Christmas Cakes of Yesteryear

The very first entry in my grandmother’s battered, handwritten recipe book is for a ‘Good Xmas Cake’.

Grammo probably began her recipe collection around the time of her marriage in 1919; the weights and measures are recorded in Imperial units (pounds and ounces, pints and gills) and the somewhat vague ‘breakfast cup’.

Weights and Measures_1

Weights & Measures

Good Xmas Cake

The recipe for the ‘Good Xmas Cake’ provides specific quantities of flour, butter, sugar, currants, raisins, lemon peel, almonds, spice and baking powder, along with ‘a little treacle to darken it’ and ‘8 to 20 eggs’. Now, as my family will attest, I am no great cook but, even to me, a range between 8 and 20 eggs seems, pardon the pun, a recipe for disaster. Did the number of eggs depend on how the chooks were laying? I don’t know (and I’m not about to experiment with the two extremes of eggs numbers to test the end result.)

Good Xmas Cake_cropped_1

‘Good Xmas Cake’

Following the ingredients list are these eight words:

Make and bake the same as pound cake.

As luck would have it, the very next recipe in Grammo’s well-thumbed exercise book is for a ‘Prize Pound Cake’. Here are the complete instructions that follow the ingredient list: ‘bake 2 hours in a moderate oven’. Combine that with the Christmas cake’s method and you have a total of fifteen words to guide your baking endeavours.

I’ve just checked one of my daughter’s (many) cookery books for a contemporary Christmas cake recipe. The particular book I’ve selected (typical of today’s culinary publications) is bound in a hard cover, features a raft of ornamental typefaces and illustrations, and is replete with colour photography. The Christmas cake recipe, which makes a single ‘13cm (5in) round cake’, comprises an introductory history, 30 ingredients, ‘bakery notes’ and a method. The latter is a 500-word miasma of pouring, stirring, mixing, adding, incorporating and combining, not to mention the baking, inverting, cooling and covering.

Yesterday’s cooks learnt all they needed to know about ‘method’ at their mother’s knee. Today’s depend on the wisdom of celebrity chefs.

My grandmother’s cake would have fed a substantial Christmas crowd. It used 2 ½ lbs (1.1 kgs) of flour and 2 lbs (0.9 kg) of sugar. The recipe in my daughter’s book—with three times the number of ingredients—requires just 2 oz (55 gms) each of flour and sugar. It seems the complexity of recipes has swollen in inverse proportion to the number of guests being fed.

Mrs M’s recipe

About a third of the way through Grammo’s old exercise book, after the recipes for feather cake and angel’s food and war loaf and gem scones, there is a second Christmas cake recipe. This one is attributed to Mrs M (quite possibly my mother’s mother-in-law, my paternal grandmother). The entry was probably recorded in the early 1940s but, further than that, its provenance is unknown to me. The recipe lists the same basic ingredients as the ‘Good Xmas Cake’, but includes substantially more fruit.

Mrs M’s recipe requires only half the first recipe’s quantity of flour, butter and sugar, but when it comes to fruit, it’s a case of ‘more is better’. The volume of currants, raisins and peel matches that of the ‘Good Xmas Cake’ (effectively doubling the ratio to the basic cake ingredients), and it then adds a pound of dates, a pound of sultanas, and an undefined measure of cherries. (It’s worth noting that there are no instructions for baking. At this stage, my grandmother is clearly a competent cook and has dispensed with even fifteen words of guidance.)

Christmas cake_Mrs M

Mrs M’s ‘Christmas Cake’

It could be that Mrs M’s recipe is a post-depression (and even a post- World War II) one and that there is more money available for additional fruit at this time. If ‘Mrs M’ is my paternal grandmother, she certainly didn’t come from a wealthy household—it’s unlikely there would have been any frittering away of hard-earned cash on expensive ingredients. It might also be that the cost of dried fruit has dropped considerably. In 1930, for instance, currants cost 8-9 pence per pound; in 1942, the cost had halved following the fixing of prices by the Fruit Industry Sugar Concession Committee.

A bygone era

I suspect the days of handwritten recipe books are now gone. My mother followed her mother’s example of recording her own recipes, but with a ‘modern’ twist. Instead of writing recipes in an exercise book, mum typed hers on 3” x 5”, colour-coded (for mains, desserts, cakes/slices, jams, etc) cards. She stored them alphabetically in a hinged, metal filing tin, and used a system of ticks (1, 2 or 3) to indicate a recipe’s success.

Mum's recipe file

My mother’s recipe card file (right) and my smaller version (left).

Mum painstakingly reproduced many of these recipe cards (filed in a slightly smaller tin) as pre-wedding gift to me. It’s not a tradition I intend to continue. This week, when my affianced son required copies of family Christmas recipes—yo yos, cheese straws, hedgehog—I simply plucked the relevant card from the metal tin, took a photo on my mobile phone, and pressed ‘send’.

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2 thoughts on “Christmas Cakes of Yesteryear

  1. What a great seasonal post! Now recovering from Christmas and New Year and as ever your writing sparked off all sorts of memories and associations. I have a great collection of handwritten recipes from family and friends who have passed away and it’s a very fond, happy way to remember them. My mum left me so many handwritten recipes and a few from my dad too. Despite his strong physique and massive hands my dad made the most delicate bread and pastry – his baps and cream horns are still recalled with awe. I remember as a child in the 1950s watching the dough rise under a tea towel by the fire. I suppose it was unusual for a man to bake but I never thought about that. He loved science and explained to me what was happening with stretching pastry etc. My mum gave me my dad’s secret recipe for his incredible bread baps. He was not well pleased! Happy to pass on to any bread makers. I make several Christmas cakes from different recipes, feed well with brandy and sometimes if I can afford it the West Indian Black Hat cake. Twelfth Night festivities were banished as too riotous in mid nineteenth century and have died away. But occasionally I make a Twelfth Night cake complete with gold crown and coin.

    I also treasure family recipe books with their associations – and my favourite is my mum’s “Olio Cookery-Book, 15th edition from the 1930s I think. Cover and spine are missing – it’s been so well used. Some recipes like Imitation Grouse are very intriguing and really it is a book for lower middle class/working class readers, realistic cooks rather than the aspiring middle classes Mrs Beeton aimed at. There’s a poem to introduce it, and the whole approach is how to win and keep your man through good cooking and household management. Here’s a couple of verses:

    And thus the cook, who day by day
    A proper menu writes,
    Does fortify us for our play,
    And for our daily fights.

    We’ve meat and fish and soup and jam,
    And cure for tender feet ;
    We’ve polishes, and roasted ham,
    And how to clean your teeth

    Ever practical my mother added her own pencil comments or ticks of approval to some of the hints. She noted an alternative for the hot onion treatment for chilblains, “Tincture of Arnica, if unbroken”.

    The real delight for me is the motto on the bottom of each page. Most encourage self-help, kindness, thrift, thoughtful speech but there are also household hints and puzzling declarations. I can hear my mother’s voice quoting some of these – she was especially fond of the moderation in all things line. I shall leave three to ponder on for the New Year (and all good wishes for 2019):

    “Let the Ticking Clock Guide the Boiling Crock”
    “Feasting is the Physician’s Harvest”
    “What Lancashire thinks today, England thinks to-morrow” (True – but I’m from Manchester so might be biased)


  2. Thank you, Lucy, for your wonderful comments. I had to go away and look up West Indian Black Hat cake and Twelfth Night cake. I’d not heard of either of these before – they both sound delicious! And your father’s baps and cream horns are making my mouth water, too.
    Happy Twelfth Night to you, and all good wishes for 2019. Tessa


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