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Origins of the Christmas cake
Thinking about Christmas? Before you start counting shopping days, remember your Christmas cake –
the earlier it is made, the better it will be.
This timely advice appeared in the November pages of the first volume of Alison Holst's Kitchen Diary, published in 1978. Her audience of home cooks expected to make a Christmas cake every year, as did their mothers and grandmothers. We like to imagine that our more distant ancestors also baked Christmas cakes – in short, that this is one of the most conservative items in our culinary tradition. But when we went in search of a recipe entitled 'Christmas Cake' that our great-great grandmother might have made before she emigrated to New Zealand in 1850, we could not find one, at least not under that name.
The earliest British fruit-cake recipe we have found with the name 'Christmas Cake' was Mrs Beeton's of 1861. But this does not mean that Christmas cakes were 'invented' in the 1850s–1860s. Like the pavlova cake, a re-named meringue cake of the late 1920s, Christmas cakes were known by other names before 1861. Some early names were specific, like 'Twelfth Cake', and others more generic, like the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century recipes entitled 'A Rich Cake' or 'An Excellent Cake'.
In order to study the evolution of the New Zealand Christmas cake in all the forms in which it now exists, we cannot rely solely on the name of the recipe. So how can we separate out the cake recipes that led to our modern Christmas cakes? For a start we should look for key characteristics that distinguish modern Christmas cakes from everyday fruit cakes, for example more fruit and nuts, more spices, and the addition of spirits. But wedding and christening cakes include many of those expensive ingredients, and we know from some recipe books that the same recipe could serve for all three. What defines a rich fruit cake as a Christmas cake is its attachment to a festive season as indicated in its name, or by the section of cookbook in which its recipe appears, or by the commentary that accompanies it. To qualify as a possible ancestral Christmas cake, a fruit cake recipe must not only contain expensive ingredients, but show evidence of an association with the Christmas season. Such evidence can be found back to the seventeenth century.
Our study began with data entry in a spreadsheet, recording the source, date, name, ingredients and method of mixing of historical recipes for rich cakes. We began with published recipes that date to the seventeenth century, concentrating on those considered likely to be associated with the celebrations of the twelve-day-long Christmas season, especially those marking its end on Twelfth Night (5–6 January). Except during Cromwell's regime, Christmas Day in the seventeenth century might be marked by a special dinner as well as church services. Christmas puddings were served at these dinners, as they had been for several centuries before, but not cakes. In contrast, Twelfth Night marked a return to secular life, free of religious restrictions. It was on this night that the dividing of the twelfth cake initiated parties, enlivened by role-playing and drinking. The twelfth cake was the only cake closely associated with Christmas over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Twelfth Night ceremonies continued into the early decades of the nineteenth century when Christmas Day began to acquire its present customs. As the twelfth cake lost its significance under that name, the Christmas cake hesitantly emerged, eventually consolidating in a form that was closer to the recipes for plum cakes and wedding cakes than for the twelfth cake. Our spreadsheets documented this transition in Britain, and the subsequent proliferation of Christmas cakes in New Zealand in the twentieth century. We used the same selection criteria for each century, and this allowed us to trace lineages of recipes.
The notion of a recipe lineage may seem strange but the study of the pavlova cake demonstrated that recipes are handed down from one generation to the next, as well as shared within generations. Many forms of transmission operate, from grandmothers to grandchildren in home kitchens, from teachers to pupils, from cooking demonstrators and television personalities to their often-vast audiences, and from newspapers, magazines and printed cookbooks to their readers who may be local or international. We shouldn't forget the recipes that pass between friends over a cup of tea, or those that are printed on the outside of a can or packet. Home cooks feel no constraint to reproduce any of these recipes exactly. From the first time they make the newly acquired recipe, they are likely to introduce some changes to accommodate personal or household tastes, the equipment available in their kitchen, or their food budget. If they pass their version on, more changes can be expected. Spreadsheet programs that offer filtering and sorting tools are very good at isolating these lineages of related recipes, and allowing us to track the changes.
One of the outcomes of spreadsheet analysis of Christmas cake recipes was that we were able to identify major types and the variants of those types, as well as document how long they were in circulation, and when new ones first appeared. Some innovative cake types became briefly fashionable, while other types represent classic forms made for more than two centuries. We have selected twelve cake recipes to represent the key types and some of the most distinctive variants, and adapted these for making in a twenty-first century kitchen. Our aim was to achieve a version that reproduces as accurately as possible the taste and texture of these historical cakes. You will not need a seventeenth-century bread oven, nor a kitchen maid with the arm strength of a shot-put champion, sufficient to beat an eighteenth-century cake mixture for the requisite hour. We have reduced nineteenth-century recipe sizes to suit contemporary households rather than prolific Victorian families. Cooking instructions of the early twentieth century involving multiple layers of paper both inside and outside the cake tins have been modified to suit our thermostatically-controlled ovens and new types of bakeware.
Many people with an interest in food history are content to browse old recipes and read modern commentaries about their significance. We like to go further than this, and believe that recipes are actually invitations to cook. A recipe encodes the flavour and texture of a dish-in-waiting. Unlike most forms of historical evidence relating to the family or household, such as letters, diaries, wills, newspapers and photographs, the contents of recipe books offer a unique opportunity to taste history. We should warn you that the older the recipe, the harder it is to replicate the dish in a modern kitchen with today's ingredients. But increasingly, food historians are working out the modern equivalents of old measurements and technical terms, as well as differences in the composition of important constituents like flour.
The twelve cakes we have selected for adaptation to twenty-first-century kitchens start with an example from the seventeenth century and finish with a new cake from 2002, a taste of the future. They are not necessarily the best of their type, either as recipes or the cakes made from them, but are faithful interpretations of historically important forms. They provide edible accompaniments to our story of a festive cake and its evolution.
The evolution of fruit cakes in prehistory
The evolution of life starts not with cakes but soup – a primordial soup of single-cell prokaryotes – about 3500 billion years ago. Just as evolutionary biologists study the preconditions for life, we should ask when conditions were right for a fruit cake like our Christmas cake to emerge.
Obviously the foundation of such a cake is flour extracted from certain species of plants that store energy in the form of starch. However, not all plants are suitable. Although it would be possible to make a Christmas cake using potato flour, it would be exceedingly dense and crumbly. In our culinary tradition and those of Europe and western Asia, cakes and leavened breads exist because of the special characteristics of wheat flour. The proteins (gliadin and glutenin) in the starchy endosperm of the wheat seed respond in a unique way to beating or kneading – they develop the ability to trap air from beating, or gas produced by multiplying yeast fungi. Rye and barley have the same proteins but in much lower quantities.
Wheat (Triticum spp.) and barley (Hordeum spp.) were possibly the earliest cereals to be harvested in the Middle East. Eaten raw, they are much less nutritious than if they are ground into fine particles and then subjected to heat to rupture the starch cells. By 20,000 years ago, at the Ohalo II site on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a group of hunter-gatherers were crushing wild cereal seeds on flat basalt stones – starch grains from barley and possibly emmer wheat have been identified on their grindstones. Arrangements of stones showing signs of burning have been found near the huts at this site, and researchers believe that the products of grinding were cooked on top of hot stones. Before humans had heat-proof vessels in which porridges or gruels could be cooked, we must assume that they mixed the wild cereal flour with water, and formed flat cakes or breads. These could be baked on pre-heated stones in a cooking hearth. Why do we assume these breads were flat? This is the best shape when there is a single source of heat such as a bake-stone. The heat penetrates the centre of the dough quickly and evenly, especially if the flatbread is turned. It is also the most likely shape for dough that has not been leavened (e.g. by yeast) and cannot rise. So the first prerequisites for a primitive bread or cake – cereal flour and suitable cooking equipment – were met by 20,000 years ago, some 10,000 years before cultivation of cereals got underway.
Technology for handling cereals continued to improve over the intervening period. Around 9000 BC, a small rectangular room in one of the sixty buildings in the prehistoric settlement of Jerf el Ahmar in Syria caught fire and the pisé roof structure collapsed on to the floor. The debris buried and preserved three saddle querns (grindstones shaped like saddles), two flat polished stone plates each 60 cm in diameter, three limestone basins, a small limestone bowl, several stone pounders and a hearth. Not only is this the earliest 'kitchen' yet found with its equipment in situ, but on one of the querns were two cakes made of finely ground seeds of a type of wild mustard (a Brassica or Sinapis species). Such seeds are rich in oil, as well as having a spicy flavour. We don't know whether these cakes were the residue from pressing out the oil, or whether they were made for consumption. The longer one was 8.5 x 3 x 3 cm, and the shorter 7 x 3 x 2.5 cm. In another part of the kitchen, the remains of coarsely milled wild barley seeds were found close to the limestone basins, in which they might have been soaked. Despite our uncertainty about the dishes made from these plants, we can say that the cooks at this early village produced oil-seed cakes in their kitchens and had stone bowls in which to soak and mix foodstuffs, well before the first appearance of pottery.
Butter is another ingredient that we regard as essential to a good fruit cake because it contributes to the 'mouth-feel' and keeping qualities. Evidence for the milking of cows, in the form of fatty residues with a distinctive carbon isotope signature, has been found in more than a hundred pieces of broken pots from northwestern Anatolia (Turkey) from sites dated to 6500–5000 BC in the early Neolithic period. Cattle bones found in these ancient villages confirm their dependence on herding. Similar residues have been identified in pots from Southeast Europe and as far west as Britain by 4500 BC. In fact, dairying reached Britain with the very first farmers. It seems that British farmers kept their butter fat in small pots. Throughout the cooler parts of Europe, butter became a significant source of storable fat for communities living in regions where traditional oil-producing plants such as olives could not be grown.
Although butter was a product of temperate regions, we should not forget that the fruits and nuts in our fruit cakes came chiefly from the warmer zones of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. They include what we call raisins and currants (both of which are types of dried grape), and nuts, especially the almond. Nor should we ignore the wines added to early fruit cakes. Where were grapes first harvested, and where and when were they domesticated?
The distribution of the wild grapevine (Vitis vinifera subsp. sylvestris) stretched from Spain to Iran and as far north as the Caucasus. It prefers well-watered regions with warm summers and cool winters, growing along river valleys in close association with deciduous or semi-deciduous forest. Whether wild or domesticated, the grapevine is a climber, using trees as a framework from which to seek the sun. Humans had probably eaten grapes long before cultivation began around 4500 BC, even though the wild fruits are small and acidic. Because unpicked grape clusters sometimes dry on the vine in hot summers, gatherers would have been familiar with the keeping qualities of the shrivelled grapes we call raisins or currants. Recent chemical analyses of the residues in a pot recovered from Hajji Firuz, an early farming village in Iran's northern Zagros mountains, identified a calcium salt of tartaric acid, a component of grapes. A tree resin was also present, indicating that the practice of making resinated wine (to prevent it from turning into vinegar) was already underway by 5000 BC. Since wine and/or spirits are commonly added to fruit cakes, we can tick off another precondition, the availability of fermented wines.
The grapes used to make the wine in Hajji Firuz were probably still morphologically wild and the site lay within the natural range of the wild grapevine. However, archaeologists have recovered pips and grape residues from later sites around 3500 BC that lie well beyond the range of the wild grapevine. This indicates that cultivation and transport of seeds were underway, processes that would change the shape of grape pips and eventually the plant's mode of reproduction, to the point where domesticated varieties became dominant.
We now know that wine was made much earlier than previously thought, but what about raisins? Distinguishing the remains of raisins from the residues of grape-pressing is by no means straightforward, but the absence of artefacts essential to wine-making on an archaeological site strengthens any argument for raisin production. In the period known as the Early Bronze Age in the Middle East (starting around 3300 BC) there is good evidence for the production of raisins from the domesticated grape (Vitis vinifera subsp. vinifera). The site of Tell es-Sa'idiyeh in the Jordan valley revealed a small storeroom containing numerous artefacts such as ceramic jars, platters, bowls and jugs. Fire had destroyed the structure, leaving behind not just these artefacts but also the remains of charred cereals (wheat and barley), legumes (lentils, chickpeas and fava beans) and fruits (grapes, figs, a pomegranate and some olives). Whole grapes were identified, as well as pips. The archaeobotanists working on the assemblage wanted to know whether the grapes had been fresh or pre-dried at the time of the fire. They heated some fresh modern grapes in a kiln but these disintegrated into pulp. Only charred modern raisins replicated the appearance of the ancient fruit. Under the scanning electron microscope they could see crystalline features on the ancient specimens, that may have formed as sugars deposited on the skins during the drying. It is very likely that the burnt storeroom included a quantity of raisins, appreciated for their sweetness in an era when only honey offered this quality in concentrated form. Archaeologist Naomi Miller has recently argued that the driving force behind the domestication of the grapevine was not the desire for wine (which could be made from wild grapes) but for sweeter fruit, including raisins.
Nuts have been included in our rich fruit cakes for as long as we have had printed recipes. Although walnuts and hazelnuts are widely distributed in Europe, the almond (Amygdalus communis) has been the more common ingredient in rich cakes. It is not native to Europe, and is not easy to grow in northern regions like Britain. Perhaps that is the reason for its popularity in festive cakes – it is included because it is an expensive, imported luxury. What is known of the almond's origins? Unlike the grape, the wild almond kernel is not just bitter but very toxic if more than a few are consumed at once. Two nut-shell fragments were found at the Ohalo II site, 19,000 years ago, but the almond's role at that time is unclear. A single dominant gene controls sweetness in almonds, so we must presume that at some point in prehistory a mutation occurred and humans discovered that the resulting almond tree had sweet kernels. It could not be propagated by cuttings, but only by seed. Given that the mutant sweet almond had to be pollinated by a bitter almond tree, since almonds are not commonly self-fertile, there was a 50:50 chance that a resulting seedling would be bitter. Where did this remarkable discovery occur? Answering this question has been complicated by the need to distinguish truly wild species from feral almond trees that are common between the Mediterranean and Central Asia. One view is that the bitter almond ancestor grew wild in the Levant countries (between Turkey and Jordan), while another places it between the Black Sea and the Caspian. In either case, it would have overlapped with the wild grapevine. Archaeological finds of what appear to be domesticated almonds become common in the Levant in sites from the Bronze Age (3300–1200 BC). By that time, orchardists were not only selecting for sweetness and larger size in almonds, but also for thinner and softer shells. Large domesticated almonds were included among the foodstuffs in Tutankhamun's tomb, dated to 1325 BC.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Twelve Cakes of Christmas"
Copyright © 2011 Helen Leach, Mary Browne, Raelene Inglis.
Excerpted by permission of Otago University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Origins of the Christmas cake,
2 In search of the seventeenth-century twelfth cake,
3 Eighteenth-century twelfth cakes and the baking revolution,
4 From twelfth cake to Christmas cake,
5 Christmas cakes in twentieth-century New Zealand,
6 Christmas cakes from the last hundred years,
7 So what Christmas cake will we make this year?,