Laura goes back in time and test drives 5 festive cakes from Christmases past.
Anyway you slice it the holidays are about food. And no food is more festive than cake!
I love baking and I’m pretty good at baking something that tastes good. I’m not very good at making it look beautiful. But holidays, and Christmas in particular, is about stretching ourselves beyond our natural limits and attempting the ridiculous in hopes of the sublime.
With that in mind, and because I also love looking stuff up, I’ve gone back into the test kitchen to trial aspirational recipes from the last century. Take my floury hand and join me in another culinary time warp!
Cake Under Fire
During the Second World War food (especially in Britain) was a matter of national security, and rationing saw many traditional baking ingredients scarce. Added to this many were uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating in full force while others were away fighting. The result was some rather subdued Christmases.
The Ministry of Food in Britain came out with many recipes designed to help women feed their families with the limited resources available and to promote the frugal attitude that was considered a vital part of the war effort.
Below is the state sanctioned Christmas cake designed to deliver “traditional christmassy flavour” without a lot of ingredients.
I have baked many cakes with these ingredients before- in fact it is a very common kind of thrifty fruitcake. The inclusion of tea adds a depth of flavour as well as moisture without using milk. Usually though, you would soak the dried fruit in the tea before adding to the rest of the ingredients, so that it has a chance to ‘plump up’, so I was bit put out to see it bunged in at the end.
I prepared it as it was written though and it was fine . I also used the icing recipe given and attempted a glace cherry decoration on top. As usual my presentation may have let me down a little here.
Dulcie the Christmas Angel admires my make do and mend attitude but wishes I hadn’t tried to transfer the iced cake on to a plate with a fish slice.
Testers agree taste was not affected by being so poorly decorated. Probably nicer without the icing and spread like a loaf with a bit of butter. Pairs well with sirens, absent fathers and a growing disillusionment with the notion of empire.
Nature’s Most Refreshing Flavour!
If old women’s magazines have taught me anything it is that the 1950s were all about kitchen appliances and pineapple!
And one of the favourite recipes of the mid-twentieth century was Pineapple Upside-Down Cake!
In her excellent book American Cake cake historian Anne Byrn describes a Dole Pineapple sponsored baking contest in 1925 where no fewer than 2,500 of the 60,000 entries were for Upside-Down Cake; mostly variations on earlier skillet cakes. They obviously have a long pedigree and remain popular today!
I adapted the recipe from my handy-dandy 200 Classic Cakes book, turning them into individual cakes because you want to be a bit extra at Christmas. They turned out looking a bit like xmas boobies but they were pretty yum with custard!
Festive Pineapple Upside-Down Cakes
6 pineapple rings
6 glace cherries
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup of milk
1tsp rum essence
Grease a large muffin tray and arrange the pineapple rings and cherries in the bottom of the cups. Mix the dry ingredients and then add the beaten eggs , milk and rum essence. When smooth divide between the cups and bake in a moderate oven for thirty minutes.
Loosen with a knife and place on a serving dish. You could flambe these suckers for extra drama!
Pairs well with rum drinks, suburban sprawl and heavily policed gender roles.
Twist and Shout!
The sixties were all about experimentation so why not wow your family with cake that riffs on the peppermint twist dance craze!
The chocolate-mint combo is not that out there really a Christmas dish– after all candy canes and chocolate have long links to the festive season!
For my cake I used the filling recipe from the ad above with the Easy Chocolate Cake recipe on the Chelsea sugar site (as a side note– this recipe just the same as one we had written in a family notebook as ‘Cathryn Cooper’s Chocolate Cake’ that I think was originally from the Listener. I have not been able to track down the original Cathryn Cooper recipe but if anyone knows who she was I’d love to know– I’ve made her cake hundreds of times!).
To assemble I sandwiched two chocolate cake layers with 2/3 of the following filling
2 cups cream
1 tblsp sugar
3 tsp peppermint extract
green colouring to suit
Whip until thick!
Cover the top of the cake with the rest of the whipped cream and sprinkle with crushed candy canes. An extra layer on this cake would make it much more impressive, although official testers proclaimed it to “actually really nice!”
It doesn’t really matter what a winning combo this is though (and I think all choc-mint combos are great) I imagine the 60s homemaker probably would only make this once for Christmas as the in-laws would consider it ‘not really christmassy’ and the kids would think it hilarious that she knew who Chubby Checker was.
Pairs well with sherry, wearing a girdle and crying in the garage.
A Very Delia Christmas
From my infallible memory I can tell you the 1970s were spent mainly indoors watching weird kids programmes on television. There was a lot of Victoriana and all the spookiness that went with it. This Classic Christmas Fruitcake was first published in 1970, in Delia Smith’s first cookbook. It has many ardent supporters, mainly because if you are a fruitcake fan it is the pinnacle of fruitcake-iness– which is good because like all good fruitcake it takes ages!
And my glorious creation! No I didn’t do the almond thing on top because I didn’t have any. Despite appearances to the contrary the fruit was evenly spread throughout. I feed it a leetle bit more brandy when it came out of the oven and it loved me for it. Pairs well with Jon Pertwee, dark wood panelling and Victorian styled nightdresses.
Things seemed to get a bit flasher in the eighties. From ads and magazines it seemed like people were trying a bit harder. I didn’t really come from a yuppie milieu but I noticed its influence in a peripheral way. One of the fanciest and also kitschiest Christmas traditions I can think of is the chocolate yule log, or Bûche de Noël. The aspirational homemaker in the eighties would have no doubt made this from scratch from a convoluted Cuisine magazine recipe. This dessert lends itself so well to a cheats version though that it seems almost criminal not to go that path. In case you don’t know a Bûche de Noël is a thin chocolate sponge spread with a cream filling and rolled up a decorated to look like a log. How charming! Here is one from Cadbury
And here is the one I prepared!
I used an unfilled chocolate roll from the supermarket and I filled it with the super quick and super yum filling that features instant pudding mix as the secret ingredient.
To make the filling–
Whip 2 cups cream until peaks just starting to form, then add one box instant pudding powder (I used chocolate, obvs) and 1/3 cup icing sugar alternately until it is thick and well blended (you might not need all the icing sugar). This sets up firmer than whipped cream and makes a nice topping for cupcakes as well (you can even pipe it if unlike me you are handy with a nozzle).
Almost the whole of this was consumed by my teenager in under four days so it was definitely a win. Pairs well with smoked glass table tops, hairspray and James Spader’s creepy eyes.
Well there you go! I was going to do a nineties cake as well but I don’t have a microwave and I try not to smoke cigarettes any more. What are your favourite festive cakes? What will you be making for your Christmas treats? Whatever you eat I hope you get a holiday and that it is a happy one!