Irish Christmas Cake

Irish Christmas Cake (c) 2012 La Domestique

Last night we ate our first slice of Irish Christmas Cake. To my Irish-born-and-raised husband, this fruit cake is an essential part of celebrating Christmas. If you ask him about Christmas cake, his eyes gloss over as he recites its virtues, from boozy dried fruit to moist, dark crumb to marzipan crust. My experience with Christmas cake came a couple of years ago when we traveled to Ireland during the holidays for a family wedding. As we journeyed from house to house visiting friends and relatives, I noticed a Christmas cake appeared on every table in every home. Once invited in, we gathered around the kitchen table next to the warm stove. A pot of tea and the obligatory slice of Christmas cake placed on the table sustained us through hours of chatting and catching up. The dense crumb studded with golden raisins, currants, and glacé cherries was heavy with holiday spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger. Covered in a thick coating of marzipan and wrapped in white fondant, the cake tasted tooth achingly sweet. Everyone had their favorite way to eat Christmas cake, my husband preferring to peel off the fondant and nibble at the marzipan. He had a history of stripping the whole cake of marzipan and leaving the naked fruit cake for everyone else!

Irish Christmas Cake (c) 2012 La Domestique

After 5 years of marriage I finally baked the husband his cherished Christmas cake. The recipe took a good bit of time, energy and planning (which I reminded him as he took the first bite of cake last night). Finding the 16 ingredients involved trips to different grocery stores and specialty food shops (seriously, no glacé cherries?!). There were almonds to be ground, citrus to be zested, and dried fruits to be soaked in Irish whiskey. I think I pulled a muscle in my back while stirring 5 cups of fruit into the thick cake batter. Once the cake was in the pan safely wrapped in layers of foil, it occupied 3 1/2 hours in the oven. Finally, the cooked cake would be doused with Irish whiskey and left to marinate in the cupboard for a month. Yesterday I unwrapped the layers of foil and parchment to find the Christmas cake just as I’d left it weeks ago, smelling of booze and spice, ready to be frosted and eaten. After a week of baking Christmas cookies and the hustle and bustle of the season, I didn’t have much energy left. The husband isn’t fond of the fondant that traditionally covers the marzipan on Christmas cake, so I happily disregarded it. In the cookbook, Forgotten Skills of Cooking, Darina Allen writes, “If you’d rather not have fondant icing, the almond paste can be toasted and will keep just as well and be irresistible to nibble.” Taking Darina’s advice, I stirred together the sugar, almonds, eggs, Irish whiskey, and almond extract, then rolled out the almond paste. Brushing the cake with egg white and covering it with the marzipan was delightfully easy, and I chose to keep it simple – no fussing with cutting out decorative shapes to cover the cake. Covered in marzipan, the Christmas cake was placed back into the oven to bake for a few minutes, just until golden brown. At that point I could see why fondant is traditionally used – it’s not the most beautiful or festive looking cake as is. I found that a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar, like a dusting of fresh winter snow, was enough to make this cake feel Christmasy.

Irish Christmas Cake (c) 2012 La Domestique

My first Irish Christmas Cake was approved by the husband, and after all that work, I look forward to making it again next year. As we sat at the table last night, nibbling marzipan and sipping spiced rum, I felt a swell of Christmas spirit. I can’t give this man I married an expensive gift, but I can make him a Christmas cake baked with love, and we can sit together on a cold and starry winter’s night and be so thankful.

Darina Allen’s Toasted Almond Christmas Cake

from Forgotten Skills of Cooking or you can find the recipe on Darina’s website here

Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup real glacé cherries
  • 1/4 cup whole almonds
  • 1 1/2 cups golden raisins
  • 1 1/2 cups currants
  • 1 1/2 cups raisins
  • 4 oz candied peel
  • 1/3 cup ground almonds
  • zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
  • zest of 1 unwaxed orange
  • 1/3 cup Irish whiskey
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 6 organic eggs
  • 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1 large cooking apple, grated
Ingredients for Almond Paste
  • 1 pound granulated sugar
  • 1 pound ground almonds
  • 2 small organic eggs
  • 2 tablespoons Irish whiskey
  • a drop of pure almond extract
  • 1 egg white, lightly whisked

I’m excited to announce Samantha of the blog Biobabbler is the winner of The Food52 Cookbook Volume 2 giveaway!

17 Comments

  1. This is such a lovely story. I loved everything about. Beginning traditions upon traditions as families meld their cultures and childhood dreams. You’ve also solved the mystery of what is happening when that cake sits for that month. A friend from England is always commenting on her blog that she has “put the Xmas cake away” when it is only November. I always forget to ask for the details. I am also making a Christmas cake of sorts. It is an English Steamed Pudding. It sounds, thought, somewhat like your cake (but without the month long soaking). Don’t you just love all of these subtle differences in British, Irish, and Scottish cakes?

    Reply
    • Sarah,
      Your kind comment made my day (no worries about the spelling!). I’m glad you found the story interesting. I’m familiar with English Steamed Pudding, and it is a lot like Christmas cake in method and ingredients. Happy baking!

      Reply
  2. Jeez, sorry for all of the typos. I need to slow down and check my writing. “…about it”…”commenting on Facebook”…”though, not thought”.

    Reply
  3. Beautiful story sis! Thank u for sharing ur lovely story and Christmas spirit.

    Reply
    • Thank you, sis!

      Reply
  4. Jess, I’m a sucker for sentimental recipes especially when it comes to the holidays. Plus, all that almondy goodness looks delish.
    Wishing you happy and delicious holidays,
    E

    Reply
    • Happy holidays to you too, Erin!

      Reply
  5. What a labor of love! I’m still working on perfecting our wedding cake recipe after 6 years… all the good recipes take time, don’t they? Merry Christmas to you!

    Reply
    • Wow Nicole, that’s some dedication! It’s the same with this Christmas cake, though. The husband liked it but gave me a few pieces of feedback (not dark enough, not boozy enough) that I’ll take into account for next year. Merry Christmas to you too, and a happy New Year!

      Reply
  6. Oh, yay! I had trouble leaving a comment yesterday and I’m glad I can finally tell you how much I love this. As you know, I have my own fruit bread tradition, but I love the marzipan crust. Picturing every home with the same traditional cake at Christmas seems so romantic, especially when picturing the scene in Ireland :)

    Reply
    • Nicole,
      The site was down for awhile yesterday, and I really appreciate you making a special trip back today to leave a comment. Leaving the fondant off this cake does mean you really get to appreciate the marzipan layer. Your fruit bread looked amazing, by the way!

      Reply
  7. I love christmas cake – I always thought it was difficult too.

    Reply
    • Yosef,

      It’s a lot of effort, but sure tastes good in the end, and there is the additional satisfaction of having done it yourself. Happy Holidays!

      Reply
  8. Lovely post Jess. Well done! Your cake looks quite delicious. I adore Christmas cake too – one of these years I’ll have to give it a go. Sounds like lots of booze is key! My kind of cake:)

    Reply
    • Thanks Renee!Booze+cake=delicious every time!

      Reply
  9. This cake has to be added tp my cake list “yes or yes” ;D
    Thanks for the recipe and Happy Christmas!

    Reply
    • Merry Christmas Cristina!

      Reply

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