so your revised receipe – i assume then is yours). It’s absolutely not Christmas like to talk about it such enticing terms, and then not give the receipe away. It makes me want to try to do so myself. And then I could perhaps find those two things for you as well, considering I live in Chicago.


Cranky Observer 11.10.04 at 5:02 pm

Do you have a copy of Rose Levy Berienbaum’s _The Cake Bible_? Not sure if it is still in print but many libraries have it. She discusses these kinds of questions in detail; her claim is that if you follow her instructions you can make professional bakery cakes in your home.

Worth a look.



LizardBreath 11.10.04 at 5:10 pm

I’m not sure that the Cake Bible has a Christmas cake recipe — that is, I think it doesn’t. (Although it is a fantastic, fantastic resource for cakes generally. I made a Buche de Noel out of it last Christmas that would break your heart.)

On booziness, the technique I know is to make the cake a few weeks ahead, and put it in a closed tin wrapped in a clean dishcloth. Every couple of days, pour a shot or two of brandy on the cloth, and reclose the tin tightly — you’re keeping the fumes in.

I would stay away from port, because it isn’t alcoholic enough to preserve the cake; I think you would just end up with it getting wet and possibly moldy.


P O'Neill 11.10.04 at 5:17 pm

The moistness problem — how about Guinness?


Kieran Healy 11.10.04 at 5:40 pm

The moistness problem — how about Guinness?



unf 11.10.04 at 5:41 pm

I have no idea what those ingredients are, but you could try Fox & Obel Market in Chicago.


Barry 11.10.04 at 5:42 pm

Using frozen fruit instead of dried will make the cake moister. I’ve also found that covering the cake with aluminum foil as soon as it has cooled down enough to do so helps a bit – it traps escaping moisture.

You could also try using mashed bannanas instead of butter.


Leila 11.10.04 at 5:43 pm

What you call Christmas Cake is what we Americans call a fruit cake, is it not? Check the Joy of Cooking for all manner of advice on the care and feeding of these cakes. Joy also gives several alternate recipes.

There’s an epic Christmas Cake recipe in the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook, volume one, that makes 17 pounds worth of cake. Excellent but a lot of work. We’ve eaten it in May, 7 months after baking, and it’s delicious.

Recipe here:


bellatrys 11.10.04 at 5:45 pm

lizardbreath’s advice is what I was going to suggest, though in my family we use sherry and cheesecloth, available at the grocery store in packets, because it soaks up better than tablecloth fabric, which is often partly plastic here. (The sherry was a flavor thing.)

That gives a very authentic *steeped* flavor, and then if you add some sherry or brandy to buttercream icing you have “hard sauce” which melts very nicely on fruitcake or plum pudding.


Stacy 11.10.04 at 6:01 pm

I’ve had good luck with the Good Eats recipe, here’s the url at Food Network.,,FOOD_9936_14244,00.html


Another Damned Medievalist 11.10.04 at 6:18 pm

Harry — I strongly suggest you buy an oven thermometer. Not only are they great for getting the temperature right, but lots of them have both Fahrenheit and Centigrade temps.


WOOD TURTLE 11.10.04 at 6:31 pm

A German friend of mine used to make a delicious fruitcake, made with dried fruit, not that candied stuff that usually is in fruitcakes.

I remember it was delicious, and I don’t like the other kind of fruitcakes. She refused to give me the recipe, so I’ve never had it again.

So, most wonderful and handsome “abraham butt” if you have such a recipe I would really love to see it posted here, thank you very much. Your large generosity will be much appreciated.


nbier 11.10.04 at 6:37 pm

Food dehydrators are relatively inexpensive and are brainless to use (just got one as a wedding gift and have been dehydrating everything in sight). Drying your own cherries and strawberries could solve the expense issue.


Liz 11.10.04 at 7:31 pm

Here’s my great-grandmother’s recipe – her’s was pretty boozy :) My grandmother made fruitcakes and followed the same soaking method – just pour brandy or rum over them about once every 10-14 days or if they seem dry. I couldn’t even breath near those things when I was a kid.


1/2 lb beef suet
1 c sugar – brown or white
1 lb each currants and raisins
1/2 lb each candied lemon, cherries and citrus peel
1 lb flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 Cup cider or sweet wine
1/4 Cup cold water
Brandy or rum

Chop suet fine, then put fruit in. Sift flour, baking powder and spices together and mix with fruit. Add cup of cider or sweet wine, mix, then add baking soda mixed with 1/4 cup of cold water. Mix well. Form into rounds and tie up with cheesecloth or rags tightly. Drop them in a large pan of boiling water and boil for 5-6 hours. Soak with brandy or rum. Should keep for a long time. Makes two large ones or 4-5 small ones. Can add 2-3 beaten eggs, nutmeat or a grated carrot. Don’t add any more flour. Lilian Valentine



Ushma 11.10.04 at 9:52 pm

Google shows has Whitworth’s mixed fruit and sultanas. They do mail order.


Ushma 11.10.04 at 9:56 pm

Google shows has Whitworth’s mixed fruit and sultanas. They do mail order.


Jane Galt 11.10.04 at 11:53 pm

The cheesecake routine is what we do with our christmas puddings, and yields a nice boozy flavour (although drowning them in 150 rum before setting them on fire doesn’t hurt). I ALSO recommend soaking the dried fruit in booze. It’s gorgeous.


mike 11.11.04 at 12:15 am

As a professional pastrycook I’ve made thousand of Christmas cakes over the years so here’s my advice. Blanch the dried fruit with very hot water for a couple of minutes, drain. Add some alcohol at this stage if you wish. ( I prefer rum) Leave to stand overnight.
Make sure the butter and sugar is well creamed and at room temperature, add the eggs slowly and avoid curdling. ( a badly made cake dries out quickly) Add all the flour (make sure its common or garden stuff not bread or special cake flour) and the fruit and carefully fold in. Protect the tin (which seems a little small for this amount of mix)
by tying brown paper around the outside and place the tin on some more paper. Cover loosely with a couple of sheets of g/proof and bake at 300 f (yes, I agree, buy an oven thermometer) until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean, about 3 hours.
Allow to cool, wrap in several layers of g/proof and store in a cool place until about a weeek before Xmas. Then add your alcohol (the usual amount for a cake this size is up to 2 ozs) by pricking the base and pouring over. The real secret to a moist cake is making it well in advance. Unlike other cakes, heavy fruit cakes actually get moister the longer they are left. They do not dry out.
Best of luck and Merry Christmas


belle waring 11.11.04 at 1:43 am

you can read my recipe here: black fruitcake. I recommend both soaking the dried fruit in rum before baking, and keeping it in a tin and pouring booze over it every few days. wrap them in tin foil and then put them in an ammo box. you may not be able to get glace cherries in the midwest, but you can damn sure get an ammo box. also, you can candy your own fruit peel. this sounds like a deal session, but it’s not really so bad. you just have to let it barely simmer in sugar syrup for a long time. finally, this whole “americans don’t like fruitcake” thing is the result of americans not ever eating any good fruitcake.


belle waring 11.11.04 at 1:45 am

hmm, so much for posting the link in html format. let’s blow out the margins, kids:


kwijibo 11.11.04 at 3:03 am

For the moisture, try packing it the old fashioned way: wrap it in a flour-sack towel soaked in rum or brandy and then put it in a sealed container.

Try dried cranberries instead of cherries. They taste better and have more red color.

Preserve citrus peel yourself. Really. It’s easy and it tastes like citrus instead of candlewax:

Cut the peel from 2 small grapefruit, 2 oranges, and 3 lemons. If the white pith is thick, trim it back a bit. Dice it. Boil 10 minutes in enough water to cover. Rinse it in cold water. Add 2 cups sugar and simmer until the liquid boils away (half an hour or so). Put it in a jar in the refrigerator. Makes about a pound, keeps till next year.


mv 11.11.04 at 4:36 pm

Hm, mike’s mention of flour above makes me wonder about the difference between British and American flour, and whether that is going to affect your fruitcake, er, Christmas cake. Depending on where you are in the US, your all-purpose flour may be much stronger than what you are used to.

Fine Cooking has a thing or two to say about American flours. The UK Flour Advisory Board says that plain flour is 7-10% protein. US all-purpose flour runs 9-12% (lower in the South.) You might try a relatively low-protein flour (put down that sack of King Arthur!)


htom 11.11.04 at 5:00 pm

Sorry to be so late, I’d lost my copy, the link was dead, and I had to find it. Thanks, Google & Wayback Machine!

Emily Dickinson’s Blackcake.

I sometimes change the pound of raisins to a half pound, and add a half pound of chopped dates.


htom 11.11.04 at 5:10 pm

Lest the WayBack link break:

Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake Recipe
updated for modern kitchens

Place a shallow pan of water on the bottom of the oven. Preheat oven to 225 F.

2 cups sugar
1/2 pound butter
5 eggs
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp mace
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 nutmeg, ground
1/4-1/2 cup brandy
1 pound raisins
2/3 pound currants
2/3 pound citron

Add sugar gradually to butter; blend until light and creamy. Add unbeaten eggs & molasses. Beat well. Resift flour with soda and spices. If you’re using unsalted butter, add 1/2 tsp salt.

Beat sifted ingredients into mixture, alternately adding brandy. Stir in raisins, currants, and citron.

Pour batter into two loaf pans lined with waxed paper.

Bake at 225 F for 3 hours (this is not a typo). Remove pan of water for last 1/2 hour. Let loaves cool before removing from pans.

Remove paper and wrap in fresh paper.

The submitter’s notes from experience:

Keep the water pan 1 inch full; otherwise, you’ll have a black brick.

I find that kitchen parchment works better than waxed paper. This cake is so rich, you’ll think you’re tasting heaven (well, of course you are). I usually use only half the listed amounts of raisins, currants, and citron — and the cake still weighs a ton.

The longer the cake sits (in a cool, dark spot), the better it will taste. ED used to put hers in the cellar for a month, but I think 19th century people had a different attitude toward mold than we do … :-)

I’ve had great success with this recipe and make it every year on ED’s birthday.

Additional note: Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as a Cook is available from Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop for US$4.95 + US$2.00 shipping. If you’re familiar with the letters, you already know that ED was quite a good cook!

Originally posted to the emweb e-mail discussion group in 1995.


harry 11.11.04 at 5:36 pm

Will get oven thermometer, thanks, and also the Cake bible (at a deal on Amazon). Flour: well, I had no idea, and that explains a lot. Thanks for the tip. ANd I’ll get on with the peel tonight. Thanks so much; I’ve hesitated to thank people because I don’;t want to stop the flow. More thughts still welcome.


Uncle Kvetch 11.11.04 at 7:40 pm

Funny that none of my fellow Yanks have pointed out that fruitcake has a decidedly, um, checkered reputation on this side of the pond: i.e., it’s something that people insist on making (and giving as gifts) because it’s “traditional,” even though no one in their right mind would ever want to eat the damn thing.

Not my own opinion, mind you, but it’s a pretty widespread stereotype.


silverleaf 11.11.04 at 8:50 pm

Alton Brown’s “free range fruitcake” (available on the Food Network website) sounds like it may interest you — lots of “real” dried fruit, and even more brandy!


Abraham Bhutt 11.12.04 at 4:24 pm

‘Bhutt’ it is! I know!
Thanks Harry for the recipe. I am looking forward to trying it. I come from India, but I suppose one of the things left behind from the colonial times, beside the Cricket, Gin, Gymkhanas, Railways,……, Christmas Cake. Amazingly, for Christian weddings what you see is a darker, richer version of just that as well.
Happy Holidays!

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