Christmas fruit cake is a tradition in many parts of the world. Usually it is a spiced cake filled with dried fruits and nuts. This version from Kerala has all the rich flavors and the mouthwatering taste.
Fruit filled spiced cakes are a tradition in many parts of the world around Christmas time. This version from the South Indian state of Kerala is loaded with dried fruits, nuts, warm spices and kicked up with a dash of rum. Indeed, it takes a bit more effort compared to making a cake from the box, but well worth the effort.
Christianity in India
Christians in India are only about 2 to 3 % of the total population. Christianity in Kerala dates back to the 1st century AD. They say it started with the visit of St. Thomas. There is a sizeable Christian population with longstanding traditions.
Christmas Cakes and stars on the front porch are a major part of my memories of X’mas in Kerala. Everyone loved stars, grape wine, and fruit cakes, regardless of the religious affiliation.
Christmas Fruit Cake
The first fruit cake might have made its appearance with the European merchants. The locals embraced this recipe and put their own spin on it. A pared down version of this recipe locally known as Plum Cake (No plums were ever harmed to make it though) that is made year-round.
The Fruit Cakes made during Christmas time are
- filled with dry fruits and nuts
- generously spiced
- enriched with butter and eggs
- often spiked with rum/brandy
These labor intensive cakes used to be only made during Christmas. So bakers often liberally soaked in alcohol to make retain its freshness longer. Bakeries used to place a thick layer of fondant on the cakes as well.
The Essential Ingredients To Make Christmas Fruit Cake
When I first started baking fruit cakes, my go-to recipe was that of Mrs. K.M Mathews. She was among the first to catalog many of the traditional recipes of south India.
This cake is a treat. There are many nutritious elements here, but this is not the place to do calorie-cutting or other substitutions.
Maida or all-purpose flour is used to make this cake. You can use cake flour if you have, or even fine ground whole wheat flour. That said the recommendation is for all purpose flour, preferably the unbleached variety.
Fruits and nuts
There is a good amount of fruits and nuts in this recipe. You can find more information about soaking the fruits in the prep1 section below. The types of dried fruit chosen can affect the overall color and flavor of the cake. Traditionally the fruits of choice are black and some golden raisins and dates. This combination will create a darker more mature looking cake.
To get a paler, more tangy version substitute with apricots and golden raisins, and other lighter colored fruit.
Cashew nuts were the only nuts commonly used, but almonds, walnuts, etc can be added as well. Chop the nuts so they don’t all end up at the bottom of the cake. You could also leave a few whole and place on top the batter just before baking.
Candied Orange Peel
Another dried component in the recipes was the candied orange peel. Oranges were not an indigenous crop of South India. The candied citrus peel would have been a way to incorporate the citrus that was only available seasonally. I am not a fan of all that synthetic coloring that goes into commercially available candied citrus or (tutti frutti). One can make the candied citrus peel at home, but with fresh oranges being available pretty much year round I prefer to add the zest.
If using candied orange peel, just rinse and dry it. This will remove some of the extra sweeteners and preservatives.
The spices used in the recipe are – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. That said cardamom, ginger, or mace can be used to flavor it as well.
Making the Fruit Cake
The traditional recipes were written for the ingredients available in the market at that time. Over the years the market conditions have changed and my recipe has evolved into the one I am sharing today.
The process is broken down into the following steps
- Prep – 1
- Prep – 2
- Make the batter
Prep 1 – Prep (way) Ahead by Getting the Fruits Tipsy
The recipe calls for some prep work ahead of time. The very first step is to chop the dry fruits and soak them in rum /brandy. I know many who start soaking fruits weeks if not months in advance. There is even a tipsy fruit soak party tradition in some circles – which I highly encourage 😊
Usually, the fruits will be a combination of black and golden raisins and dates. These fruits were shipped from far as they were not native fruits of Kerala. In those days the lack of proper food storage and transportation facilities meant that these were dried until every last ounce of moisture was taken out. A touch of alcohol brought the fruits back to life without significantly raising the water content.
Most of the alcohol, if not all will be cooked away while baking. Nowadays it is easier to find dried fruit that is still soft, so this long soaking is not as important as it was. I would still recommend soaking for a few hours at least, giving the fruit container a few shakes in between to distribute the alcohol evenly.
Note: Rum soaked raisins are a treat and that is my first preference.
Prep2 – Prep on the Day
Before you start to mix the ingredients do these steps
- It is very important to start with room temperature ingredients. Take the butter, eggs, and milk out of the fridge and bring to room temperature.
- Prepare the caramelized sugar. Follow these steps for 1 serving of the below-mentioned recipe. Heat 4 tbsp sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan. Keep the heat at medium till the sugar melts, then reduce to low. Once the melted sugar turns golden brown (caramel color) add 1/2 cup of hot water to it. Be careful of the steam at this point. Increase heat to medium. Adding water will cause some sugar to solidify into lumps. Give it a good stir and let it come back to boil. Turn the heat off once the liquid starts to boil. Cool a bit add the milk to bring the total liquid volume to 1 C.
- Prepare the pans. I usually butter the pans and line them with parchment paper and give the sides a tall collar. The tall collar helps the cakes to rise evenly without forming a muffin top.
Prepare the batter
As I mentioned earlier this is an old-fashioned recipe. It relies on egg whites rather than leavening to make the cake soft. The process goes like this
Sift the dry ingredients together – the flour, baking powder, the powdered spices, and salt. Add caraway seeds, if using, and give the mix a good stir. I like to crush the caraway seeds lightly in a mortar and pestle before using them.
Cream the butter and sugar, reserving 2 tablespoons of sugar. Here I was using fine sugar, if you have large sugar granules give in a buzz in the food processor.
Separate the eggs into whites and yolks. If some white gets mixed in with the yolk there is nothing to worry about but there should be no yolk in the whites. Ensure that the bowl containing the yolks do not have any traces of fat/oil in it as well. Whip the egg whites into stiff peaks. Once the egg whites have lost the liquid form and aerated well add a little sugar and lemon juice (or a pinch of cream of tartar) and beat till stiff peaks form. The acid helps the egg foam to strengthen and retain the air.
It is time to add the yolks to the butter and sugar mixture. Add the yolks one by one and mix in well. You will notice the mix changing color. Add orange and lemon zest, as well as vanilla essence after the yolks are mixed in. Mix well.
Drain the dry fruits and discard any excess alcohol (if any!). Add 1 tablespoon of flour to the drained fruits and toss to coat. Take 1 tablespoon flour and toss with the chopped nuts as well.
Bring everything together
Add the flour and the liquid in parts to the fruit mix to form a thick batter. Start and end with flour. In other words, divide the liquid into 2 parts if you are adding flour in 3 parts. This is not an exact science. All you have to remember is to use the minimum amount of stirring. Mix in the floured nuts and fruits.
The batter at this stage is thick. Loosen the batter by stirring in 1/3 of the beaten egg whites. Use this 1/3 to thin the batter and make it easy to incorporate the remaining egg whites. So at this time don’t worry about losing the aerated structure.
Fold in the rest of the egg whites gently. Over beating at this stage will break the egg white structure letting the trapped air escape. So try to be as gentle as you can. At this point, the batter will be of scoop able consistency rather than pouring consistency.
Transfer to the prepared pans. Smooth the tops and place the pans in the preheated oven. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes depending on the size of the pans and the depth of the cakes. Insert a tester /toothpick in the middle and pull it out. When cooked the tester will come out clean.
The recipe is perfect for three 6 inch circular pans or one 8 or 9-inch circular pan. Many times these cakes are made very tall – 3 inches being quite common. For taller cakes use a collar and increase the baking time.
Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, before transferring to a rack to cool completely The flavors in this cake mature with time. If you plan to keep it for longer than a few days you can brush it with rum/brandy and store it in an airtight container at room temperature. The alcohol keeps the cake from drying out and going stale. Anotehr way to preserve longer is to refrigerate or freeze.
For these cakes, I typically preheat my oven to 400 °F (200 °C). Bring the temperature down to 350 °F (175 °C) after placing the cake in the oven. Reduce it further to 325 °F (160 °C), if baking for over 40 minutes.
Few tips to prevent or reduce doming
- Wrap a wet towel around the cake tin.
- Bake longer at a lower temperature.
- Use a water bath
- Create a slightly concave top on the batter
Have a slice, wash it down with some warm tea or sip of wine, take a break from everyday life!
Xmas Fruit Cake
- 2 C All Purpose Flour 250 g (See Notes)
- 3 C Chopped dry fruits (loosely packed) 500g
- 1/2 C Rum/brandy
- 3/4 C Chopped nuts 100g
- 1 C Butter 225g
- 1 1/4 C Sugar , Divided use 270g
- 4 Eggs , Large
- 1 Tsp Baking Powder
- 1/2 Tsp Salt
- 1 Tsp Cloves, Powdered
- 1 1/2 Tsp Cinnamon , Powdered
- 1/4 Tsp Nutmeg – 1/4 Tsp, Freshly grated
- 1 Tsp Caraway Seeds lightly crushed
- 1 Tsp Vanilla Essence –
- 1 Tbsp Orange Zest
- 1/2 C Milk
- 1/2 C Hot Water
- 1 Lemon
- Pour the brandy/rum over the chopped fruits, toss well, and set aside covered for several hours (or few days).
- Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature. Prepare the caramel by heating 4 Tbsp sugar over medium heat. Once the sugar turns brown add 1/2 C hot water, stir and bring to a vigorous boil till all the solids are dissolved. Set aside to cool.
- Preheat the oven to 400 °F (200 °C) (See notes ).
- Sift the dry ingredients – the flour, baking powder, salt, and the spice powders together and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar, reserving 2 tbsp sugar. Separate the egg whites and yolks. Add the yolks one by one to the butter mixture and mix well. Mix in the orange and lemon zest and vanilla essence. Toss the dry fruits in 1 tbsp flour add to the butter mix.
- Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks along with 2 tbsp sugar and 1 tsp lemon juice. Add the milk to cooled caramel to make 1 C liquid. Add 1 tbsp flour mix to the chopped nuts and toss to coat well.
- Add the remaining flour and caramel mixes in parts to the butter mixture to form a thick lump free batter. Fold in the nuts. Stir in part of the beaten egg whites to loosen the thick batter. Gently fold in the rest of the egg whites. Transfer to the prepared pans.
- Bake for 10 minutes, reduce the temperature to 350°F and bake for additional 30 to 50 minutes (refer to notes ) or until the tops are browned and a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
- If using whole wheat flour for baking increase the liquid content by 3 to 4 tablespoons.
- Start baking these cakes at high temperature
- For darker flavors add a tbsp of espresso or a pinch of freeze-dried coffee granules along with 1 tbsp of cocoa powder. .
Important: Nutrition Values are estimates. Actuals vary based on ingredients and serving size.