Most Christmas cake traditions point in the direction of the UK
The first recipes of this plum pudding emerged about 300 decades back
When it comes to Christmas festivities nothing could replace the need for a classic plum cake. This Christmas find out the legend behind this Xmas special and just how to create one in the comfort of the kitchen.
The traditional Christmas cake is one of my first memories of Christmas and one of the most endearing memories of school (Don Bosco Chennai), in the last day before Christmas vacation officially began. We used to return home with a slice of rich plum cake that mysteriously shrunk on the way back from school. What started essentially as a Christmas memory in Kindergarten became a regular fixation after I discovered the simple pleasures of a plum cake at the neighbourhood bakery. Many bakeries in Kerala do a stellar job. These childhood memories were rekindled when I was invited to the first ‘cake mixing ceremony’, which became commonplace in Indian luxury hotels by the end of the past decade, and now an integral component of most hotel PR calendars.
The Traditions of the Christmas Cake
Many Christmas cake traditions point in the direction of the UK. There is one frequent reference to this plum porridge that predates the plum pudding and cake. It was usually what people ate on Christmas Eve (rather than Christmas day itself) and was a fasting meal in preparation of Christmas festivities. The oatmeal made way for butter, eggs and flour by the 16th Century laying the foundations for the Christmas cake as we know it today. The spices helped preserve the cake and many people still boiled the cake; only the rich could afford ovens at that time.
The first recipes of this plum pudding began to emerge about 300 years back. One of the British expats I met at a cake mixing ceremony in Chennai was quite overwhelmed in the number of cake mixing events in hotels in India. She told me about ‘Stir-up Sunday’ in the UK, the final Sunday prior to the season of Advent, typically in the last week of November and a month before Christmas. This is the day when families in England get together to mix their cake.
The Myths and Superstitions
It’s still customary for all family members to take a peek at the Christmas cake mix in an ‘East to West direction’ in honor of the 3 kings (three wise men) who visited infant Jesus. The spices in the mix – from the Orient, were also supposed to honour these three kings. The other legend one hears about is the 13 ingredients in the mix which are supposed to symbolise Jesus and his twelve disciples. It’s still customary for some families to slip in a silver coin or 2 – for good fortune, into the cake mix. I’ve seen this practice followed at some of those cake mixing ceremonies too. Blame it on the occasional visit to the dentist however quite a few families in the UK have discontinued the tradition of dropping coins into the mix.
Quite a few British royals have been linked with the Christmas pudding and it has been immortalised in tales like Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Nevertheless it had been King George I – you can still find the recipe for King George’s Plum pudding, who is supposed to have popularised the plum pudding in the 18th Century. The puddings back then combined dry fruits with minced meat and suet (a kind of animal fat); they were also called tote puddings since they used to be wrapped in a cloth and boiled. The Twelfth Night (after Christmas) cake, with dried fruits and nuts, was another precursor to the modern day plum cake. It used to be leavened by yeast during the medieval periods and also featured hidden charms before eventually being replaced by the Christmas cakeduring the Victorian age.
It might be an oddity but the plum pudding has never been made with fresh plums. Back in the 17th Century, plums also known to raisins and prunes and thus the name plum pudding. The Christmas cake mix is typically done per month ahead. Dried fruits like sultanas and prunes are soaked in liquor (usually brandy or rum) and then added to the cake mix together with the flour and eggs once the cake is baked. Plum pudding is generally moister and served warm – tastes best with a warm custard sauce (you may even try with frequent vanilla custard). A traditional plum pudding was constantly made with suet but most patisseries in India don’t use suet. Plum cake tends to be drier and boasts of a much longer shelf life.
Chefs and passionate bakers I’ve spoken to over the years recommend a 1:1 (dried fruits: liquor) ratio and also advise that the nuts aren’t added to the mix. They suggest adding the nuts along with the flour since the nuts can’t absorb the flavours the way the dried fruits do. The key is to make certain that every bite of this cake includes a huge quantity of nuts and fruits; they don’t call it rich plum cake for nothing! You are able to add a marzipan icing to the plum cake – lots of Christian homes in South India do this.
If you still want to bake a plum cake in time for Christmas, try this relatively easy recipe (you still have to soak the Christmas mix for a day however).
- The Christmas mixture: mix the dried fruits and nuts (you could add the nuts at a later point) with all the rum/brandy and orange juice and then leave it closed for at least 24 hours. You are able to decrease the alcohol content according to your taste.
- Beat butter and sugar until fluffy around 10 minutes.
- Add the eggs and vanilla character, and mix for 1 minute.
- Insert Christmas mixture and mix properly.