The history of the Christmas cake aka fruitcake

This Sunday is Stir-up Sunday, the day that traditionally people make their Christmas pudding to give the flavour time to mature by Christmas Day. Falling on the last Sunday before advent, for me, it is the day that I really start to think about all my Christmas baking which nearly always includes a mixture of classic and new bakes.

Christmas recipe ideas

Scroll down also for some delicious and creative Christmas cake recipes and try out 17 new Christmas Cake recipes featured on the blog.

41 tips for baking and decorating Christmas cakes

33 more mouthwatering Christmas bakes

The meaning of Christmas fruitcake

I began to think about the history of our own traditional Christmas fruitcake. To find out more, I pulled out a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time — Cake: The short and surprising history of our favourite bakes by Alysa Levene. I also did some research on the net.

Britmum Christmas cakes
Photo credit: Iced Vegan Christmas cake: Veggielicious

A short history of the British Christmas Cake

Somewhere around the 14th to 15th century, European cakes were starting to resemble something like our modern idea of cake, earlier ‘cakes’ being more like breads. These enriched breads were still popular, even in the late 17th century, they were still eaten regularly for breakfast among the more wealthy. Cakes that were sweeter and looked and tasted more like the cakes we know now were emerging alongside the enriched breads and many of these cakes included dried fruits. 

What are Christmas plums?

Dried fruits were known generally as plums hence the plum cake/plum pudding, the early name given to fruitcakes. These arrived in Britain in the 13th century and were expensive luxury foods, as were sugar and spices.  Given that the fruitcake as we know it today can make up half the weight of a finished cake, they could not really have existed prior to this date.

In the medieval period, symbolic and festive cakes came into their own as sugar, spices and fruits became more plentiful. Communal feasts and customs settled into regular places in the calendar.

What was traditional Christmas pudding?

Puddings were probably a boiled porridge of grains, milk and eggs which was gradually sweetened and spiced until it became our boiled Plum (Christmas) pudding traditionally made on Stir up Sunday. These Christmas puddings at some stage also started to be baked and evolved into a traditionally heavy and dark fruitcake.

While the Christmas pudding was and still remains part of the Christmas celebrations, the baked cake, which in its early form still contained yeast, was not originally made for Christmas but for Twelfth Night. The cake played a significant role at this feast day from at least the 16th century onwards.

christmas cake
Photo credit: Rich Fruit Christmas cake: Kitchen Sanctuary

There has been feasting and festivities in late December for much longer than Christianity has been with us but these and other festive traditions were abolished in the middle of the 17th century when the Puritan government banned all the trappings of Christmas. In 1642 the government remained in session on the 25th December and churches were ordered only to give their regular service and people were expected to work. This was unpopular (There’s a surprise!) and there were riots in some parts of the country.  Eighteen years later with the reinstatement of the monarchy, King Charles II swept away all these restrictions on festivals and Christmas returned, though probably less raucous than in the previous decades.

It was not until the Victorian era that the festivities and rituals around Christmas really developed again, many of them are the ones we recognise today such as Christmas trees and the sending of cards.  

In the late 19th century Queen Victoria banned the 12th night celebrations on the 5th January, as it was not a Christian festival. The confectioners of the day lost revenue with the loss of this feast day and so reinvented the 12th night cake as a decorated iced cake for Christmas celebrations and so the modern day Christmas cake was born.

The icing on Christmas Cake

Royal icing was the classic icing for the Christmas cake – it was called  ‘royal’ icing because the British Royal Family used it for their wedding cakes. Icing had been around since the 18th century (before that there wasn’t the technology to refine the sugar sufficiently). The very first icing was similar to royal icing, but it was spread over the top of the cake and then the cake was returned to the oven to set the icing hard. The final result was a  flat, shiny surface like that of a frozen lake, hence why we call it icing.  The first written recording of the word icing was by Elizabeth Raffald who mentions it in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769). 

Today many people find fondant icing a quicker and easier icing to use to decorate the Christmas cakes.

How are modern Christmas Cakes different?

Christmas cake
Photo credit: Special Fruit and Nut Cake: Recipes Made Easy

Fruitcakes still play a significant part in many peoples Christmas celebrations, with today’s baker still being creative around the basic cake.  I asked some bloggers to share their favourite fruitcake recipes.

For a classic Rich Fruit Cake you may want to try this recipe on my own blog.

Many people like to ‘feed’ their cakes with alcohol over a a few weeks before Christmas. I find this a bit of a faff, so I soak my dried fruit in alcohol before baking.

– Recipes Made Easy

This Christmas Cake uses a method that I am very keen to try out, – bubbling the fruit butter and sugar together in a pan, I imagine this would  also help to make the fruitcake nice and moist

An easy Christmas cake that turns out perfect every time. No creaming, beating or soaking of fruit required! Most of the work is done by bubbling things up in a pan.

Kitchen Sanctuary

Or you could try this Slow Cooker Christmas Cake 

I’ve found in the past that cakes made in the slow cooker stay lovely and moist, so this seemed an ideal way to bake my Christmas cake too. Also the long cooking time if using an oven can mean a tendency towards burning, whereas in the slow cooker it cooks much more slowly so the risk of burning can be lessened. 

– Baking Queen74 

Some use mincemeat to make a  Last Minute Christmas Cake.

You know how it is, you haven’t had time to bake a Christmas cake but you don’t want a shop brought one but it’s far too late to make a cake. Wrong. With this easy to bake recipe this moist fruit  cake will be the centerpiece of your Christmas tea spread. This cake can even be left until the day before to cook.

– Buckets of Tea
Christmas cake
Whisky Marmalade Christmas Cake: Famers Girl Kitchen

If you prefer a lighter fruitcake you may want to try this Whisky Marmalade Christmas Cake.

Whisky Marmalade Christmas Cake is light and fruity rather than the rich dark fruit cake that is traditionally baked for Christmas.  I am also aware that not everyone manages to make their cake in late October or early November to allow it to mature in time for Christmas, so it’s really nice to have a lighter cake that can be made and eaten straight away.

– Farmers Girl Kitchen 

Or try my recipe for Special fruit and Nut Cake. It uses lots of candied fruit and the mixture is topped with candied fruit which is still a bit of a luxury but makes this cake rather special.

Following a Vegan diet try this  Iced Vegan Christmas Cake

It was easier than I thought to make a vegan Christmas cake. Simply substituting the butter for dairy free spread and the eggs for flax eggs makes a perfect vegan Christmas cake that holds together and has all the flavours of a rich traditional Christmas cake.

Other than this there are some ingredients that you need to check are suitable for vegans. This will include the alcohol you use if you choose to use any to make this a boozy vegan Christmas cake. It also includes the marzipan and fondant icing. Homemade almond paste (marzipan) usually contains eggs, as does fondant and royal icing. This means that they’re not suitable for vegans. However, most shop bought marzipan and fondant icing is suitable for vegans. I’ve chosen to use both shop bought marzipan and fondant icing for this easy vegan Christmas cake recipe.

– Veggielicious

When time allows I do like to decorate my cake. It has been a while since I made a royal iced Christmas cake but I am not a huge fan of the taste of fondant icing though.  So one year I went for a more minimalist look with this decorated Christmas Cake covering just the top of the cake, which I then gave a textured finish. This has the advantage of 1) less icing and 2) less skill required as you don’t need to worry about getting a lovely smooth finish to the icing, although you do have to be careful not to get crumbs in the icing from handling the side of the cakes. Still, all in all I think it is a relatively easy and quick way to cover the cake.

If you want to go the whole hog then you will need to marzipan the cake. Casa Costello has given really easy to follow step by step method in her post How to Marzipan a Cake .

Christmas cake
Photo credit: Easy Christmas Cake Muffins: Easy Peasy Foodie

If you are running out of time to make a big Christmas Cake try these Easy Christmas Cake Muffins  

Fancy making homemade Christmas cake but don’t have the time? Make my Easy Christmas Cake Muffins instead! These cute mini Christmas cakes have all the flavours of a traditional Christmas cake but take just 45 minutes from start to finish. As a bonus they are gluten free, nut free, alcohol free and can easily be made dairy free too – making them perfect for taking to events or feeding to children.

Easy Peasy Foodie 

and finally you might like to try  Fig and Mincemeat Christmas Bundt Cake 

it’s a light and delicious fruit cake that even CT will eat – he’s not a fan of either fruit cake or mincemeat, but is weirdly happy to indulge in this festive treat. using her own chocolate mincemeat ( although you could use regular mincemeat) and added the required figs to the mix. A bundt mould turns an ordinary cake into something special, not I hasten to add, that this is an ordinary cake.

Tin and Thyme

I hope you have enjoyed reading my history of the British Christmas Fruit cake and do pop over to check out some of the delicious fruitcakes linked up. I for one have a couple in mind I MUST try.

Christmas cake
Photo credit: Fig and Mincemeat Christmas Bundt Cake: Tin and Thyme
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About Jacqueline Bellefontaine

Jacqueline has been a cookery writer and food stylist for over 20 years and is a member of the Guild of Food Writers. She is the author of 18 cookbooks and now writes her own blog, where she shares the recipes she cooks at home for family, friends and fun. Jacqueline started her food writing career on a weekly magazine and as a result, likes to champion good basic home cooking. The daughter of a master baker she is passionate about home baking and is happiest in the kitchen knocking up a cake or baking a loaf of bread. Jacqueline has two grown sons and lives with her husband in Central London.

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2 Comments

  1. 28 November 2018 / 20:42

    This is so interesting Jacqui, lovely to hear about the history of our traditional Christmas cakes and puddings. Thanks for including my slow cooker Christmas cake!

  2. 28 November 2018 / 21:48

    How lovely to read about the history of Christmas Fruit Cakes. My Christmas cake usually lasts a least until 12th Night because I won’t let anyone eat it until Christmas Day!