Last Chance Foods: Getting a Start on Christmas Cake

Mid-November may feel too early to be bopping along to Christmas tunes, but there’s one Christmas tradition that requires a long head start. English Christmas cake, according to Out magazine editor Aaron Hicklin, needs at least five weeks to mature, a process that calls for the cake being regularly soaked in booze. (If only human maturity was developed the same way.)

Hicklin, who moved to New York from the U.K. in 1998, explained that Christmas cake is primarily made up of dried fruit such as raisins, cherries, orange and lemon peel, as well as almonds. After being baked at a low temperature for several hours, the cake is kept in an air-tight metal cannister. Then every few days, holes are poked in it and brandy, rum, or port is added in spoonfuls.

Since the dried fruit already has a long shelf life, keeping it in a cake for weeks on end has no effect on the quality. Instead, the regular addition of liquor or wine allows the fruit to really soak in the liquid. “That makes that cake rich and really kind of gives it depth and kind of almost a chocolaty, velvety quality,” Hicklin said. He also recently started adding dried blueberries as a nod to American traditions.

Hicklin also stressed the importance of using quality dried fruit, since that is the cake’s main component. “People who dislike fruitcake may not have had homemade fruit cake,” said Hicklin, who adds that store-bought versions can be off-putting. “And homemade fruitcake is… on a whole other level.”

Hicklin, who is the partner of WNYC’s Ilya Marritz, said that the traditional dessert has a long history in the U.K., where it originated as a means of preserving fruit through the winter. Thanks to Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria and a man credited with popularizing Christmas trees and cards, there’s even a day dedicated to making the cake.

(Photo: Aaron Hicklin)

“He instituted Stir-Up Sunday, which is actually a Protestant day,” Hicklin said. “It’s the last Sunday before Advent, which typically falls in late November… it’s really a day when the whole family gets together, and they stir up the fruit for the Christmas pudding and the Christmas cake... I never knew any family that celebrated Stir-Up Sunday, but I kind of want to institute it.”

This year, Stir-Up Sunday falls on November 24. While that may still be several weeks before Christmas, Hicklin explained that the cake has the advantage of lasting several weeks past the holiday, as well.

“In the nuclear winter, the only thing left standing would be… scorpions and Christmas cake,” he joked. “Typically, you would eat it… from Christmas day through to the 12th day of Christmas. And I mean, I defy anyone to still have any cake left after 12 days. It’s delicious.”

If you’re interested in starting a Stir-Up Sunday tradition in your house, Hicklin recommends this Christmas cake recipe from the English cook Delia Smith.