Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

The slow death of Christmas cake

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 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.

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