Doug & Savannah Smith on Traditions
story by Savannah Smith
Have you ever read a classic Christmas story and wondered what plum pudding was?
Back in the 1600s, Christmas time meant plum pudding would be served. Only made with the finest ingredients: fruits, nuts, sugar, and mixed spices. History tells us that all of these ingredients were rare and expensive. The mixed spices represented the exotic eastern spices brought by the Wise Men as a gift to baby Jesus. Before ovens, cooks wrapped the mixture in cheesecloth and boiled them; this is the plum pudding you read about in all the classic Christmas stories. Over time, when ovens became existent, the Christmas cake was born. Starting in November, bakers would begin forming the cake and preserving it in an air tight container. Finally, a few days before Christmas they would add the marzipan and decorate with royal icing making it a cake fit for a king.
(Savannah Smith with her father Doug)
This very special Christmas tradition began in our household when I was a sophomore in high school. My dad, Doug Smith, and I begin prepping the cakes in October. My dad has a passion for food and loves to share his creations. He and my mom love to cook together and have always included me in the process; preparing the Christmas cake was a great fit for us. So just like that, the father-daughter tradition began.
Dried fruits and marzipan are ordered early October so we may prepare to bake the Christmas cakes. Most are well aware of the “hard-as-a-rock” fruit cakes sold in grocery stores during Christmas time. I, personally, also wonder how they are sold. Usually, the word “fruit cake” is followed by a turn of the head and less than polite no thank you. A fruit cake is very far from the Christmas cake we enjoy making for our friends and family each year. Our Christmas cake is moist, sweet, and the perfect combination of all ingredients.
We serve a slice of Christmas cake with Wensleydale cheese. Wensleydale is a historic, sweet cheese filled with fruit that has been made in Wensleydale, North England since 1150 by Cistercian monks. We choose the Wensleydale with Cranberries. Cranberries are one of three fruits that are native to America. This honors both the Old World Europe and the New World America. Add a cup of hot tea and this is how we enjoy the fruit of our labor.
Over time we have tried to perfect the art and have gotten a little better each year. Brandy is poured once a week to preserve our fruits and we use marzipan underneath the royal icing to help hold the cakes moisture. Each cake is given as gifts in beautiful air tight Christmas tins. They are made with love and remind us as a family what originally began many, many, years ago as a gift fit for a king (using only the finest ingredients) is still appropriate today as it emphasizes the love of our King Jesus.
I am now a sophomore away at college and I still make sure to come home often to bake with my dad. I cherish this special tradition with him and look forward to continuing it and doing this one day with my own children as well as with my parents.
Doug & Savannah’s Christmas Cake Recipe
No Christmas is ever complete without a classic Christmas Cake on the table. Christmas cake should be made two months before (Mid-October) Christmas for it to be fed at regular intervals with brandy, helping to mature the cake.
Cook Time: 2.5 hours
Note: Soak the dried mixed fruits the night before in a little extra brandy and proceed with the recipe next day; this creates an even more moist cake.
1lb. 2oz. currants
8oz. golden raisins/sultanas*
4oz. mixed candied peel, finely chopped
6oz. glace cherries, halved
10oz. all purpose or plain flour
Pinch of salt
1/2 level tsp. mixed spice
(We use Pumpkin Pie Spice Mix.)
1/2 level tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 level tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, slightly softened
10 oz. soft brown sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 tbsp. brandy, plus extra for feeding
• Heat the oven to 300°F – Place a baking dish filled with water on the bottom rack, this will help prevent a dry cake. The temperature is low as the cake needs a long slow bake. It is packed with sugars, fruits and brandy and if the temperature is any higher the outside of the cake will burn and the inside be undercooked.
• Line 4 – 6” inch cake tins with 2 thicknesses of parchment or greaseproof paper. Tie a double band of brown or newspaper paper around the outside. This acts as an insulator and to prevent the cake from burning on the outside.
• In a large roomy baking bowl mix the currants, sultanas, raisins, peel and cherries with the flour, salt and spices.
• In another large bowl cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the lemon zest. Add the beaten egg to the butter mixture a little bit at a time, beating well after each addition – do not try to rush this process as the mixture could curdle. If it does curdle simply add a tbsp of flour and mix again, this should bring the mixture back together. If it doesn’t come back together, don’t fret, the cake will still be delicious.
• Carefully fold in half the flour and fruit into the egg and butter mixture, once incorporated repeat with the remaining flour and fruit. Finally add the brandy.
• Spoon the cake mixture into the prepared cake tin making sure there are no air pockets. Once filled smooth the surface with the back of s spoon and make a slight dip in the center (this will rise back up again during cooking and create a smooth surface for icing the cake).
• Finally, using a piece of paper towel clean up any smears of cake batter on the greaseproof wrapping, if left on they will burn, and though it won’t affect the cake, it doesn’t smell too good.
• Stand the tins on a double layer of newspaper and bake for 2.5 hours. If the cake is browning too rapidly, cover the tin with a double layer of greaseproof or parchment paper after 2 hours. During the cooking time avoid opening the oven door too often as this may cause the cake to collapse.
• After 2.5 hours check the cake. The cake should be nicely risen and a deep brown all over. Insert a skewer into the center of the cake. If there is sticky dough on the skewer when you pull it out it needs cooking longer, if it is clean, the cake’s done and remove from the oven.
• Leave the cake to cool in the tin on a wire rack for an hour, then remove from the tin and leave to cool completely. Once cooled slowly pour over 2 – 3 tbsp brandy. This feeding should be repeated weekly up until Christmas.
The cake should be stored wrapped in greaseproof or parchment paper in an airtight tin.
A week before Christmas is the time to ice the cake:
• Make royal icing, refrigerate for 24 hours before use
• Apricot glaze the cake
• Roll out marzipan and cover cake
• Ice the cake
ROYAL ICING Make and let sit for 24 hours in the fridge before use.
• 3 oz. pasteurized egg whites or (3 large eggs separated)
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 4 c. confectioners’ sugar
In large bowl of stand mixer combine the egg whites and vanilla and beat until frothy. Add confectioners’ sugar gradually and mix on low speed until sugar is incorporated and mixture is shiny. Turn speed up to high and beat until mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks. This should take approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Store in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 3 days.
• 1/2 c. apricot jam • 1 tbsp. water • 1 tbsp. Brandy
Heat the apricot jam and water in a small saucepan over medium heat until liquid (melted). Remove from heat and strain the jam through a fine strainer to remove any fruit lumps. Add the brandy at this point. Let cool until it is only slightly warm.
Notes on a Christmas Cake: Sultanas are the dried fruit of seedless grapes and tend to be juicier and plumper than ordinary raisins.