Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas Cake

My husband only asks for one Christmas gift every year without fail - a Christmas Cake baked by me. This tradition started when we came to America, the land that does not know Christmas Cake. Until then, I could stroll into any food store in South Africa (even at the last minute) and buy a perfect Christmas Cake – non-baker that I am. Or, we could go to our mothers’ homes where my husband could get his home-baked fix. But that first Christmas in America, I just could not find the cake. You see, in this country, “Christmas Cake” is plain old fruitcake. Once I figured out that that was what I should be asking for, I was surprised to find that not only was it hard to find a good fruitcake in America (or at least in Florida) the cake was much maligned here – so much so, that there’s actually a Fruitcake Toss festival held in Colorado every year:

“What: Great Fruitcake Toss
Where: Manitou Springs
When: First Saturday in January

At last, the answer to that age-old question: How do I get rid of this *$&*@#! fruitcake?

People in Manitou Springs have found the answer. Throw it as far as you can, by any means that you can, and hope it’s never found again. You can come watch this amazing event for free (however, contestants pay a small fee or donate a can of non-perishable food to enter the events).

To be fair, separate prizes are given to numerous special tossing divisions. That is, athletes choosing to toss their fruitcakes by hand are not competing directly with those who use a catapult, giant slingshot, or spud gun (or is that a fruitcake gun?). The audience needs to be ever-vigilant for those fruitcakes that end up being tossed straight up in the air by contestants whose timing on the catapult isn’t quite perfect. You know you’re having a bad day when you get hit in the head with a frozen fruitcake falling from hundreds of feet above you Several local Inns offer Fruitcake Toss specials, including a heavy-duty cake to use in the event, and advance coaching on the art of fruitcake tossing.

The day also includes a Fruitcake Glamour Competition, with prizes for most Beautiful, Ugliest, and most Creative fruitcakes. Or, you might enjoy the team Spatula Relay race.

Heads up!”

Given this rather hostile environment, I am always surprised to see fruitcakes in stores around here at Christmas time, even though they’re pretty puny by our standards, and the flavor is not quite right. Perhaps it’s because they lack that all-important ingredient - alcohol. So 15 years ago I had to resort to baking the cake myself. At first I could find or adapt most of the ingredients for the cake by combing the aisles of my local grocery store but, in recent years, fruitcake staples such as glace (candied) fruit and peel have disappeared from the shelves and I’ve had to resort to doctoring the dried fruit and peel myself.

Fruitcake is probably the most labor-intensive cake imaginable. I start mine early in November, with days of soaking the prepared fruit in brandy, followed by a couple of hours’ worth of assembling an arm-numbing mixture on the day, and 4 ½ hours of hovering while the cake slowly bakes. Then it’s a stiff pour of brandy (for the cake, not me!) and a good 3 hours or so for it to cool. I "feed” the cake with brandy weekly until Christmas Eve, when I wrap the cake in christmas paper and put it in pride of place under the tree with my husband’s name on it. Even though he knows he’s getting the cake I always bake and handle it when he’s not around so that the element of surprise is not completely lost.

Where we come from Christmas Cake is not only eaten at Christmas time - the traditional cake for weddings is made from the self- same fruitcake recipe. The top layer is supposed to be kept for the first child’s christening. That’s how long this cake can last. Some people have kept fruitcake in their pantries for years, feeding it periodically before they feed it to their guests. My husband, with only a little help from the rest of us, normally polishes his cake off within a month.

Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that a respectable version of this cake, duly laced with alcohol, is available from an unexpected source in this country – the Trappist monks of Gethsemani:

“Since 1848, when 44 Trappist monks from the Abbey of Melleray in western France made themselves a new home in the hills of central Kentucky, Gethsemani has been a hardworking community. Supporting themselves at first by farming, the monks now depend on their mail-order sales of homemade fruitcake, cheese and bourbon fudge.

To a Trappist, work is a form of prayer. In fact, the cycle of public prayers the monks chant seven times daily is known as the Work of God, or Opus Dei in Latin.

Trappists also pray privately at intervals throughout the day, encountering God through the ancient monastic discipline known as lectio divina, or sacred reading.
The Wall Street Journal rated Gethsemani Farms fruitcake as the "best overall" in quality and value. These dense, moist and spicy cakes have a truly delicious and distinctive flavor because they're handmade with only the finest, freshest ingredients... and seasoned with fine Kentucky bourbon. Fruitcakes are delivered in
attractive gift boxes. We're happy to ship individual cakes to your gift list.”

I have dutifully baked my husband’s Christmas gift every year that we’ve lived here, and I’m not about to stop. But if I do get lazy one year I think I’ll turn to those monks for help.

One thing I have not yet had the courage to do is to ice the Christmas Cake. This year I’m going to give it a whirl. How difficult can it be to paint the cake with apricot glaze, cover it with a layer of rolled-out marzipan, then top the whole concoction with a flourish of Royal Icing (which I’d have to make myself)? Hmm, maybe I’ll try that next year.

Anyway, in case anyone out there actually likes fruitcake, here is my favorite Chrismas Cake recipe - courtesy of my 1986-vintage “Cooking the South African Way” recipe book. Admittedly, this version is heavy enough to fare well in any cake tossing competition!


  1. Cake tossing!!!Travesty and a crime of the highest order.
    My traditon started the year my daughter was born and I did the cake the week before she arrived, around November 1st.Duly wrapped in foil and greasproof paper it was given a good big drink, just one and put away safely.My 1st Ma-in-Law always wrapped hers in newspaper, maybe because her husband was a journalist! Happy Christmas.

  2. In the grand US tradition, I did think fruitcake only good for tossing, but I've since been educated by having a slice of the real thing. Your Christmas Cake, from what I've learned, is definitely the real thing. I'm amused to note that someone in South Africa arrived at this post by googling (or its equivalent) "easy Christmas cake recipe." An oxymoron, that, isn't it--even without the frosting!?

  3. I'm not a lover of Christmas cake, but am shocked (once again - will I never learn) that it isn't one of those universal traditions every right-thinking nation would embrace.

    No proper fruitcakes in the US? Not even in California? ;-)

  4. Your cake photo and recipe do not resemble the brick like "fruitcakes"that I often see for sale in grocery stores and even pharmacies, this time of year. I would imagine those store bought "cakes" are as similar to yours as grocery store "Sugar cookies" are to homemade.

    I was curious to see that fruitcake is still enjoyed elsewhere in the world, despite being maligned here in the US. Good luck with the frosting if you attempt it - I have never tried Royal Icing, but you go for it!!

  5. Oh, Christmas Cake wrapped in newspaper brings back memories. My grandmother used to do the same thing. Happy Christmas to you, Von!

    RA: "Easy Christmas Cake recipe" - that made me laugh, especially when you think that in South Africa you could buy a really good one for no effort, though admittedly it would cost a bit more.

    brokenbiro: You know, I didn't love Christmas cake before I had to start baking it, either, but I seem to have acquired the taste. As for fruitcakes in California - anything's possible!

    WOS: I think I might just start that icing job today - the photo at the top of the post has me feeling guilty!

  6. Dear Carol-Ann,
    your Christmas-Cake sounds delicious - and very rich, due to the brandy! I think it is nice that the icing of the wedding-cake was kept (or lasts) till the Christening of the first child!
    To throw a fruit-cake is an odd tradition (I still have in my ear: "Food is not for playing!"), but if it was uneatable :-)
    I am sure that your cake is a beautiful present for your husband! And as you so kindly shared the recipe, no need for Miss Mapp to sneak it away as the recipe for "Lobster à la Riseholme!" I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Britta

  7. Oh, boy does that look good (speaking of the image of your cake up today). I'm looking forward to seeing its next incarnation, too!

  8. I am yet another American who doesn't know Christmas Cake. But it sure sounds fine to me!

    And I love all the literary references you have here. It's great to meet another referencer!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.