Stir-up Sunday: Cakes and puddings for Christmas
Though Stir-up Sunday is traditionally the day to mix your mincemeat and plum pudding, I’ll be making our Christmas cake on that day as well. Very dark, with a sticky treacle-rich crumb, and a flavour that combines a mix of dried fruit and spices with orange zest and rum. My recipe for this year isn’t final yet, but I’m sure it’ll include prunes, raisins and home candied orange peel, the latter much easier than you’d think.
The stirring-up of mincemeat, puddings and more recently cakes, is associated with the last Sunday before the Christian season of Advent, the run up to Christmas. It very irreverently took the first words from what was once that day’s reading from the Book of Common Prayer, words every vicar would have spoken that morning in church - “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord” - as a call to get cracking in your kitchen with fruit, suet, and brandy.
From the moment it was stirred-up and in the weeks that followed, the fruit in the mincemeat subtly plumps and absorbs moisture and spice flavour while the maturing mellows the sharp alcoholic bite of the brandy. The pudding, even though sealed tightly, would lose some moisture in the way that a cellophane-covered jar of home-made jam or pickle does: the flavour intensifies and the crumb gets darker and more compact. Both develop a richly complex texture and an aroma ready to burst out when eaten.
The modern British Christmas cake tradition evolved relatively quickly from very plain rye cakes, Yule cakes and kichel, that were symbolic bread-like loaves commonly baked in homes until the early 1800s - through to the magnificent iced ‘plum’ cakes that became popular from that point onward. This change was driven by the accessibility and cheapness of the fruit, sugar, nuts and spices that Victorian traders made available to working people. Some historians have suggested that today’s cake is a hybrid of the much older plum pudding and the venerable Twelfth Night cake.
This basic fruitcake recipe evolved as other cultures influenced the flavour and ingredients. The Trinidad black cake has a heady pudding-like texture soaked in a combination of rum and other spirits, so good that it inspired me to make a Black Christmas cake with stout one year. In Australia when I was growing up, we’d used candied tropical fruit, like pineapple and mango, and macadamia nuts. Looking back at old recipes I have from America from the 1930s, it’s the generosity of fruit and sweetness that sets those recipes apart from British recipes from that era. Today, if you want a classic Christmas cake you’ll be in good company if you turn to Delia.
If you want to keep your cake simpler, think about a barm cake like this one by Helen Jerome from 1932. Related to the Yule cake, it was once made with a piece of bread dough that had sugar, fat, spices and fruit kneaded through after it had it’s first rise, but once baking powder became available that became the preferred method. By contrast, Mrs. Beeton’s Christmas cake is a type of light fruited gingerbread, rich with treacle. For a modern take, try Nigel Slater’s Double ginger cake and replace the sultanas with 150g dark raisins.
Stollen has fast become a favourite Christmas cake in Britain, and homebaker Nils has both quick or complex recipes on his blog, depending on the sort of baking adventure you’re after. Panettone, an outrageously complex sweet bun from Italy is usually best bought from a shop. Having said that you could make small teacakes like these as a trial. Bûche de noël, the Christmas chocolate cake from France that resembles a cut tree log, has its fans too, and there’s even a gluten-free version from food writer Béa that looks as good as the wheat version.
Christmas baking is integral to the festivities, so what are you planning this year? And if you have any festive baking-related questions, post them here and I’ll try to help.
Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert.