Julia Child famously said: ‘A party without a cake is just a meeting’, and what would a big Christmas party be without a Classic British Christmas Cake?
Dark and rich, packed with boozy fruit and nuts and covered with thick layers of marzipan and fondant, this is a recipe that transports me straight back to childhood, and one of my favourite bakes at this time of year.
Christmas cakes are actually much easier to make than you might think! You can even get the kids involved as cutting up the fruit with scissors is a great task for little kitchen helpers.
This recipe makes such a lovely moist cake, you also don’t have to make it weeks in advance, so it’s perfect for last-minute baking.
To make my Christmas Cake recipe, you’ll need the following main ingredients:
- Dried Fruit: This is a big heavy cake with nearly a kilogram of soft dried fruit in it! Ignore the bags of dusty old dried-up, pre-cut fruit mixture (trust me) and mix and match your own. I like to use dried apricots, dates and raisins or sultanas, but you could use dried figs, cherries, blueberries or soft dried apples. Even if you don’t like dates, I recommend that you leave them in as they add a lovely caramel richness to the cake and nobody ever realises they are in there.
- Candied Citrus Peel: Love it or hate it, candied peel is a traditional Christmas cake ingredient. These days it is much better quality than it used to be, or you could try your hand at making your own from fresh citrus.
- Brandy: Alcohol is used to both flavour and preserve Christmas cake, as it was originally prepared well in advance of the big day and needed to be kept moist and fresh. Any brown spirit actually tastes wonderful here, brandy, cherry brandy, rum, calvados, whisky and bourbon are all winners. If you want to keep the cake alcohol-free, use a mixture of apple or orange juice and black tea.
- Butter, Sugar, Flour: The building blocks of all cakes! I use unsalted butter so I can control the amount of salt in the final cake, and white sugar as I find the flavour of brown sugar masks the flavour of the fruit. Plain or all-purpose flour is suitable for this cake.
- Oil: This is a non-traditional ingredient, but much like a rich chocolate cake, I find it gives the cake a lovely soft crumb. You can replace it with 125g (¼ lb) butter if you prefer.
- Spices: I go all in on the spices for this cake, with plenty of cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. You could add a dash of ground cloves or even some ground cardamom if you want to kick things up a notch.
- Nuts: Almonds are traditional, but walnuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts or pecans would all be lovely.
- Frosting: When I was a kid I think we liked the marzipan and fondant frosting more than the cake itself. You can choose to leave your cake unadorned and dusted with icing sugar or add both layers of frosting. Very old-fashioned Christmas cakes use crisp royal icing, but I prefer a softer texture. My easy Marzipan recipe here makes exactly enough marzipan to cover the cake with a little left for snacking on.
IMPORTANT NOTE: You won’t need the full amount of marzipan and fondant listed in the recipe, but there is NOTHING more frustrating than trying to make too little covering fit too much cake. Trim the edges, wrap well and freeze the leftovers. Trust me on this!
Christmas fruit cake is easy once you get the hang of it. Be sure to follow the recipe closely and you are guaranteed success.
- First, cut up your fruit (this is easiest with a pair of clean scissors) mix together with brandy in a saucepan, heat gently, then set aside and let the fruit soak while you make the batter.
- Next, heat the oven with a rack in the lower third and prepare your cake pan. Grease the base and sides and line with baking parchment paper. You need to leave a ‘collar’ of baking paper about 4cm (1.5 inches) above the edge of the pan. If you are using a gas oven or you know your oven runs particularly hot, consider double layering the baking parchment to prevent the outside of the cake from burning.
- Cream the butter sugar and salt together until light and fluffy, then add the eggs, oil and honey. Sift over the flour, spices and baking powder, mix well to combine, then add the fruit, any liquid and the nuts and mix again. Pour the cake batter into the prepared cake tin, smooth the top and transfer to the oven. Tent loosely with foil, then bake for 3 hours, removing the foil in the last 45 minutes. Test with a skewer to ensure the cake is done, then allow to cool in the cake pan overnight.
- To decorate, place the cooled cake on a serving plate and brush it with heated apricot jam. Roll out the marzipan and use it to cover the cake. Roll out the fondant to a large circle, brush the marzipan layer with a little water (this makes the fondant stick) then smooth the fondant over the cake.
The complete ingredient list and detailed instructions are in the recipe card at the bottom of the page.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I store a classic Christmas cake?
The un-iced or frosted cake should be kept well wrapped in a cake tin or airtight container in a cool, dark place. If it is summer where you are, then I recommend the fridge. Fruit cake freezes very, very well as long as it is thoroughly wrapped to prevent freezer burn.
Can I make Christmas cake without alcohol?
Yes, though the vast majority of the alcohol cooks off during the long baking time. If you need to make this cake alcohol-free, use a mixture of black tea and fruit juice. Orange or apple juice are both suitable. This is such a moist cake that it doesn’t really require ‘feeding’ with alcohol, though if you are planning to keep it for a long time, the fridge is your best bet as the alcohol acts as a preservative.
Can I alter the fruits used in this cake?
Yes! Mix and match to use what you like. I never recommend pre-made dried mixed fruits as they are always full of candied or dried papaya which I don’t like in Christmas cake, but this is a personal preference. You do you! I do recommend that you use dates, even if you don’t ordinarily like them. Once baked they add a glorious caramel sweetness to the cake.
Classic British Christmas Cake Recipe
Classic British Christmas Cake
for the fruit:
- 250 g ½ lb. dried apricots
- 250 g ½ lb. dried dates, de-stoned
- 250 g ½ lb. raisins or sultanas
- 125 g ¼ lb. candied orange peel
- 250 ml 1 cup brandy
for the cake:
- 300 g white sugar
- 125 g 1 stick + 1 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
- ½ tsp sea salt
- 3 large eggs
- 125 ml ½ cup vegetable oil
- 3 Tbsp runny honey
- 250 g ½ lb. plain or all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 75 g 2.5 oz. almonds, roughly chopped
for the icing:
- 3 Tbsp apricot jam
- 400 g 14 oz. marzipan (see note)
- 500 g 1 lb. white fondant (see note)
- SOAK FRUIT: Use a pair of clean scissors to cut the apricots and dates into small pieces. Add to a medium saucepan with the raisins, orange peel and brandy. Bring to a simmer, then remove from the heat and allow to infuse for 30 minutes.
- PREPARE: Heat the oven to 160°C / 325°F / Gas 3 with a rack in the lower third of the oven. Grease, then line the base and sides of a 20cm (8 in.) round springform pan with baking parchment paper. The paper on the sides needs to stand in a collar around 3-4 cm (1.5 inches) above the rim of the cake pan. If your oven runs hot, double-layer the baking paper on the sides.
- CREAM BUTTER AND SUGAR: In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment fitted, beat butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl to ensure everything is well mixed. Beat in the eggs, oil and honey into the butter mixture until well combined.
- ADD DRY INGREDIENTS: Sift over the flour, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and baking powder, then run the mixer on low speed until the flour mixture is completely incorporated. Add the soaked fruit and any liquid still in the saucepan, mix well, then stir through the chopped nuts.
- BAKE: Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan, smooth the cake surface and transfer carefully to the oven (it's heavy!). Cover loosely with aluminium foil and bake for 3 hours, removing the foil for the last 45 minutes so that the top of the cake can brown. Keep an eye on the cake in the last half hour of cooking time, if you feel the cake is getting too brown, pop the foil back on.
- COOL: Test the cake with a fine skewer inserted into the centre of the cake to ensure it has cooked through, then allow it to cool completely in the cake pan.
- ADD MARZIPAN: When the cake is completely cool (sometime the next day) remove it from the cake pan and place it on a serving plate. (PRO TIP: Trim the top or flip the cake over for a flat surface) Heat the apricot jam in a small saucepan until melted. Brush over the cake, then dust the bench top with cornstarch and roll out the marzipan in a circle larger than the diameter of the cake. Lift the marzipan carefully on top, smooth down and trim the edges.
- ADD FONDANT: Knead the fondant on a bench top dusted with a little cornstarch shape into a disc and roll out to a circle larger than the diameter of the cake. Brush the marzipan layer with a little cold water, then lift the fondant on top, smoothing down over the marzipan and stretching down the sides to reach the plate. Trim the edges as close to the plate as possible.
- DECORATE: Decorate with artificial holly leaves or other Christmas decorations. If the edges are a little uneven, wrap a thick Christmas ribbon around the outside of the cake.
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