Christmas Cake

Christmas is a favourite time of year in literature, with its appearance serving many different narrative functions.  It provides an occasion for characters to be reunited – as in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) where Tom Tulliver returns from school to his family.  Christmas can also provide drama, such as the Christmas meal in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), during which the soldiers hunting the escaped prisoners – including Magwitch, whom the protagonist Pip has supplied with his sister’s Christmas pork pie – arrive and disrupt proceedings.  In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published 18 years earlier in 1843 Christmas provides the motivation and opportunity for personal change, with the miserly Scrooge learning to love and give after he is visited by an array of ghosts.

And of course Christmas scenes give writers the opportunity to describe Christmas food.  In  A Christmas Carol Bob Cratchit, Dickens’ poorly paid employee, his wife and six children, including the lame Tiny  Tim, although forced by penury to share one goose amongst them, treat their  Christmas meal – ‘eked out by …apple-sauce and mashed potatoes’ – as a veritable feast.  Likewise the family greet the arrival of the Christmas pudding, brought in by Mrs Cratchit, with great joy, calling it a ‘wonderful pudding’, and ‘nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family.’

The Wonderful Pudding by Sol Eytinge, 1869
(Scanned image and text by Philip V, Allingham

In The Mill on the Floss the narrator notes that ‘the dessert was as splendid as ever with its golden oranges, brown nuts, and the crystalline light and dark of apple jelly and damson cheese.’  The familiarity of the Christmas food provides some comfort for Tom Tulliver who finds other changes in his family since his absence.

At the heart of food – and particularly Christmas food – is of course the idea of generosity: of giving to others, and sharing with them.  This is illustrated in the efforts Jane Eyre makes in preparing Christmas food for her newly adopted family in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel.  It is towards the end of the novel and Jane has fled her home, Thornfield, following the discovery that the man she was about to marry, Mr Rochester, is already married.  In great distress, with no money and nowhere to go, Jane takes refuge with the Rivers family: the clergyman, St John, and his sisters Diana and Mary.    During her stay there, just before Christmas, Jane receives two welcome pieces of news:   her uncle in Madeira has died and left her a fortune; and the Rivers are in fact her cousins.  Keen to thank her new-found family for their hospitality, and desiring to particularly show her love to Diana and Mary who are away but soon to return, Jane – as well as planning to share her fortune with them – decides that the Christmas arrangements will be undertaken by her, as she tells St John:

My first aim will be … to clean down Moor House from chamber to cellar; my next to rub it up with beeswax, oil, and an indefinite number of cloths, till it glitters again; my third, to arrange every chair, table, bed, carpet, with mathematical precision, afterwards I shall go near to ruin you in coals and peat to keep up good fires in every room; and lastly, the two days preceding that on which your sisters are expected will be devoted by Hannah (the housekeeper) and me to such a beating of eggs, sorting of currants, grating of spices, compounding of Christmas cakes, chopping up of materials for mince pies, and solemnizing of other culinary rites…

Last year I blogged about making mince pies, with reference to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – see here.  So this year I thought it was time for a Christmas cake recipe.  I have made my family Christmas Cake for over 20 years.  Like all long-standing recipes, it reflects our particular tastes – some of my family are not big fans of dried fruit, particularly currants, so I just use raisins and an abundance of glace cherries.  And nuts – once disliked by one of my brothers – have been omitted.  And since my Mum always made our Christmas cake with guinness, rather than brandy, so do I.  But provided you keep the quantity of the ingredients the same, you can adapt the recipe below to suit your tastes.

I usually make my Christmas cake the last weekend in November – though this one was made a week earlier – but it could be made even earlier, or later.  Marzipan and icing instructions to follow as Christmas approaches.


450g raisins
450g glace cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
3 tablespoons  Guinness
225g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
225g unsalted butter
225g soft brown sugar (I use 100g light brown and 125g dark brown)
4 large eggs
1 dessertspoon black treacle
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange

The evening before you want to bake the cake, put the raisins and cherries in a mixing bowl and mix in the Guinness.  Cover the bowl with a tea-cloth or cling film and leave for at least 12 hours.
The next day, begin by preparing the cake tin.  Grease a 20cm loose-based round cake tin and line both the sides and the base with baking parchment.  Tie a band of baking parchment around the outside of the tin for extra protection.

Pre-heat the oven to 140C (Fan 120C) or Gas mark 1.  Sift the flour, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl.  In a separate large mixing bowl cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat the eggs in a separate bowl.  Add them to the butter and sugar mixture 1 tablespoonful at a time, adding 1 tablespoon of the flour and spice mixture between each spoonful of egg to avoid the mixture curdling.  Then fold in the remaining flour and spices, followed by the fruit, treacle and finally  the lemon and orange zest.

Spoon the cake mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top.  Cover the top of the cake with a double square of double square of baking parchment with a £2 coin-sized hole in the middle.  Because the cake cooks for such a long period of time, extra protection is needed.  Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 4 – 5 hours.

Cool the cake in the tin for at least 30 minutes, and then remove it to a wire rack to finish cooling.  When it is cold, use a skewer or cake tester to prick holes into the cake and ‘feed’ the cake with about 1 tablespoon of Guinness.  Then wrap the cake in a double layer of baking parchment and 1 layer of foil, or store in an airtight box.  Feed it on a weekly basis until you are ready to decorate the cake.

Venison Pasties

This summer I went to see The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National Theatre, one of my favourite London haunts.  The play, which was first performed in 1707, less than two months before the death of its author, the Irish playwright, George Farquhar, is a late Restoration play.

Restoration drama refers to the plays written and performed following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.  In 1642, at the height of the English Civil War, with the Parliamentary Puritans in power, all theatres were closed by an Act of Parliament and remained so for the next 18 years.  To the Puritans, and their leader Oliver Cromwell, theatres were places that encouraged immoral and debauched behaviour.  

The re-opening of the theatres in 1660 paved the way for a new type of drama that was different from what came before.  Restoration plays were characterised by their comedy, their sexually explicit content, their contemporary setting and the first use of professional actresses – in earlier drama, women’s roles had been played by men.

The Beaux’ Stratagem is a classic Restoration play, containing all these elements.  It tells the story of two young men – the beaux of the title – Archer and Aimwell, who have fallen on hard times and devise a plan to improve their fortunes.  Fleeing London they arrive in Lichfield with the aim of marrying for money.  The events of the play unfold in an inn where, posing as master and servant, Archer and Aimwell confront a variety of idiosyncratic characters and many twists and turns in the plot before they find their happy ending.

Amongst the characters Archer and Aimwell meet is Mr Sullen, a drunkard whose wife, whom he treats with indifference, is the object of Archer’s desires.  Sullen’s disdain for his wife is shown by his offering her to another man with the words, “You shall have her tomorrow morning, and a venison pasty into the bargain.”  A venison pasty is also mentioned earlier in the play when the audience first meets Sullen in Act II, Scene 1.  It is a Sunday morning and Sullen comes on stage after a heavy Saturday night, complaining that his head ‘aches consumedly’.  Refusing his wife’s suggestion of a cup of tea or a trip to church, he instead summons his servant Scrub and requests his breakfast:  “bring me a dram; and, d’ye hear, set out the venison-pasty and a tankard of strong beer upon the hall table.”

Whether it be a bonus gift to accompany an unwanted wife, or a hang-over cure, as soon as I heard the mention of ‘venison pasty’ I was keen to make one.  But I was watching the play in June, not really the time of year for venison, so was forced to wait until the arrival of autumn and the welcome arrival of venison at my local farmers’ market.



For the pastry: 
350g plain flour
175g butter (or 100g butter; 175g lard / vegetable shortening) diced
1 teaspoon salt

For the filling: 
1 red onion (finely chopped)
2 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
20g butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
150g mushrooms (sliced)
500g diced venison
60ml red wine
1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley
150g potato
10 juniper berries, crushed
1 beaten egg


Begin by making the pastry.  Stir the salt into the flour in a large bowl, and then, using your fingertips, rub in the butter (and lard / shortening if used) until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Gradually add cold water, a teaspoon at a time, and stir with a knife until the mixture clumps together.  Bring the mixture together into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Now make the filling.  Peel and dice the potato and parboil in boiling water for 5 minutes.  Drain and put to one side.  Heat the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat.  Fry the onion until translucent and then add the garlic.  Cook for a couple more minutes and then add the mushrooms and venison.  Cook for 10 minutes, then season with salt and pepper.  Add the red wine, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and cook until the liquid has evaporated.  Leave to cool.  Then add the parsley, cooked potato and the juniper berries.  Taste and season again if required.
Now you are ready to assemble  the pasties.  Remove the pastry from the fridge.  Lightly flour your work surface and roll out the pastry so that you can cut out 4 x 20cm diameter circles (a side plate should be the right size).  Pile 1/4 of the filling in the middle of the pastry circle.  Brush  the edge of half the pastry circle with the beaten egg and bring both sides up over the filling, crimping the edges firmly together to get that distinctive pasty look.

Place the pasties on a greased and lined baking tray and rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.  At this point preheat the oven to 220C (fan oven 200C) or gas mark 7.  When the pasties are ready to go in the oven brush them with the remaining beaten egg.  Bake for 15 minutes and then reduce the heat to 170C (fan 150C), gas mark 3 and bake for another 30-45 minutes until the pastry is cooked and golden-brown.

The Fig in Literature

Driven as I was to cook with figs when they arrived in my organic box a few weeks ago I knew I was on safe ground with them as far as literature was concerned since I had just finished teaching Antony and Cleopatra in which Cleopatra has the poisonous snake that will kill her brought to her concealed in a basket of figs.


The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur (1871-1934); I wonder if the basket on the right, with greenery emerging from it, is supposed to be the figs

Of course in Shakespeare’s play the figs are simply there as a diversionary ruse, and are not eaten at all, so I embarked on my quest to find what literary record there might be of their consumption.

Going back to the beginning of time, it has been suggested that the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which brought about their Fall, was a fig – though, readers of this blog may recall that it has also been suggested that it could have been a quince or an apricot.  However, in the fig’s favour, when Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit, and their eyes were opened, ‘and they knew that they were naked …they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.’  So, whether or not the fig was the forbidden fruit, there were evidently figs growing in the Garden of Eden.

Apart from the figs in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare does include references to figs in other plays.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, who has been bewitched and fallen in love with the donkey-eared Nick Bottom, tells her fairy retinue to look after her new love by providing him with all manner of delicious fruit:

Be kind and courteous to this gentleman;
Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes;
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;  (Act III, Scene 1)

However, most of Shakespeare’s other fig references are metaphorical ones, with the word ‘fig’ being used as a derogatory term to contradict something that someone has said – when used in this way the word was apparently often accompanied by a vulgar gesture of shooting the thumb between the first and second fingers.  An example of this use can be found in Act I, Scene 3 of Othello where the villain Iago dismisses his side-kick, Roderigo’s, self-pitying complaint that he cannot help being so fond of Othello’s new wife, Desdemona, claiming it is in his “virtue” (nature) to be this way with the retort, ‘Virtue?  A fig!  ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus’.

A later English writer who refers to figs is D. H. Lawrence in his poem ‘Figs’, from the collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers published in 1923.  The poem – which you can read in its entirety at – was included, in an edited version, in Ken Russell’s film of Lawrence’s Women In Love: the character  Rupert Birkin, speaks the lines to a group of diners, whilst Hermione Roddice eats a fig.  The poem begins by describing two ways to eat a fig – the ‘proper way’ and the ‘vulgar way’ – and then explores the idea of the secrecy of the fig, an allusion I suppose to the fact that from the outside the fig does not look like anything of significance – its true beauty and delight lie within.

And perhaps not surprisingly – this is D. H. Lawrence after all – he then makes a link between the fig and women:

It was always a secret
That’s how it should be, the female is always a secret.

The Italians he notes – rather scathingly – make a link between the fig and the ‘female part’ but Lawrence’s interest lies rather more generally in the idea that women do well if they, like the fig, and like Eve who once once she ‘knew in her mind that she was naked / …quickly sewed fig-leaves’, keep their innermost essence concealed.  However, Lawrence bemoans the fact that concealment is no longer the order of the day for most women and concludes that, just as ripe, burst figs, will not keep, so women ruin themselves once they reveal themselves to the world.

Whether it is the fruit that caused the Fall, a device to conceal a suicide weapon or a metaphor for female behaviour and sexuality, the fig has played an interesting and multi-faceted role in literature.