Christmas Cake: a Mrs. Beeton Recipe
In case you have not figured this out, I have a huge sweet tooth. Not only that, but I prefer baking over all other kitchen activities. One of my goals for this blog for next year, aside from updating it regularly, or at least more regularly than I have been doing, is to make more savory foods. In the mean time, here is another cake recipe.
It is Christmas time and, love it or hate it, fruitcake is associated with Christmas in much of the Western world (artificial construct, I know!). I don’t really know the history of fruitcakes all that well, I have not spent much time studying it like I have with pound cake, but I do know I like a good slice every now and then.
Now, the fruitcake we get in the United States is very different to the fruitcake people eat and make in the United Kingdom, and Mrs. Beeton’s Christmas Cake, which is a fruitcake, is not like any I have tried before.
I wanted to make a fruitcake from an old recipe, and this one won because of the name. There is not much more to that story.
Here is the recipe as it appears in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861. It is recipe number 1754.
“1754 CHRISTMAS CAKE
Ingredients – 5 teacupfuls of flour, 1 teacupful of melted butter, 1 teacupful of cream, 1 teacupful of treacle, 1 teacupful of most sugar, 2 eggs, 1/2 oz. of powdered ginger, 1/2 lb. of raisins, 1 teaspoonful of carbonate of soda, 1 teaspoonful of vinegar.
Mode -Make the butter sufficiently warm to melt it, but do not allow it to oil; put the flour into a basin; add to it the sugar, ginger, and raisins, which should be stoned and cut into small pieces. When these dry ingredients are thoroughly mixed, stir in the butter, cream, treacle, and well-whisked eggs, and beat the mixture for a few minutes. Dissolve the soda in the vinegar, add it to the dough, and be particular that these latter ingredients are well incorporated with the others; put the cake into a buttered mould or tin, place it in a moderate oven immediately, and bake it from 1 3/4 to 2 1/4 hours.
Time – 1 3/4 to 2 1/4 hours.
Average cost – 1s. 6d.”
In many ways, this is a very exact recipe, which had become much more the norm in the 19th century, when Mrs. Beeton wrote her book. But when taken out of the context of its time and place, it leaves the baker wondering how to even measure ingredients. What is a “teacupful”? It is not a measurement we use today in the US nor in the UK. Here in the US we use standardized cups, and in the UK they have abandoned volumetric measurements in favor of weighing ingredients (much more accurate).
I had never read a recipe that used “teacupfuls” so I had no prior knowledge of how much it was. Thankfully, we have this wonderful thing called the internet, which, after some sleuthing, revealed that a “teacupful” was in fact a pretty standard measurement in 19th-century England and was the equivalent of 1/4 English pint. That is roughly, as in pretty close, 2/3 of a cup. So I was in business. There was not much else to figure out given the precision of all the ingredients.
One other thing that sounded odd reading the recipe but made perfect sense as I thought about it was the butter. Beeton says to make the butter warm enough but not “allow it to oil.” What this means is that you need to soften the butter as you would for a modern cake, rather than actually melt the butter. Makes sense!
The adapted recipe is as follows:
3 1/3 cups (1 lb 1 oz) all purpose flour
2/3 cup (4oz) brown sugar
1/2 oz (2 tbsp) ground ginger (not fresh)
1/2 lb raisins
2/3 cup (11 tbs / 5.3 oz) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup treacle
2 large eggs
1 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp white vinegar
Preheat the oven to 275°F. Line the bottom of an 8 inch by 3 inch springform pan with parchment paper. Spray the inside of the pan generously with cooking spray.
To the bowl of a mixer, or a large bowl if mixing by hand, add the flour, brown sugar, ground ginger, and raisins. Make sure the raisins are not clumping together. Mix lightly to fully combine the ingredients. Stir in the softened butter, heavy cream, treacle, and eggs. If you are mixing by hand, whisk the eggs prior to adding them. Mix the ingredients until everything is combined and has a dough-like consistency. This will not look like a cake batter, it is very thick. Working quickly, combine the baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl and add it to the dough, mixing quickly and thoroughly.
Pour the mixture into the prepared springform pan and press it down, leveling the top as well as making sure there are no air bubbles in the mixture.
Bake in the center of the oven until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, approximately 1 hr 45min to 2hrs.
Let the cake cool in the pan. Once completely cool, remove from the pan and it is ready to serve.
This makes a big cake! It may not seem like a big cake when you compare it to other types of cake, but given the richness of fruitcakes, you just do not eat as much in one serving as you do with other cakes. There was no way we could eat this entire cake ourselves, but we did eat half of it. The truth is that fruitcakes can keep a very long time, especially if they have been wrapped in alcohol-soaked cheesecloth. I did not do this because Beeton does not call for it, but there is no reason why you can’t do it. You’d just need to bake the cake a few weeks ahead of when you plan to eat it. I did sprinkle my cake with some powder sugar but I really just did it for photos, it looks pretty.
When I started mixing the ingredients I was pretty concerned with the large amount of ginger the recipe calls for, but I have to say, it works well. The cake has a bit of a spicy kick without being overwhelmingly gingery. Another note on the ingredients is treacle. Treacle is pretty common in the UK but not in the US. You can find treacle in the US though, you just have to look for it. Amazon sells it, and you maybe to able to find it at some specialty stores. If you can’t find it, or are not willing to pay that much for it, you can use molasses but the taste will be slightly different.
Today, cakes like these in the UK are often covered or iced. You can try that for a pretty presentation. Marizipan and then either fondant or royal icing are traditional.
So, I call this one a huge success as well as a learning experience (now I have a new measurement in my arsenal!), and it was easy to make, which is always a big plus. Honestly, it was so good and not at all like the clumpy, chewy fruitcakes Americans know and rarely eat.
Happy holidays, everyone!