Wouldn’t you just know it? Christmas cake, as in dense fruitcake covered with marzipan and usually tooth-destroying royal icing, is being displaced by chocolate cake. Almost half of a sample of 2,000 people in Britain surveyed by Ocado said they’d prefer chocolate to fruitcake.
The trend is represented by Nigella Lawson, who is making something called a Winter Wonderland chocolate and raspberry cake instead. “Much as I happen to love a slice of dense, damp Christmas cake, especially when eaten with a crumbly slice of good, strong, sharp cheese, I am surrounded by those who abominate dried fruit in all its seasonal manifestations,” she writes. “If no one in your family likes dried fruit, there’s no point having a Christmas cake gathering dust.”
That’s the problem: dried fruit, as in currants, raisins and sultanas, prized ingredients since crusader times and, with spices, the default element of cake for centuries, is being inexorably edged out by the ubiquitous ingredient of this generation, chocolate.
Pen Vogler, author of Scoff, a history of food in Britain, says: “I suspect it’s as much to do with our addiction to instant pleasures as much as anything. Chocolate has a little caffeine in it; and the bitterness of caffeine smuggles far more sugar past our tastebuds than we could without it. Much of the sugar in fruitcake comes from dried fruit which is far slower to release its energy. Fruitcake is the tortoise of cake satisfaction; and most people opt for the hare.”
Christmas cake is also being displaced by the soft, sweet, sparingly fruited Italian panettone. Selfridges has said it expects to sell seven times more panettone than Christmas cake this year. Here too the kind made with raisins or sultanas is being increasingly displaced by versions with chocolate or similar.
Yet not so long ago, by the first week of December, the home baker would already have made the Christmas cake, which took ages. Raisins would once be royally presented on the vine, in boxes, in grocers at this time of year, with seeds that had to be prised out before using. The cake was baked for up to three hours, while icing it took hours, from rolling out the marzipan, masking it in royal icing and then piping rosettes round the edge and Happy Christmas on top. It was surmounted by Father Christmas on a sledge or possibly a little tree. Happy days.
Actually, Christmas cake as we know it is a relatively recent form, with the advent of raising agents in the nineteenth century; prior to that a cake would be raised with barm, or yeast, making it a little like the Irish barmbrack. Whether yeasted or otherwise, until Victorian times it was served on Twelfth Night, the vigil of the Epiphany and the high point of the celebrations that concluded the Twelve Days of Christmas. Often it included a bean or little charm for luck and to identify the king or queen of the festivities, like the French galette du rois still does.
The displacement of dried fruit by chocolate is a symptom of our increasingly debased tastes. I am, in fact, a fan of chocolate cake, well made, but each thing has its season. And the Christmas season is the time for a nice dense, alcoholic fruit cake.