Traditional British Christmas Cake Recipe

Traditional British Christmas cake on a plate

The Spruce

Prep: 60 mins
Cook: 4 hrs 30 mins
Total: 5 hrs 30 mins
Servings: 10 to 12 servings

There are some parts of a Christmas celebration in Britain which just don't change, especially the traditional Christmas cake. A British Christmas isn't complete without this classic treat on the table. At first glance, making this cake may look complicated because it seems like a lot of ingredients, but it's actually very easy. The secret is to prepare and weigh all the ingredients, and line the tin before you start any mixing. The assembly is straightforward. The rest is an exercise in patience; the wait begins.

The cake needs a long, slow bake and a little TLC. It is packed with sugars, fruits, and brandy, and if the temperature is any higher, the outside of the cake will burn and the inside will be undercooked. Additionally, the cake benefits greatly from resting on a layer of newspaper while it's in the oven; this helps insulate and protect the cake so it cooks evenly. While it's baking, avoid opening the oven door too often, as this may cause the cake to collapse.

Ideally, Christmas cake should be made at least two months before Christmas, which allows ample time for the cake to be fed at regular intervals with brandy, which, in turn, helps to mature the cake. However, if you are making it closer to the holiday, you can be assured the cake will still taste as good, though it may not store as long as a mature one (the brandy helps keep it moist).

If you have time, you can also soak the dried mixed fruits the night before in a little extra brandy and proceed with the recipe the next day, which creates an even more moist cake.

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Ingredients

  • 3 1/2 cups/525 g currants
  • 1 1/2 cups/225 g golden raisins/sultanas
  • 1 1/2 cups/225 g raisins
  • 3/4 cup/110 g mixed candied peel (finely chopped)
  • 1 cup glace (candied) cherries (halved)
  • 3 1/3 cups/300 g all-purpose flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 10 ounces/300 g butter (slightly softened)
  • 1 1/3 cups/300 g soft brown sugar
  • 1/2 lemon (zested)
  • 6 large eggs (lightly beaten)
  • 3 tablespoons brandy (plus extra for feeding)

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Ingredients for Christmas fruitcake

    The Spruce

  2. Heat the oven to 300 F/150 C/Gas 2.

  3. Line a 9-inch cake pan with 2 thicknesses of parchment or greaseproof paper. Tie a double band of brown or newspaper paper around the outside. This acts as an insulator and helps prevent the cake from burning on the outside.

    Cake tin lined with parchment

    The Spruce

  4. In a large mixing bowl, combine the currants, sultanas, raisins, candied peel, and cherries with the flour, salt, and spices.

    Dried fruit combined with flour for Christmas cake
    The Spruce
  5. In another large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the lemon zest. Add the beaten egg to the butter mixture slowly a little bit at a time, beating well after each addition; otherwise, the mixture could curdle. If it does, simply add a tablespoon of flour and mix to bring it back together. If it doesn't, don't fret; the cake will still be delicious.

    British Christmas cake wet ingredients in a bowl

    The Spruce

  6. Carefully fold in half the flour and fruit into the egg and butter mixture, and repeat until fully incorporated. Add the brandy.

    English Christmas cake batter in a bowl with a wooden spoon
    The Spruce
  7. Spoon the cake mixture into the prepared cake tin, making sure there are no air pockets. Smooth the surface with the back of a spoon and make a slight dip in the center—this will rise again during baking to create a smooth surface for icing the cake.

    Christmas cake batter in the pan
    The Spruce
  8. Use a paper towel to clean up any smears of cake batter on the parchment so they don't burn. (It won't affect the cake; it just doesn't smell good.)

    Christmas cake in pan with paper towels to remove excess batter
    The Spruce
  9. Stand the tin on a double layer of newspaper in the lower part of the oven. If you have a gas oven, ensure the paper is well away from any flame. Bake for 4 1/2 hours. If the cake is browning too rapidly, cover the tin with a double layer of parchment paper after 2 1/2 hours.

    British Christmas cake baking in the oven
    The Spruce
  10. Check the cake after 4 1/2 hours. It should rise well and be a deep brown all over. Insert a skewer or fine knife into the center of the cake; it should be clean when you pull it out. If the dough sticks when you pull it, return the cake to the oven for a little longer.

    British Christmas cake baked and just out of the oven
    The Spruce
  11. Cool the cake on a wire rack for an hour, then remove it from the pan to cool completely. Then, prick the surface of the cake with a toothpick or skewer and slowly pour over 2 to 3 tablespoons brandy. Repeat this feeding every two weeks up until Christmas.

    British Christmas cake cooling on a wire rack with skewer
    The Spruce
  12. Store the cake wrapped in greaseproof or parchment paper in an airtight tin, until ready to serve. Enjoy!

    Traditional British Christmas cake in a tin covered with a parchment round
    The Spruce

What's the Difference Between Fruitcake and Christmas Cake?

The recipes for these two traditional holiday baked goods can be very similar. (And then there's Christmas pudding, which confuses, too.) Christmas cake and fruitcake often refer to the same thing: a cake with lots of candied dried fruits in them, a spicy-sweet flavor profile, and the presence of an alcohol such as rum. However, the American version of fruitcake often differs significantly from British Christmas cake, which is typically a moist, dense fruitcake draped in fondant and often decorated festively for the holiday season. American fruitcake is often maligned because it's often associated with the mass-produced types that line grocery store shelves; homemade fruitcake is far superior.

Tips

  • The cake is lovely with a glass of port. In northern England, Christmas cake is often served with a slice of cheese, preferably Wensleydale or a crumbly cheddar. 
  • If mixed spice isn't available or you don't have the ingredients to make your own, you can use pumpkin pie spice mix instead. They're very similar.
  • The difference between raisins and sultanas is important to the Christmas cake, as each brings something different to the cake.
  • Christmas cake is often made with brandy, but rum, whiskey, and sherry are common, too.