A Stirring Tradition

Every year my family gathers to make the annual Christmas cakes. This past weekend we all took part yet again. It involves not only baking, but wishing! Below are some of my photographs taken at this family tradition three years ago along with a description of the history of these traditional English cakes and the customary wishful stir that is involved while making them. I've also included the recipe. Hopefully I didn't miss a step in transcribing it! Enjoy!

For over 80 years, the descendants of the McLaren clan (my mother's side of the family) have been making wishes over bowls of raisins, cherries and nuts. If it sounds a little fruity, you're right. "We did it when I was a girl," says Valerie McLaren, an 85 year-old war bride from England, who also happens to be my grandmother. (She will henceforth be referred to as Nana.)

She, along with her sister, Eileen Hornsby, made traditional Christmas cakes with her family in Bedford, England, in the 1920s and '30s. Today, a variation on that same recipe and the tradition of the wishful stir are still enjoyed in the home of her daughter, Gail Ritchie, who also happens to be my mom.

"We'd take turns stirring the ingredients and making wishes as we stirred. It's an old English tradition," says Nana.

After adding several spoonfuls of mixed fruit and dry ingredients at a time, participants take turns stirring the glutinous mass while making a secret Christmas wish. For the last nine years, this tradition has been enjoyed by four generations in our family - the most inclusive it's ever been - with the participation of my nephew Jacob and his dad (my brother) Adam.

From left to right: My mother Gail, my grandmother Valerie (85) and my brother Adam look on as my nephew Jacob makes his holiday wish.

My mom makes her annual wish with a good stir of the ingredients. It's important to keep the wish a secret!
The scene is my parents' kitchen in Osgoode, just south of Ottawa, where three lined and buttered cake tins await the gigantic batch of batter, nuts, raisins and candied fruit, which is all mixed and wished over in a huge roasting pan for convenience.

It should be noted for the sake of pride and prejudice that this recipe is NOT a fruitcake – neither literally, nor figuratively - even if some of its makers are. It mostly consists of mixed fruits and nuts with a hint of batter to hold it all together, giving it an extremely dark, dense and robust look when cooked and an almost intoxicating flavour when served: deeply rich, not at all like those white, unpopular fruitcakes with the sporadic bits of dried fruit.

Lots of raisins - three varieties - keep the cakes moist and dense.

The three sizes of cake tins are shown with the unbaked batter. The tins are prepared by lining them with greased parchment paper on the bottom and along the sides. This ensures they do not stick to the pans and helps to easily remove them.

Many fruitcake snobs lower their defenses when presented with a moist slice of this decadent dessert, which is best enjoyed on its own, either cool or slightly warm. Nana permits serving it with tea or coffee, but please no eggnog: your arteries wouldn't survive.

The recipe below makes enough for three cakes in three sizes: a 5 and a half inch pan, a 6 and a half inch pan and a 9 inch pan. The smallest cake size is ideal to give as a gift to any dessert-lover on your list. Two 9 inch pans would work to make two large cakes instead. These cakes are ideally made a few weeks before Christmas to allow the flavours to develop. Once cooled, the cakes should be tightly wrapped in foil and kept in tins in a cool, dark place until they’re ready to serve.
I took a photograph of the original recipe that my grandmother wrote out for my mom in 1973, the year she was married. As you can see, it's been well used since then: torn, burned and pieced together with tape.



1 lb currants
1 lb dark, seeded raisins
1 lb light, seeded raisins
1 lb golden, seeded raisins
half cup water
half lb candied fruit
half lb mixed peel
quarter lb chopped walnuts
quarter lb chopped blanched almonds
quarter lb glacé cherries
1 cup crushed pineapple
1 cup pineapple juice
half lb butter
1 + half cups brown sugar
6 eggs
3 cups flour
1 + half teaspoons cinnamon
half teaspoon each: nutmeg, ginger, Allspice
1 teaspoon of salt
1 + half teaspoons baking powder


Day Before: prepare fruit Combine raisins and currants in a saucepan
Add water and simmer on high heat for five minutes
Add mixed peelCover and let stand overnight.
In a separate dish, combine cherries, candied fruit, walnuts, almonds, pineapple and pineapple juice. Cover and let stand overnight.

Next day: Prepare three round cake tins of varying sizes (9 inches, 6 + half inches, 5 + half inches) or two large tins (9 to 10 inches) that are at least four inches deep by lining them with three layers of parchment, greasing the layer that will touch the cake mix

Preheat the oven to 275
Measure flour, spices, baking powder and salt into a bowl
Whisk to combine
Cream butter, sugar and eggs into a large mixing bowl (a deep roasting pan works well for a recipe this size)
Sift part of dry mixture into butter mixture
Combine well

Add part of prepared fruit, alternating with dry mixture between stirs
Turn mixture into prepared tins

Bake at 275
4 hours for the large cake(s)
3 hours for the medium cake
2 hours and 45 minutes for the small cake

COOKING TIPS -Place a shallow pan of water at the bottom of the oven before baking to ensure the cakes retain their moistness. -When cooling the cakes, place clean, damp dish towels over them to keep the moisture in.
The finished cake is a dark, rich treat that looks festive when decorated with glazed pecans, dried figs, almonds and other glazed, dried fruits.


Kenn said...

What a wonderful tradition. Thank you for sharing it with us, Andrew! I've copied the recipe!

Joseph Patz said...

What a wonderful tradition.I love English traditions.Is your family putting the traditional items in it as well?Like a sixpence, a thimble and a toy pig.I love the Agatha Christie novel theft of the royal ruby.In which Hercule Poirot helps stir the pudding with the family he is spending Christmas with.And later finds the stolen ruby in it.Oh The charm of English tradition...


Kenn, I hope you try the recipe sometime! Be warned that not everyone likes it. If you love fruits and nuts, you'll love this cake. And I know with your skill you'll know exactly how to make it exquisite!

Joseph, My great grandmother used to put the sixpence in the cake! How did you know about that!? We also always have the traditional "Christmas crackers" after dinner - those little gift packets that "crackle" when you open them and reveal little gifts, a corny joke and a paper crown.

Thank you both for writing!

Diane said...

Thank you for sharing this xmas tradition,it look delicious, I have printed a copy for my christmas file, and plan to make it next year, as my christmas baking for this year is finished, we to had alot of english traditions, as my Mum was also a war bride.have a very happy christmas...Diane.


Thanks, Diane! I'm glad to hear you're inspired enough to try it next year. They really are delicious cakes. Thanks for the kind comment.