Christmas Cakes

I have been chatting with Elaine, Sheila and Val about Christmas cakes. I have three things I make, or at least have made if no longer bothering with the first. The 'challenge' here is to see how many different recipes we can get up.

So my three.

First one. When my mother died I helped myself to a family cookbook. It is handwritten and handed down generation to generation since the opening shot of a lamb stew with dumplings in 1862. The Christmas cake appears a few pages later in beautiful handwriting. In the book it is in ounces, spoonfuls, so I simply converted everything into the nearest metric measurements over 20 years ago and have absolutely no problems with this version.

6 eggs

200 gr butter

500gr muscavados sugar

1500gr mixture currants, sultanas, raisins, candied peel

250 gr mixed nuts

100 gr glace cherries

1 handful of flour

Generous measures of: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, all spice and cloves all powder form and ½ teaspoon minimum each (I do 1 cinnamon, slightly less ginger, ½ nutmeg, allspice and cloves.

Mix dry fruit and glacé cherries into a large bowl, add the handful of flour and stir until none of the fruit sticks together, add spices and mix again. Then add nuts.

Soften but do not melt the butter. Make a well in the mix in the bowl and put the butter in the bottom, crumble and separate the sugar into the butter and mix them together. Add all six eggs then begin to work the entire mixture together until it is an even buttery texture around the fruit. This makes very heavy and dark cake, so bake it long and slow at about 230°. If you want it to rise a bit add some bicarbonate of soda or baking powder (two tablespoons) when the dry mix is made.

Some people thing the mixture is not liquid enough and some have made something that crumbles as soon as they take it out of the tin, other try adding milk and find that what they get is then doughy and uncooked in the centre. I watched my mother make this and do as she does and it works if the mixture is patiently worked in an even texture.

My family's real favourite is Weihnachtstolle. Some of you may know it cooked in a ring form as Kugelhupf or simply Stollen. It is popular throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland and is becoming increasingly available in supermarkets in other countries, Aldi and Lidl especially. A home made one beats any bought one.

400gr flour

½ teaspoon salt


150ml milk

40g sugar

1 large egg

2 tablespoons dried fruit (currants or raisins)

1½ tablespoons candied peel

pinch of each nutmeg and cinnamon


Sieve salt and flour into a bowl, make a well in the mix and add yeast mix (50ml of the milk, warm to dissolve yeast in), flick some of the flour over and then cover and set aside in a warm, draft free place covered with a cloth. When it has a bit of bubble in it, add the butter, eggs and sugar then the remainder of the milk (touch warm) and mix into smooth, elastic dough. Knead to stretch gluten, if it is too wet add a little flour until it does not stick to fingers. Cover with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place to rise for half an hour or so until it is doubled in size. Then knead and sprinkle with flour. Work it flat into an oval shape then roll marzipan into a sausage the width of the widest part of the oval. Put the marzipan on to the thin end of the oval then roll together to make a kind of loaf.

Leave it to proof again under a cloth until roughly twice its size, brush melted butter over the top and sides then bake at 200° for about 40 minutes. Once it has cooled down dust it generously with powdered or icing sugar.

I shall make mine during the second week of December. Being a bread it has a limited storage life but two weeks is good.

Then we have a touch of hedonism. My wife and I indulge ourselves of Panforte di Siena. Our children are not (yet) keen, so this is one for the evening when they have gone to bed with a good heavy Italian liqueur.

225g blanched almonds with skins on

100g walnuts

50g hazelnuts

100g candied orange and lemon peel, chopped small

1 teaspoon cinnamon

generous pinch of each ground coriander, white pepper and mace

100g flour (Italian 00 if you can find it)

175ml honey

75g granulated sugar

rice paper

Chop the nuts but do not reduce them to a paste, irregular small chunks are best, put into large mixing bowl. Add peel, half of the cinnamon plus the other spices. Mix until well blended, then add 75g flour.

Honey should be heated until it is more liquid then the sugar added to melt into it, do not allow to boil. Make a well in the mixture then pour the honey-sugar syrup in. Mix gently until entirely blended.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°. Line a shallow cake tin or quiche form (preferably the removable base type) with the rice paper then add the cake mix, smoothing it out level. Sift the remaining flour and cinnamon over it. Bake for about 35 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes then remove from tin. Leave to cool and rest for around eight hours. Wrap in foil to keep. It will last easily three months. Always leave it to rest for a day before eating anyway. Before serving, mix two tablespoons of icing sugar with one teaspoon of cinnamon and sprinkle over cake.

Recently people have begun to add chocolate. That makes it incredibly rich. If you want to try that then find the really dark, raw chocolate for cooking that does not melt too easily, grind it down to chips of similar size to the nuts, dust it with cocoa powder and add to the mix with the nuts and dried fruit, reduce the honey and sugar mix a little, but I'll leave that to you.

So, what has anybody else got on offer?

Wow, thanks Brian for all this food history. I find it all very interesting and appreciate you taking the time to explain it to me.

Thanks Brian. I'll look try a health food store. I've been looking for a molasses substitute for years here with no luck.

Susan, muscavados is dark cane sugar, similar to molasses sugar. I buy if from a health food shop but regular supermarkets have nothing similar. No, the temperature is centigrade and it does require really hot baking which I think is to break down the sugar and other ingredients together to get it together. A friend in Norway tried to make it but forgot the flour (do not ask how) and says it came out like a fudge, which I can imagine. If the temperature makes you nervous, which it does me as well, then simply check as often as you think to see when the top is becoming dark brown before it goes very dark then black and burns. Then cover with backing paper to stop scalding and allow to cool in the oven. That takes a very long time as it is and it continues to cook inside. I have always been lucky in having wood stoves with ovens to bake cakes like this in which is actually more haphazard with regard to temperatures and certainly always stay within the 'roasting' rather than baking zone for this one.

Brian, I'd like to try your cake but I don't know what muscavados sugar is. What would be the French equivalent? The oven temperature seems high so it must be in farenheit.

My grandmother would always make angel pies for Christmas. After years of dreaming about her pies I finally found a recipe that comes close which I tried out last Christmas. My French/Italian mother in law, who is impossible to please, actually slipped up and said that she had never tasted anything so good in her life.

Mary, the so-called Christmas cake thing is all hedonism. They were the ritual midwinter/year's end feast item which was energy making because of the cold, lack of sunlight (low vitamin D, SADS and all that, but they did not know). The Germanic one is seasonal generally. The Austrian Kugelhupf version is mainly eaten in December and January generally and available either side and panforte is really around all year but was originally for the Bacchanalian midwinter festival. The rich British thing has been around some hundreds of years as well, so similar I guess.

I too make cheesecake, it is a proper Käsekuchen that I learned from a neighbour when I lived in Germany. It is far creamier than the version they sell here and only German or English very heavy, thick double cream really does for it, which is almost not available in France outside of Normandy. I believe it is one of the 'typical' German recipes that is derivative of Jewish food, but that for obvious reasons is a well kept secret. But that is another entry for another time.

I don’t think I could do any better than you…! These look great. Love the panforte di Siena recipe. I might have to try that one.
Actually, where I am from (near NYC) we always had cheesecake with our Christmas dinner. I prefer more cream desserts (like Tiramisu) to finish off a Christmas meal.
But maybe I am ignorant…are these Christmas cakes just for Christmas or is there another ritual for eating them?
By the way, welcome to the Food Lovers in France group!

Terrific recipes, I very much look forward to trying all three and will dig out my favourite Christmas pud receipe which uses a lot of stem ginger and breadcrumbs - only a little Guinness, so the rest can either be drunk or made into a delicious chocolate cake with a white chocolate topping which when cut looks like a pint of the black stuff!! Happy baking to all.