There are cakes …and then there are cakes. Some like chocolate, some will sell their mother for a slice of cheesecake, many drool over red velvet and black forest while others will bequeath them unborn children for a huge serving of tiramisu or ice box.
Yes the varieties are endless and everybody has their favourite but one type of cake that most Jamaicans will agree sticks out in their psyche as a ‘must have’ when the yuletide season rolls around, is the Christmas fruit cake.
The good old fruit cake. That rich, spongy, dark brown, fruity, baked dessert that is delicious and much sought after come December. Usually eaten at weddings but definitely consumed during Christmas, not only is it one of the stars of the holiday season, but its many ingredients, make it an expensive purchase so everybody appreciates having that one aunt or friend who happily donates one (or two) to them, especially if they do not possess the baking gene. Indeed as a testimony to just how beloved a tradition it is, even the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was graced with an ornate multi-tiered fruitcake.
I decided to feature that fruity favourite of yours, examining those age old recipes passed down by your grandmothers as to what exactly is the perfect Christmas cake and what must be included in its ingredients according to Jamaican tradition.
The history of the fruit cake surprisingly goes back many centuries. Also called ‘black cake’ or ‘plum cake’, the earliest recipe dates back to the culinary gods of ancient Egypt who are credited with creating the first version for placement on the tombs of friends and relatives, perhaps to sustain them through their journey to the afterlife. In ancient Rome it was baked with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins mixed into barley mash and became common as it was used to fuel the Roman army because it was a portable, long-lasting, relatively light combat ration. Requiring no preparation and averse to spoilage, the cake was transported throughout the empire with ease and became a staple in the legionnaire’s diet, especially since it was very efficient as a great source of energy for the troops. Pomegranate seeds pack 234 calories per cup, raisins provide 435 calories but both hold nothing when compared to pine nuts which gave soldiers a whopping 916 calories. No wonder it was so popular at meal time.
The cake fueled the armies of Europe for centuries. The Crusaders also brought the energizing treat on their search for the Holy Grail. Their cakes incorporated more ingredients such as fruits and honey and it was during this epoch that the name ‘fruitcake’ was coined. With the passage of time, ingredients were swapped in and out based on availability and cost and they became heavier than the original versions but still quite rich in calories.
By the Middle Ages, spices were added though ingredients would differ dependent on the country’s customs. In some instances, church regulations forbade the use of butter in observance of the fast. Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) finally granted the use of butter in a written permission known as the ‘Butter Letter’ in 1490, giving permission for the use milk and butter in the North German Stollen fruit cakes. By the 16th century, the influx of cheap sugar from the American colonies and the realization that sugar could preserve fruits, created candied fruit, thus making fruit cakes more affordable and popular
By the 15th century Britain began their own love affair with the cake when they successfully imported dried fruits from the Mediterranean. Early British custom saw unmarried wedding guests place a slice of fruitcake under their pillow at night as this which would allegedly allow them dream of the person they would marry. Sometimes whole cakes were saved until the beginning of the next year’s harvest hoping to secure another successful harvest. Laws were implemented in England limiting the use of plum cake or fruit cake to special occasions and Christmas. For a crazy period of time, fruitcakes were even completely outlawed in Europe for being ‘sinfully rich’. It is rumored that Queen Victoria held on to a fruitcake she received on her birthday for a year, as a way of showing moderation during times of decadence.
There are different versions of how the cake became to be associated with Christmas. Some believe it was because English citizens passed out fruitcake slices to poor women who sang Christmas carols on the streets of London in the late 1700s.
While every country may think they have the best version, Jamaicans KNOW nobody does it better than us, mainly due to the fact that we do it with alcohol and who doesn’t like rum? First of all, let us discuss the art of ‘soaking’. No I’m not talking about nails, this time it is all about the fruits because you cannot have a real Christmas cake without lots and lots of fruits. Chopped candied fruit and/or dried fruit, nuts, and spices are plentiful. Cubed orange peel, melon skin, currants, raisins and prunes are soaked in white rum and preserved in bottles and jars, sometimes from as early as January at the end of one silly season to be ready to be used at the beginning of the next.
Baking at Christmas time is a labour of love that many indulge in, using recipes preserved and protected by old aunts and grandmothers. Flour, sugar, salt, eggs, butter and fruits are a given, so what exactly makes our fruit cake so special? It is the other ‘special’ ingredients that vary from one household to the next. In the western side of the island in places like Trelawny and St. James, those veteran bakers swear by the addition of cinnamon and grated lime zest to give it that extra ‘umph’. In St. Catherine, Kingston and St. Andrew, housewives would not dare consider their batter complete without the inclusion of red label wine. Yup, it does more than “turn on the thrills” in the bedroom so from early November supermarket shelves are stocked with Red Label wine as this sweet liquid has the amazing dual responsibility of being both a party favourite and a key ingredient in fruit cakes. In addition to this wine, some people actually add spiced brandy to their cake batter as they claim it smoothes it out and enhances that lingering flavour on your palate.
To get that nice dark colour this is where the browning comes in, usually two tablespoon but bakers tend to tread very carefully because too much can have the cake looking more chocolate or mocha than “christmassey”. Checks with the old baking champions in the East about their tried and tested recipe revealed that if you open your cupboard and realise that you are out of browning, you can used burnt brown sugar instead to achieve the same rich brown colour.
Seasoned bakers who reside in parishes like Clarendon and Manchester swear by another ingredient – molasses! Some actually swap out the sugar for that rich blackstrap molasses which contains high amount of antioxidants as compared to refined sugar and other readily available sweeteners. And speaking of sugar, no self respecting baker will ever be caught dead baking with white or granulated sugar. Like who does that? Definitely not a Jamaican!
Though the cake already contains wine, many bakers will still pour wine or rum all over it afterwards. I guess the more the merrier and when a fruit cake contains a good deal of alcohol, it can remain edible for many years. For example, a fruit cake baked in 1878 was kept as an heirloom by a family in Michigan until it was sampled in 2003! Wrapping the cake in alcohol-soaked linen before storing is one method of lengthening its shelf life. A properly preserved fruitcake (one covered with an alcohol-soaked cheesecloth and wrapped in plastic or foil) can be kept unrefrigerated for years without spoiling.
You always can tell Christmas cake as opposed to another dark or brown cake immediately because in Jamaican tradition, it is not iced or covered in fondant like the other cakes. Traditionally it is served with sorrel. Due to its rich nature, it really does not need anything else to be enjoyed one thick, hearty slice at a time.