The Christmas Cake
By Guest Blogger Aimee Cook
Out of all the tradition the Christmas season holds, my absolute favorite is the gathering at our house on Christmas Eve. That wonderful day is spent carefully crafting and creating the dinner, setting out our wedding china at the dining table, and humming to my favorite Christmas carols as the tree lights twinkle from sun up to sun down.
The evening brings with it a special magic as the family shifts slowly from the dining room to mingle around the living room relaxed and content and almost willing the magic of the night to slow and last. I then take this opportunity to pile my mom’s antique dessert plates, cups full of coffee or eggnog, along with this year’s Christmas cake onto my cheery red tray. And with all the pomp and circumstance I can muster, usher the bountiful tray into a very eager and appreciative family.
You see, I always choose a cake for dessert on Christmas Eve, as it conveys all the elegance and richness that this season holds. Pies, cookies, and sweet breads may still find a place to the dessert table at Christmas, but it is the cake that has always been the main focus for generations. It is a time to splurge a little, not only on ingredients, but also on calories. While many may imagine my cake as being the quintessential fruitcake, it is in fact an ever changing dessert that varies from year to year, just like the gifts under the tree.
While the much beloved fruitcake will never truly lose its luster during the holiday season, home bakers for decades have been creating and serving other wonderful concoctions to their families. Proof of this lies in the numerous magazine and cookbooks dating back as far as the 1900’s, where editors offered their readers recipe after recipe to make their holidays special. Acknowledging the universal appeal of cake at Christmas, these tried and true recipes are in themselves time capsules and offer us modern bakers a look into kitchens of the past. Rich, dense cakes bedecked with nuts, fruit, and marzipan evokes the extravagance of the Edwardian Era. Light, exotically flavored cakes bring into mind the fun-loving 1920’s, while cakes relying on few and easy to find ingredients show the struggling times of the Great Depression.
Here are a few of my most favorite Christmas cakes recipes from the past, written word for word as they appear in their original form. Modern versions of these cakes can be found readily, but are a fun challenge to dissect as written.
Dolly Varden Cake
Cream together one-half cupful of butter and one cupful of sugar, then add alternately one-half cupful of milk and two cupfuls of sifted pastry flour with which two teaspoonfuls of baking powder have been mixed. Then fold in the stiffly beaten whites of three eggs. Flavor with one teaspoonful of almond extract. Bake in a cake pan for forty five minutes at 350° F. When cool, cover with an icing made as follows: Beat the three egg yolks; add one-fourth teaspoonful of vanilla and sufficient confectioner’s sugar to make it of a consistency to spread well.
Cocoa Sponge Cake
To the yolks of four eggs beaten until thick and lemon colored, add one cupful of sugar and mix well. Add four tablespoonfuls of cold water. Measure and sift together one-half cupful of sifted pastry flour, one teaspoonful of baking powder, one half-cupful of cocoa, and one-eighth teaspoonful of salt. Combine with the above one teaspoonful of vanilla and last of all fold in the stiffly beaten whites of the eggs. Bake in an angel cake pan at 320° F for one hour. This cake may be iced if desired.
Cook three squares of chocolate, one-half cupful of milk, and two-thirds cupful of brown sugar for ten minutes; add one teaspoonful vanilla. Cream one cupful of light brown sugar and one-half cupful of butter. Add one-half cupful of sour milk, two well-beaten eggs, and two cupfuls of sifted pastry flour, with which one teaspoonful of soda and one-fourth teaspoonful of salt have been sifted. To this add the above cooked mixture. Combine well and bake in layers at 375°F for twenty minutes. Put together and ice with chocolate fudge icing.
You-and-I Sponge Cake
Beat the yoke of two eggs till light. Add one-half cupful of sifted sugar, and one-eighth teaspoonful of cream of tartar dissolved in one teaspoonful of cold water. Beat again till very light. Add the grated rind of one-quarter of a lemon or orange. Then add alternatively one-half cupful sifted flour, and stiffly-beaten egg-whites. Bake in a lightly greased and floured pan at 320°F for 40 minutes or in patty pans (small, individual tins.)
The beautiful thing about traditions is that they can be created new every year. Friends and family alike, welcome the comfort of past rituals as well as the excitement of something new. With a season dedicated to cherishing those around you, let your heart and your apron lead the way. I hope you try one of these delicious recipes, as they were once a part of another family’s holiday traditions. Merry Christmas and happy baking!