Ever since the Victorian era Christmas cake has been a big part of British holiday celebrations. Many families have a traditional recipe for Old Fashioned British Christmas Cake and ours is no exception. Our recipe comes from my husband’s late paternal Grandmother, who we all knew as ‘Nana’. She was a cook in a stately home when she was young and she had some fabulous traditional recipes including a fantastic Authentic Victorian Christmas Pudding.
Of course, family recipes do evolve. One year our nephew Ashley made Nana’s Old Fashioned British Christmas Cake, and it was extra delicious. I asked Ashley what he had done to make it so exceptional. Turns out the original recipe only calls for a tablespoon of rum, but Ashley soaked the fruit overnight and used ‘about a quarter of a bottle’ (about ¾ cup). As a result the cake was much moister than I ever remember it being and not surprisingly, the rum gave it a wonderful boozy hit that really enhanced the flavour. I’ve followed his lead ever since!
When Should I Make My Christmas Cake?
Homemade Christmas cake should be made a month or two before Christmas if possible and ‘fed’ weekly by poking a few holes in it and sprinkling more alcohol over top, but pre-soaking the fruit means you can probably get away with making it a little closer to the time. I’m told that Nana pre-soaked her fruit for much longer than the recipe calls for, in fact for at least a week before she made it. I have never soaked the fruit for more than a day though as I’ve never been far enough ahead with my preparations!
Of course, it’s better to put the marzipan and icing on the cake closer to when you are going to serve it. I usually wait until a day or two before Christmas.
Hints and Tips for Making Old Fashioned British Christmas Cake
You need a very deep round cake pan for this recipe. Nana used an 8 inch (20 cm) pan, but I have used a 10 inch pan with great success. Provided the cake pan is at least 2½ inches (6 to 7 cm) deep, it should be fine. (The baking time may be slightly reduced as the cake is not as thick.) If you can find a pan that has a loose bottom it really is much easier to get the cake out. This is the pan I use.
Don’t be tempted to rush the cooking time – it’s the long, slow cooking that helps to give this traditional British Christmas cake its wonderful flavour. Christmas cake batter is dense, meaning it needs lower heat for a longer time. However, cooking times are a guide. Baking pan density varies as do oven temperatures. It’s important to keep an eye on any baking, particularly when making a new recipe. The cake is done when a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Nana originally covered the cake with marzipan and then frosted it with royal icing. You will see the recipe for royal icing below. However in latter years, she used ready to roll fondant, and I now do the same.
Although this Old Fashioned British Christmas Cake recipe does include ingredients and directions for homemade marzipan and royal icing, you can of course use store bought versions if you prefer or if you are trying to avoid raw eggs. I’ve included Nana’s recipes if you want to be strictly traditional.
Can I Make Substitutions With The Dried Fruit?
Sultanas and currants may be unfamiliar to you. Sultanas are raisins made from seedless green grapes. Despite their name, currants are made from tiny seedless black grapes. If you have trouble sourcing any of these particular varieties, you can substitute any raisin varieties you prefer in the same quantities. Or use an equal weight of a mixed dried fruit mixture. As with most traditional British recipes, this one is in ounces, but you can buy cooking scales very easily online now, and many good cooking stores (Williams Sonoma, Crate and Barrel among them) stock them as well.
Is Old Fashioned British Christmas Cake Gluten Free?
This recipe is not gluten free. Follow the link to get my easy recipe for Gluten Free Christmas Cake.
How Can I Decorate My Christmas Cake?
As I mentioned above, Nana originally covered the cake with marzipan and then frosted it with royal icing. However in latter years, she used ready to roll fondant, and I now do the same. It takes a lot less time and I love the finish.
Recently I’ve started rolling my fondant with an embossed rolling pin to make a pretty pattern in the fondant on top of the cake. It was so easy and I have had lots of compliments on the results. However, if you enjoy cake decorating you can get really creative with icing techniques, cut outs or figurines. My cake decorating skills are still developing, so I tend to keep it simple!
How Long Will My Christmas Cake Last?
Depending on what kind of icing you use, your Christmas cake could last for about a month after you have decorated it. In most cases, it’s the icing on a Christmas fruit cake that can cause it to begin to be past its best. A plain fruit cake will keep for literally months wrapped in a sealed at room temperature.
Old Fashioned British Christmas Cake – Printable Recipe
Traditional British Christmas Cake
- 1 pound currants
- 6 ounces sultanas
- 4 ounces raisins
- 4 ounces mixed peel also known as candied peel, this is widely available in the UK and Europe and available in the baking aisles of some North American grocery stores
- 4 ounces glacé cherries not maraschino cherries, halved
- ¾ cup dark rum or sherry original recipe calls for 1 tablespoon
- 1 ounce almonds, chopped
- 1 ounce ground almonds ground almonds are also known as almond flour
- 9 ounces plain flour plain flour is also known as all purpose flour
- 2 level teaspoons cocoa
- 1 level teaspoon salt
- 1 level teaspoon baking powder
- 2 level teaspoons mixed spice
- 9 ounces butter, softened
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 9 ounces soft brown sugar
- finely grated rind of 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon coffee essence this is optional
- For the Almond Icing If you prefer you can use ready made Marzipan, available in most grocery stores
- 8 ounces ground almonds ground almonds are also known as almond flour
- 4 ounces caster sugar caster sugar is also known as superfine sugar
- 5 ounces sifted icing sugar icing sugar is also known as confectioner’s sugar
- 2 ounces butter
- 2 egg yolks (reserve the whites for the Royal icing)
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 3 to 4 tablespoons sieved apricot jam to make the almond icing stick
- For the Royal Icing You can also use ready made fondant to cover the cake as I do if you prefer.
- 4 egg whites
- 1½ pounds sifted icing sugar
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon glycerine available from some supermarkets, pharmacies & cake supply stores
- Mix the currants, sultanas, raisins, mixed peel and glacé cherries together and pour the rum over top. Cover and set aside for a few hours or overnight. If there is a large amount of alcohol in the bottom of the bowl or pan when you go to make the cake, drain a bit of it off, but if there are only a couple of tablespoons you can safely leave it.
- To make the cake, preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C or 150°C for fan ovens).
- Grease an 8 to 10 inch (20 to 24 cm) in diameter, at least 2½ inches (6 to 7 cm) deep) cake pan with butter and line with baking parchment. (The smaller pan will cook more slowly as the cake will be thicker.) My favourite pan is 10 inches in diameter. I like to use a springform pan as it makes the cake easier to remove from the pan.
- Mix the soaked dried fruit with the chopped and ground almonds. Set aside.
- Sift the flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder and mixed spice together..
- In a separate bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar.
- Add the lemon rind.
- Add the beaten eggs a little at a time, beating after each addition.
- Fold in the flour mixture, the coffee essence and then the dried fruit and nuts.
- Turn the mixture into the prepared cake pan and smooth over the surface, making a slight hollow in the centre so the cake will rise evenly.
- Bake at 325ºF (160ºC or 150ºC for a fan oven) for 45 minutes, and then reduce the temperature to 300ºF (150ºC or 140ºC for a fan oven) for a further 40 to 60 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean. Do keep an eye on the cake while it is baking as oven temperatures do vary radically and you don't want it to burn. Equally you do not want the cake under-cooked, so be sure that the skewer is coming out clean from the centre of the cake. That is when it is done, regardless of baking time.
- Cool the cake in the pan for at least an hour and then carefully remove it to cool on a wire rack.
- After the cake is completely cook you can wrap it in foil. If you are making it well ahead of time, you can keep it in a cool dry place for six to eight weeks, feeding it once a week with a bit more rum. Of course, if you make the cake closer to the time you want to serve it, you can still 'feed' it in this way once a week until you cover it with marzipan.
- A day or so before serving, we traditionally cover our Christmas cakes with marzipan and royal icing. You can use store bought marzipan and royal icing if you prefer (and I always do!) but the traditional recipes follow.
- To make the marzipan from scratch, mix the ground almonds, sugar and icing sugar together.
- Rub or cut the butter into this mixture until it looks like coarse breadcrumbs.
- Mix the egg yolks and lemon juice and add them to this mixture.
- Work the paste to a stiff but pliable consistency, adding a bit more lemon juice if it seems dry.
- Divide the almond paste in half.
- Using a light dusting of corn flour (corn starch) to prevent sticking, roll the first half into a circle that will cover the top of the cake.
- Brush the top and sides of the cake with the sieved apricot jam, and apply the circle to the top of the cake, pressing firmly.
- Using your hands, roll the second half of the almond paste into a long roll and then flatten it as evenly as you can with a rolling pin. This piece needs to be wide enough to cover the sides of the cake.
- Press the flattened roll along the sides of the cake, pressing firmly and sealing the joins between the top and sides with your fingers.
- Leave the cake in a cool airy place for several hours so the almond paste can dry out a bit.
- To make the royal icing, beat the egg whites lightly.
- Add the lemon juice and glycerine.
- Beat in enough icing sugar to make a thick coating consistency that rolls easily off a wooden spoon, but leaves it coated.
- Place the marzipan topped cake on a piece of greaseproof or waxed paper. Have a palette knife to hand to help guide the icing. Pour the icing bit by bit over the top of the cake, spreading it with the knife. Let it find its way down the sides, guiding it with the knife until the cake is completely covered. Leave the cake in a cool airy place overnight, or until the icing has set.