As the big day rolls around and the Christmas cheer (hopefully) seeps into every corner of life, we thought we’d round off 2020 by researching the history of Christmas baking. Why do we bake a Christmas cake and why is plum pudding so called?
Why are cookies such a Christmas tradition and why is royal icing called royal icing? We’ve always wondered and we’re sure you have too. So let’s dive in and do some learning…
In years gone by (and we’re talking hundreds of years ago) ‘Christmas cake’ was actually more like an enriched bread. It was only in the 14th or 15th century that cakes started to resemble those we bake and enjoy today. Dried fruits and sugar, expensive luxuries back then, we added to cakes and savoured for special occasions such as Christmas and Easter.
Those without ovens would boil up a cake, while those with ovens baked them and decorated them with Christmas scenes.
Fruits, sugars and expensive spices didn’t arrive in Britain until the 13th century, hence their non-use before this time.
Dried fruit of all kinds was referred to as ‘plums’, which is why plum pudding and plum cake got their name, despite actual plums not featuring heavily in the recipes.
With royal icing the go-to covering for a Christmas cake (so called because the royal family used it to decorate their wedding cakes), the first decorated Christmas cakes resembled flat, glassy, frozen lakes, hence the name ‘icing’. Icing only became available in the 18th century when the technology to refine sugar was invented. The icing, which resembled a liquid rather than a solid, was spread over the top of the cake then returned to the oven to set hard.
Since then, fondant icing has taken over from royal icing in popularity – not least because it’s easier to apply!
Not merely reserved for our cousins across the pond, baking cookies is a lasting tradition at Christmas. Whether they’re baked and left out for Santa or shared out amongst friends and family, baking and enjoying cookies is a tradition that spans the years.
While spices, sugar and fruits were an expensive luxury most of the year, families in years gone by would splash out on the ingredients for cookies in the run up to Christmas. At a time when most families weren’t well off enough to buy presents for each other, cookies and sweet treats were baked and shared out as a way of sharing Christmas love.
While many cookies are now flavoured with vanilla and chocolate, the traditional Christmas cookie would have been flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, reflecting the taste of the season.
Way back when (before medieval times), the tradition of burning the yule log began in Scandinavia. A whole tree was carefully selected, brought into the house and the thickest end of the truck was laid on the fire. The rest of the tree was left pointing out into the room! The remaining tree would eventually be cut up and stored away carefully to see a family through to the following Christmas.
During more modern (and centrally heated) times, we now bake chocolate yule logs to grace our Christmas tables. Mainly baked using a chocolate sponge with chocolate butter cream, a slab cake is rolled to resemble a log, decorated with more buttercream or sugar paste and eaten around Christmas time.
Have you baked a yule log recently? We love this delicious recipe from our favourite baker, Mary Berry – check it out! Then, of course, you’ll need to think about your decorations. Traditional or modern, the choice is yours. But we’ve picked out a handful of decorative options – order them today for delivery before Christmas.
Place your amazing yule log on one of our festive log cake boards for the perfect finishing touch.
What are your family Christmas baking traditions? Comment below – we’d love a glimpse into other people’s family Christmases!