Not so long ago, when my daughter was a child, life was very different. The world moved at a slower pace and I had time on my hands. It was the era before cable TV and the internet. The phrases “fast lane” and “couch potato” and “net surfer” had yet to be coined. Time stretched like soft taffy, begging to be filled and I industriously did so – especially in the weeks preceding Christmas.
I sewed fancy stockings to hang on the mantle and wrote personal notes in stacks of cards. I made pomanders and potpourris, jams and jellies, herbed oils and garlic vinegars. I cooked up batches of nutty fudge. I baked cookies by the score. And for decades on the post-Thanksgiving weekend while the rest of the world was busy paying homage at the altar of consumerism, I religiously made Irish Christmas cake.
Do not groan. Do not moan. Do not make the gross mistake of confusing Ireland’s baking piéce de résistance with that ubiquitous seasonal overly sweet sticky confection commonly called fruitcake. True, the two share some similarities. Both are dense mélanges of spices, raisins, sultanas, currants, nuts, and candied fruits, but there the doppelganger effect ends.
For one thing, a true Irish Christmas cake is laced with a whole lot of true Irish whiskey. The fruits are soaked in it. Another measure is stirred right into the batter. Once out of the oven and cooled, the cake is wrapped in whiskey-drenched wrung-out damp cloths and sheets of aluminum foil. And every week like clockwork, the cake is unwrapped and the cloths are soaked, wrung out, and rewrapped about the cake again.
Depending on just how many cakes I made, I could easily use up several bottles of The Craitcher in the process. By Christmas week, merely unwrapping the cake from its swathe of tinselly silver casing released such a strong whiskey scent into the air one would swear indulging in just a few slices might exceed the legal limit for alcohol consumption. That, however, is a far-fetched exaggeration. Through the weeks of aging, most of the actual alcohol evaporates. The cake is never a soggy mess, and all that’s left behind is the deliriously delicious flavor.
The other thing that sets an Irish Christmas cake apart from its mundane fruitcake cousin is the look of its outside. During the final week before Christmas, the cake is encased in sheets of almond marzipan, coated in several applications of royal icing that stiffens to a hard candy consistency as it dries, and decorated with bits of green candied citron and red candied cherries that have been cut and applied so that it appears the cake is wreathed in a holly garland laid on pure white snow. The process is tedious and time-consuming, but the result is a show-stopper.
Beautiful and delectable as it is, Christmas cake is far more than a tasty accompaniment to another of Ireland’s festive traditions – a steaming mug of Irish coffee. The latter is a 20th-century concoction invented to warm the innards of flying boat passengers coming in on chilly North Atlantic crossings back in the thirties. But both the Christmas cake’s ingredients and its appearance are rich with tradition and symbolism that date back to the Norman Invasion and, even further, to the time of the Celtic Druids.
In 1066 A.D., William the Conqueror and his Norman forces successfully wrested control of England from the Anglo-Saxons. It was the Age of Crusades, and pilgrims returned home with a taste for the delicacies they had encountered in the Holy Land. Chief among these were the East’s exotic spices – cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and mace – and candied fruits, especially citrus and citron peels, raisins, currants, date sugar, and almonds.
During the Middle Ages, spices and raisins were stirred into and sprinkled on everything, from cakes and puddings to roast fowl and meat gravies. In savory dishes, the exotic ingredients acted to disguise not only the salt that had been used as a preserving agent but also the rancidity that resulted from a lack of refrigeration. This was not fare for the common man. Ireland’s climate did not support either citrus or grape-growing and all lemons, oranges, and raisins were imported from Mediterranean regions. Venice controlled the traffic in spices, a shipload of which could easily command up to a million of today’s dollars. Nevertheless, even the poorest household would scrimp and save to purchase enough raisins and spice to bake a Christmas cake.
Candied citrus, almonds and date sugar were another matter altogether. Copious amounts of sugar syrup are required to candy fruit, and the sweetener most accessible to all but Ireland’s very wealthy was honey. The same is true of marzipan, that doughy substance made from whipped egg whites, finely ground almonds, and pulverized sugar crystals, and Royal Icing which is made mostly of dissolved sugar. Only landed gentry and nobility possessed enough disposable income to add these garnishes to their Christmas Cakes.
In those homes that could afford to pull out all the stops, the final embellishment of a Christmas cake was a culinary opus that occupied a good deal of a kitchen staff’s time during the week preceding December 25. First, the marzipan had to be made, rolled into thin sheets, placed atop and around the dark whiskey-drenched cake, and left to air dry for a full week. Next, several batches of Royal Icing were mixed up, smoothed onto all surfaces, and each left to dry for 24 hours before applying the next coating. Then small leaves and berries were carefully cut and placed on the cake’s snow white surface to resemble holly, the plant that the Nature-worshipping Druids considered a lucky talisman, as it bears fruit even in a blizzard.
If the weather cooperated by refraining from raining, the icing set and the Christmas Cake achieved its prescribed look by December 24 and was set in a place of honor on the festive board for the Christmas feast. These days, Christmas cakes are most often made by commercial bakers, but some stalwart traditionalists – like me – still choose to take the time and energy required to make this age-old treat from scratch. If the spirit moves you to try your hand at the ancient art, by all means do so. Just don’t expect it to be easy. Nothing worthwhile is. Sláinte! ♦
Maura O’Byrne’s Christmas Cake
2 cups golden raisins
2 cups currants
1/2 cup candied cherries
1/2 cup candied citrus peel
2/3 cup almonds, chopped
1 lemon rind, grated, yellow part only
4-6 tablespoons Irish whiskey
2 sticks butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
7 eggs, beaten
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Place fruit, nuts, and rind in a baking dish. Cover with foil and heat at 275 degrees until heated through, about 15 minutes. This will make the fruit sticky and prevent it from sinking during baking. Let the mixture cool completely, overnight is best.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Stir the whiskey into the cooled fruit mixture and set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, with a little flour to prevent curdling. In a separate bowl, sift the flour with the salt, then fold it into the egg mixture. Fold fruit and nuts into batter. Put the mixture into a deep, 10-inch greased cake pan that has been lined with waxed paper. Cover the cake loosely with parchment paper or aluminum foil and set it on the middle rack of the oven. Bake at 350 degrees for half an hour, then reduce the temperature to 275 degrees and bake for another two hours. Remove the protective paper and continue baking for another two to three hours, checking frequently to make sure the surface is not browning too much. If so, replace the paper cover and lower the oven temperature a bit. When the cake is baked completely, a cake tester can be inserted and withdrawn clean. Remove the cake from the oven, pour two more tablespoons of whiskey over the surface, and let cool completely.
To age the cake: soak clean dishcloths in whiskey, then wring them out thoroughly until they are just damp. Wrap the cooled cake in the damp cloths, then encase it in several layers of aluminum foil, or place in an airtight tin. Repeat the process once a week.
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 cups very finely ground almonds
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons whiskey
Warm apricot jam
Sift together the sugars and the ground almonds. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with the whiskey and a drop or two of almond extract. Fold into the sugar and almond mixture. Blend to form a stiff paste. Sprinkle a work surface with powdered sugar, turn out the almond paste, and knead until smooth. Roll out 1/8-inch thick and larger than the diameter of the cake.
If the top of the cake is not straight, cut it to make the surface level, then turn the cake over so that the flat bottom becomes the top. Brush the warm apricot jam on the top of the cake. Gently reverse the cake again to lay the apricot side down on to the round of almond paste. Press down lightly and trim around the edges. Put the plate on which you intend to serve the cake over it and invert. Cover lightly with tissue paper and leave to harden for a week.
NOTE: If you want to cover the side of the cake as well, double the amount of sugars, almonds, egg whites, and whiskey. After mixing, rolling, and affixing the top marzipan cover, gather the bits, roll a strip long enough to wrap the side of the cake, and trim it to size. Place the strip around the side of the cake, pinching tightly where its edges meet the top, and smooth the seam until it is barely visible.
2 egg whites
4 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Candied citron & cherries
Cut the candied citron and cherries in shapes resembling holly leaves and berries, and set aside. Sift the powdered sugar twice. Whisk the egg whites until they begin to froth. Add the powdered sugar a few tablespoons at a time, beating well with each addition. Add the lemon juice and a few drops of glycerine. Beat until the icing is really smooth and forms stiff peaks. Cover with a damp cloth for about an hour. Spread icing over the sides and them top of the cake, smoothing carefully as you go. Position the citron and cherry bits around the circumference of the cake’s top surface. Cover the finished cake with tissue paper until ready to serve. Do not put it in a tin or the icing will melt.
NOTE: If a thick double icing is wanted, the first coat should be left to dry for 24 hours. On the next day, mix another batch of icing, and complete the icing process as above.
– Recipes from Celtic Folklore Cooking by Joanne Asala and from Irish Traditional Food by Theodora Fitzgibbons*
*Ms. Asala informs us that Mrs. O’Byrne, whose cake recipe we use here, was a fine country cook who lived in Ballon, County Carlow. I have incorporated Ms. Fitzgibbons’ meticulous assemblage instructions into the recipe. – E.P.