A Pacific Northwest Christmas Cake

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In Medieval times, before sugar was widely available, imported dried fruits were used for sweetening.


I have lived in the U.S. long enough to know that fruitcake here is much maligned— dry as a bone and hard as masonry nails—something few people in their right mind would consider eating. This is a shame, because the traditional British Christmas Cake is a very different sort of affair: luxuriously rich and spicy, bursting with boozy dried fruits and shrouded in velvety almond paste and a crisp veil of icing.

Though Christmas cake, as the British know it today, only appeared in the 19th century, its roots go back to the Middle Ages—a cross between the traditional plum pudding and the gilded, frosted Twelfth Cake served on the Epiphany. In Medieval times, before sugar was widely available, imported dried fruits were used for sweetening, while the use of costly spices and citrus reflects the celebratory nature of dishes which were once a year extravagances. Unfortunately, in the mid 17th century, Puritans banned plum pudding and its relatives as being “lewd,” so the decadent British treats never made it to these shores.

I bake a Christmas cake every year. Apart from being utterly delectable, it plays a useful role in the festivities. Christmas cake keeps beautifully and is perfect to hand out with a cup of tea or glass of madeira when visitors stop by, or as dessert following Boxing Day’s turkey sandwiches.

Ideally you should bake your cake around two months before the big day and “feed” it regularly with dark liquor to keep it moist and boozy. I don’t always manage to do that, though it’s best to make it as early as you can. The cake is then iced about a week before Christmas.

Part of the problem with American fruitcake is the lack of good quality candied fruits available here—most American candied fruit is made with corn syrup. In this recipe I have turned instead to our region’s amazing dried fruits and nuts to create a Pacific Northwest fruitcake, which is so moist and luscious it will have you baking, serving and, yes, eating fruitcake year after year.




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