To Bake or Not To Bake? That Is The Question

Time is running out and help is needed to find the perfect Christmas Cake

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My mother in law used to make the best Christmas Cake I have ever tasted. She would begin baking it in November and by 25th December produce an amazingly moist, deliciously fruity and wickedly rich indulgent delight of a cake.

When we lived abroad, she would make an extra one to send out to us although how she got it through U.A.E. customs with the amount of brandy she put in it remains a mystery to this day.

Sadly she is longer able for spending hours in the kitchen so last year I resorted to buying a cake and, I am ashamed to say, lied about baking it myself. It cost an absolute fortune - what is it with the price of cakes these days?! - and didn't come even close to hers.

So this year I set about searching for a recipe that would make her proud. I dug out my Constance Spry Cookbook but didn't fancy the fuss of her version. Mrs Beeton's made me smile although I hardly understood a word of it and Delia's proved a task too far. So I threw in the kitchen towel and decided to revert to the bought variety.

In return for sharing with you a little seasonal history, I wondered if readers would be so kind as to recommend the best place to buy a Christmas Cake? Or if you believe buying a cake is sacrilege and have a quick, easy and, most importantly, foolproof recipe for one you would be happy to share with West London, it would be truly welcomed.

For those who find themselves in the same predicament as me, I will share the findings in next week's newsletter. Either buying or baking, please email Emma Brophy via

History of The Christmas Cake

Christmas cake is an English tradition that began as plum porridge. People ate the porridge on Christmas Eve, using it to line their stomachs after a day of fasting. Soon dried fruit, spices and honey were added to the porridge mixture, and eventually it turned into Christmas pudding.
In the 16th century, oatmeal was removed from the original recipe, and butter, wheat flour and eggs were added. These ingredients helped hold the mixture together and in what resulted in a boiled plum cake.

Richer families that had ovens began making fruit cakes with marzipan, an almond sugar paste, for Easter. For Christmas, they made a similar cake using seasonal dried fruit and spices. The spices represented the exotic eastern spices brought by the Wise Men. This cake became known as "Christmas cake."

An earlier version, known as the twelfth cake, dates back to the 4th Century and possibly before. The "Twelfth night", occurring on the 5th January and concluding the "Twelve Days of Christmas", was the first sign of this tradition, with the cutting of the "twelfth cake" on this occasion. The twelfth night was the last day of the Christmas celebrations and became known as an appropriate occasion on which to carry out good luck rituals and games (linked to the countryside and farming), and religious processions. Morris dancing in the streets and practical jokes were popular at this last opportunity for a bit of merrymaking.

In 1668, diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of his household's festivities, and serving his guests "an excellent cake which cost me near twenty shillings, of our Jane's making, which was cut into twenty pieces, there being by that time so many of our company".

The custom was to conceal a bean and a pea in the cake which was divided up so one of the men got the bean and one of the women the pea. They then became king and queen for the rest of the evening and ruled over the celebrations until midnight when the fun and frivolity ended. Over time, the bean became a silver sixpence, which was cooked in the Christmas pudding.

December 8, 2010