Season's eatings: A history of Christmas cake

16:00, Dec 17 2011
Christmas cake
BAKED GOODS: The Twelve Cakes of Christmas

The hallway of my grandmother's Blenheim home was long, dark and scary.

Five solid wooden doors, including the linen cupboard. A piano. Dusty shelves containing a shell collection, dead seahorses, and, terrifyingly, a jar of pickled baby octopus. But close your eyes and take comfort: that hallway always smelled like cake.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother's house has been an inhalation of Christmas. Almond essence. Lemon peel. Sticky dates and shrivelled currants. I phoned her a fortnight ago to ask how many cakes she had made in her lifetime.

That Monday, she said, there were 150 of them sitting on every available surface – the fruits of the Marlborough Cake Decorator Guild's fundraising labour. "But I can't count those. I have help with those ones."

Mary Parker, 83, has always been a cake decorator. But it turns out she became a cake baker only when my dad's mum shared her family recipe. "Before then, all my cakes were either burned or raw."

The rich fruit cakes my grandmother makes now – up to 350 over the past three decades, she estimates – are a direct descendant of my parents' nuptial cake. The child bride and groom who grew up to produce two children: my sister, a baker. And me, a burner. Too lazy to measure properly and set the timer.


This Christmas would be different. And for that I blame the authors of The Twelve Cakes of Christmas: An evolutionary history with recipes. It is an extraordinary, inspiring book born of a decade's research, the statistical analysis of more than 800 local recipes. "We like to imagine our more distant ancestors baked Christmas cakes," the authors write. "In short, that this is one of the most conservative items in our culinary tradition. But when we went in search of a recipe entitled `Christmas cake' that our great-great grandmother might have made before she emigrated to New Zealand in 1850, we could not find one. At least not under that name."

Helen Leach, emeritus professor, anthropology, at Otago University, and Raewyn Inglis, food historian, did the research. Mary Browne, food writer, tested the recipes – starting with the toughest, an adaptation of the 1669 instructions "To make an excellent cake" from The Closet of the Emminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie K.

"It got easier and easier the nearer to today I got," Browne said from her Dunedin home.

"Anything after Alison Holst and Tui Flower – the recipes from then were well written. They didn't need to be well written earlier, because women knew how to bake. They learned at home."

Browne is a former home economics teacher, and her experience in secondary schools proved today's cooks don't, for example, always know how to "cream butter".

"You can't presume anything. Back in the 17th century everyone knew what a "peck of flower [sic] was". Modern research revealed it would have been about 14 pounds, or 6.35kg. "But it wasn't even a standard measure, because it varied between the different counties in Britain."

Browne's version of a 17th century cake – with breadmaker's yeast and sweet sherry, rather than "one pint of sack mixed with a quart at least of thick barm of ale" – had to be scaled back tenfold from the original.

"You have to be very careful because you can make measurements that are impossible to measure. I had two A4 pages of mathematical calculations." The end result was a cake-like bread that didn't keep particularly well, but made beautiful toast.

Browne spent most of this year cooking cakes, couriering the excess to a son-in-law in Auckland who loves the product so much he offered to pay the freight charges. "If anybody had asked me four or five years ago whether I thought Christmas cakes had a history, like the pavlova did [Browne worked with Leach on The Pavlova Story], I would have said `no – people just make very similar cakes' – but when Helen started to analyse the differences, we realised there were huge variations."

For example: Analysis shows that in recipes from 1900-04, peel was present in 91 per cent – by 1995-99 that had dropped to 39 per cent. The use of alcohol went from 45 per cent to 77 per cent. Cinnamon has always been the most prevalent spice, but curry powder was called for in 23 recipes. Four contained coconut, five had candied angelica stem, two recommended grated carrot, and one suggested "any old jam up to one pot". The authors write: "We can think of no other cake with such diversity in ingredients."

The book started with Inglis' BA (Hons) research that confirmed certain recipes are very responsive to economic changes. Would a Christmas cake be more resistant? Leach, who supervised the research, says "we realised cakes were quite a complicated story and might deserve looking at in their own right".

Food history, says Leach, has become "very fashionable". But when she was invited to give a talk on the soirees and afternoon teas of Dunedin's historic Olveston House, she found little useful contemporary reportage.

"Everybody's hats and dresses are described in meticulous detail. Virtually every flower in an arrangement is described. But they never talk about the food. There was a social convention against it. That old taboo has completely vanished, and it allows people to take an interest in how food changes."

A trawl of newspaper archives turned up some oddities. When the recipe for "A Rich Christmas Cake" was printed in the Otago Witness in 1883, the Hawke's Bay Bush Advocate in 1891 and Wellington's Evening Post in 1892, "not one of these papers saw any problems with this recipe". In fact, says Leach, although 12 egg whites were listed in the ingredients, there was no instruction as to how they should be used, and "it required the addition of a half a pound of spice, when half an ounce must have been what was intended".

Research uncovered an 1891 Clutha Leader recipe that included a quantity of poisonous bitter almonds. Broadcaster Aunt Daisy forgot the chopped pineapple when she read out the recipe for a pineapple-themed creation.

Recipes, say the authors of this book, "are invitations to cook". Browne, who has made a Christmas cake every year since she was 12, currently favours something called a Festive Fruit Cake, adapted from a Joan Bishop recipe. It substitutes butter for a puree of dates, prunes and orange zest. "I can eat large chunks of it without worrying about the fat."

Leach suggests that as environmental concerns about the distance food travels increase, ingredients may change. "I think we will move away from the brightly coloured cherries as we become more anti-food colouring and we might ensure we are not sourcing nuts from Europe or wherever because of the food miles. Or we might follow the example of the Howick Christmas Cake [number six in the book] and use New Zealand ingredients like blackcurrant jam and walnuts."

But for both Browne and Leach, a Christmas cake is about more than just eating. "It's a way of saying to friends and family, this is a special occasion and you are our special guests."

My grandmother would agree. She counts Christmas cake among her earliest memories. "Mother used to ice cakes to raise funds for various charities. Probably at this time, it was for the relief fund, because it would have been during the Depression. She had three round cakes sitting on the table, and she was on the telephone.

"When she came out, the almond paste on the cakes had neat bite marks all around the top. I can still see them. I don't remember if I was punished, I just remember that they were like that, and I had done it." She was, she thinks, around 2 1/2 years old. "The thing with a Christmas cake is really not what goes into it. It doesn't matter what it's made of. It's the people you share it with. It's a cake for sharing."

We have six copies of The Twelve Cakes of Christmas to give away.

Please email your full contact details to by 5pm Wednesday, December 21 with "cake" in the subject line. No multiple entries.

Sunday Star Times