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’.

Links and sources