Most families have special food traditions for their December holidays. Is there a recipe that you cook at your house only at this time of year? Do you have a favorite food to eat during holiday times? Today, we think of candy canes, or egg nog, or sugar cookies and gingerbread as some of the foods enjoyed during the Christmas season. One favorite holiday recipe for Iowans in 1875 was a special Christmas cake.
Today we like our birthday cakes and wedding cakes to be light and fluffy. Most of us like lots of frosting on our cake and a lot of people love chocolate cake the best. What is your favorite kind of cake? Do you put frosting on it? How about sprinkles?
Christmas cake in 1875 was a bit different. Instead of light and fluffy, Christmas cake was heavy, spongy and thick. Inside the cake, there were dried pieces of fruit or candied fruit peel for extra flavor. Can you think of a dried fruit that you enjoy today? If you guessed raisins, you are right! Raisins, which are dried grapes, were also very popular in the Victorian era because they were a fruit that could last a long time.
Some raisins had fancy names like sultanas–golden raisins or currants–a tiny, dried variety of grape called the Black Corinth.
Christmas cakes were a type of fruitcake. Dark fruitcakes were made with brown sugar, molasses, and spices like cinnamon, clove and allspice. These are some of the same spices we put in gingerbread cookies. There were also light fruitcakes flavored with vanilla. They both would include nuts, like walnuts or almonds, and lots of dried fruits like raisins. Some recipes call for the peels of lemons or oranges. The peels were boiled in sugar syrup to make them sweeter. This was an extra special ingredient because lemons and oranges were expensive in 1875. Christmas fruit cake was special because it used these fancy ingredients that parents might only buy as a treat at Christmas time.
Here is a recipe for a Christmas cake from a cookbook called Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was written over 150 years ago!
Some things about the recipe are different from what you might read today. Instead of using cups and teaspoons, cooks measured things by weighing them out on a scale. (For example, half a pound of butter is one cup or two sticks.) You can still make this recipe at home though! If you don’t have a kitchen scale, you can find lists of how much flour and sugar weigh in cookbooks or on the Internet –here or here.
Mrs. Beeton’s Christmas Cake
½ lb. of butter, softened
½ lb. of castor sugar (powdered sugar)
½ lb. of sultanas (golden raisins)
½ lb. of dried currants
6 oz. mixed candied lemon or orange peel
1 lb. of flour
¼ oz. baking powder
Sift together the flour and baking powder then add the dried fruit and candied peel. In a separate bowl, cream butter and sugar, and add eggs one at a time, beating well after the addition of each egg. Add flour and fruit mixture, then enough milk to make the consistency of a batter. Bake in greased round pans or loaf pans in a 350 degree oven for 3-4 hours or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. May be frosted or decorated once it has been cooled.
Today, we sometimes make fun of fruitcakes. People don’t make them at home very often and sometimes the store-bought cakes are too sweet or sticky. The Christmas Cake was such a tradition in the 1880s that people made fun of them then too! In the 1880s, music was published in several places for a tune making fun of an Irish young lady’s Christmas Cake.
Sometimes the song is called Miss Hoolihan’s Christmas Cake and sometimes Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake. You can hear a famous Irish band called The Irish Rover’s sing this song here. You can also see the words and music here at the Library of Congress website. The words to the song go like this:
Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake by C. Frank Horn and William Shaw, 1883.
Verse: As I sat in my window last evening, The letterman brought it to me A little gilt-edged invitation sayin’ “Gilhooley come over to tea” I knew that the Fogarties sent it. So I went just for old friendships sake. The first thing they gave me to tackle Was a slice of Miss Fogarty’s cake.
Chorus: There were plums and prunes and cherries, There were citrons and raisins and cinnamon, too There was nutmeg, cloves and berries And a crust that was nailed on with glue There were caraway seeds in abundance Such that work up a fine stomach ache That could kill a man twice after eating a slice Of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake.
Verse: Miss Mulligan wanted to try it, But really it wasn’t no use For we worked in it over an hour And we couldn’t get none of it loose Till Murphy came in with a hatchet And Kelly came in with a saw That cake was enough by the powers above For to paralyze any man’s jaws
Verse: Miss Fogarty proud as a peacock, Kept smiling and blinking away Till she tripped over Flanagans brogans And she spilt the whole brewing of tea “Aye Gilhooley,” she says, “you’re not eatin, Try a little bit more for me sake.” “And no Miss Fogarty,” says I, “For I’ve had quite enough of your cake.”
Verse: Maloney was took with the colic, O’Donald’s a pain in his head Mc’Naughton lay down on the sofa, And he swore that he wished he was dead Miss Bailey went into hysterics And there she did wriggle and shake And everyone swore they were poisoned Just from eating Miss Fogarty’s cake.