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Last Chance Foods: Getting a Start on Christmas Cake

Friday, November 15, 2013

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.

Guests:

Aaron Hicklin

Editors:

Amy Eddings

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Comments [8]

Linny from Staten Island

In our 20's my sisters & I were a rarity... we CRAVED Christmas Fruitcake! Incredibly, 2 of us married Maltese men who really NEED fruitcake (they call it Christmas Cake). A Scottish friend, a Maltese friend and we two Irish girls put together a "Fruitcake Gathering" in 1993. Over time, the Gathering came to be known as "The Fruitcake Party"; a truly coveted "event" to host.. that eventually included 25 people, the kids and strangers that shared a love of Fruitcake! The smell of the groaning board, as each person unwrapped their boozey treasur, was foody-Christmasy-friendship HEAVEN! Each made a totally unique one: pistacio'd, Italian Chocolate & Hazelnut, English, Dearborn Inn of Michigan, Scottish Whiskey... I get teary-eyed recalling the beauty, the fragrance, the L-O-V-E. We would find new recruits over the year, a whispered admission that "i like fruitcake." and if the person giggled that they liked it , too, they were invited into the inner-circle, the secret society of Fruitcake Love! We re-wrote the lyrics to "Music of othe Night" as "Fruitcakes in the Night" with hysterical, perfectly-fitting words about the seduction of boozey, fruity fruitcakes. We've creating children that don't get the dispariging jokes about FC's; they HOPE the Party is at their house, design a one-of-a-kind invitations and pick out the goofy gifts that get exchanged. We live on Staten Island and New Jersey, our kids are in college now, and still, we call each other on a chilly Novemeber day and say'" Its beginning to feel alot like...Fruitcake!". Our "Stir It Up Sunday" is the first chilly day in Novemeber!

Dec. 03 2013 09:59 AM
Joy Y. Wang

Hi, Joanne. Just click through to Delia Smith's site, and you'll find a time-tested recipe for English Christmas cake! That link is in the last line of the article, hyperlinked in blue.

Nov. 18 2013 09:25 PM
kathy from Brooklyn

My mom, who left England 50 years ago, makes a fruit cake every fall and I absolutely love it. Christmas wouldn't be the same without it. The cake is delicious, but the marzipan and rock hard icing make it really special.

Nov. 18 2013 09:09 PM
Joanne Theodorou from NYC

My mother used to make an annual fruitcake always the Friday after Thanksgiving (it had booze in it, but I think as little as possible, she have five little kids at the time!) which had to be wrapped in wax paper, then brown paper and kept for 5 weeks (give or take) in cold storage, she would put them in the front hall closets of our old English Tudor home, the coldest part of the house. It was enormous work, she made at least 6 rectangular loaves, and we did not appreciate it till we were older. Surely an acquired taste. And everyone now agrees (now that we are aging baby boomers)...the only fruitcake we can eat is Mom's!!!
Would love to see that recipe, a shame it could not be printed.

Nov. 18 2013 02:02 PM
Joy Y. Wang

Thanks for listening, Suzanne. Unfortunately we couldn't reprint Delia Smith's great Christmas cake recipe because of copyright issues. We're always make it a point to include the recipe when we have permission to do so.

Nov. 17 2013 05:30 PM
Suzanne from Plainfield. NJ

This was a good story. I loved the NYC Jewish/Gay/Protestant twist, and I am ready to make it … but SULTANAS?, Metric System? OK I know you can use a converter, and sultanas are golden raisins, but why oh why couldn't you post a recipe we could just grab & go with? :-0

Nov. 16 2013 11:26 AM
Jocelyn

I have a funny fruit cake story. In the 80s I was living in Tokyo with my boyfriend. Being far from home, we were delighted to receive a homemade fruitcake from his grandmother in Illinois a few weeks before Christmas. It was delicious, chewy dried fruit in a moist cake with a satisfying chewy texture and the tell-tell Christmasy ginger and nutmeg flavors. Not to be outdone, my man's other grandmother sent a fruitcake, just as yummy as her competitor's. The first grandma wouldn't stand for that and sent yet a third fruitcake. Glad I was with that guy during Christmas season. This Jew had an impressive fruitcake initiation.

Nov. 15 2013 05:54 PM

Anyone who has some fruit cake (or Christmas cake) that doesn't want it, send it to me!! I love it, and it's getting so hard to even find any in the stores any more...

Nov. 15 2013 05:48 PM

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Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.

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