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Christmas cake is an English tradition that began as plum-porridge. People ate the porridge on Christmas Eve, using it to line their stomachs after a day of fasting. Soon dried fruit, spices and honey were added to the porridge mixture and, eventually, it turned into Christmas pudding. In the 16th century, oatmeal was removed from the original recipe and butter, wheat flour and eggs were added. These ingredients helped hold the mixture together, resulting in a boiled plum-cake. Richer families with ovens began making fruit cakes with marzipan, an almond paste, for Easter. For Christmas, they made a similar cake using seasonal dried fruit and spices. The spices came from the eastern countries and this cake became known as Christmas cake.

Christmas cakes are made many different ways, but generally they are variations on the classic fruitcake. They can be light, dark, moist, dry, heavy, spongy, leavened, unleavened and more. They are made in many different shapes, with frosting, glazing, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar or  just left plain. The traditional Scottish Christmas cake, also known as the Whisky Dundee, is very popular. It is a light crumbly cake with currants, raisins, cherries and Scotch whisky. Other types of Christmas cakes include apples and mincemeat.

In Japan, Christmas cake is a frosted sponge cake with strawberries, chocolates or seasonal fruit. In the Philippines, Christmas cake is a yellow pound cake with nuts. Don’t forget the traditional British fruitcake that is soaked in brandy or rum, sugar syrup and water. Italy has a long culinary tradition of serving cakes and sweets during the Christmas season. The tradition of “dolci di Natale” is long and varied with hundreds of types of cakes, cookies and sweets on the Christmas table. Every table for sure has Panettone and Pandoro –  the symbols of Christmas in Italy.

Following are some modern day fruit style cakes.

Jam Filled Coffee Cake

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Ingredients

  • One 8 ounce package reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel), softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup seedless red raspberry jam or your favorite jam
  • Powdered sugar
  • Fresh fruit for garnish

Directions

Grease a 13 x 9 x 2 inch baking pan or a 3-quart rectangular baking dish; set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl combine cream cheese, granulated sugar and butter; beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add 3/4 cup of the flour, the eggs, milk, baking powder, baking soda, vanilla and salt. Beat about 1 minute more or until combined. Add the remaining 1 cup flour, beating on low-speed just until combined.

Spread batter evenly in the prepared baking pan. In a small bowl stir jam with a spoon until nearly smooth. Spoon jam in eight to ten mounds on top of the batter in the baking pan.

Using a thin spatula or knife, swirl jam into the batter.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the cake portion near the center comes out clean. Cool cake in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar and, if desired, serve with raspberries or other fruit. Serve warm.

Date Coffee Cake with Orange Sauce

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Ingredients

  • 1 cup all purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/3 cup butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger or 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup orange or lemon yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 cup pitted whole dates, chopped

Orange Sauce

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (or 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger)
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely shredded orange peel
  • 3/4 cup orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces

Directions

To make the Orange Sauce:

Stir sugar, cornstarch, ginger and finely shredded orange peel in a small saucepan. Stir in orange juice. Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture is thickened and bubbly; cook and stir 2 minutes more. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in butter until melted. Cover pan and cool slightly. Serve warm. Makes about 1 cup.

To make the cake:

Grease and flour an 8 x 8 x 2-inch baking pan; set aside.

Stir together the 1 cup flour, baking powder and baking soda in a small bowl; set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degree F oven.

Place softened butter and ginger in a medium mixing bowl; beat with an electric mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar; beat until fluffy. Add egg; beat well. Stir in yogurt and milk.

Add flour mixture, beating on low to medium speed until combined. Toss dates with 2 tablespoons flour and fold into the batter. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool slightly (about 30 minutes) in the pan on a wire rack.

Cut into squares. Serve with warm Orange Sauce.

Cherry Crumb Cake

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Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 ¼ cups cherry, raspberry or strawberry preserves

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9 x 9 x 2 inch baking pan with foil, extending the foil over the edges of the pan; set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, oats, brown sugar, pecans, lemon peel and baking soda. Stir in applesauce and oil; mix well. If necessary, use your hands to combine.

Measure 1 cup of the oat mixture; set aside.

Press the remaining oat mixture into the bottom of the prepared baking pan. Bake for 20 minutes.

Carefully spread the preserves evenly over the hot crust. Sprinkle with the reserved 1 cup oat mixture; pat gently into preserves.

Bake about 30 minutes more or until top is lightly browned. Cool in pan on a wire rack. Using the edges of the foil, lift the cake out of the pan. Serve warm.

Prune Bread

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Ingredients

  • 2 ½ cups bread flour
  • 1 ½ cups white whole wheat flour
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup pitted prunes, snipped
  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • Two 6 inch wooden skewers

Directions

With the paddle attachment, combine all the ingredients in the large bowl of an electric mixer. Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough until soft and shiny.

Place in a greased bowl and let rise, covered with plastic wrap, until double.

For the filling:

In a small bowl, stir together chocolate and dried plums; set aside.

Remove dough from the bowl to a lightly floured surface; punch down dough. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Roll dough into a 15 x 10-inch rectangle. Along the short side (10 inch) of the dough sprinkle about 1/2 cup of the prune mixture over a 3-inch-wide section of the dough.

Starting from the opposite side, fold dough over filling, allowing dough to extend beyond the prune-topped dough.

Sprinkle another 1/2 cup of the prune mixture on top of the filled layer, pressing filling down lightly. Fold dough back over prune mixture, accordion-style.

Repeat filling and folding dough, accordion-style, twice more.

Fold remaining dough over the top, pressing lightly. (You will have five layers of dough and four layers of filling.) Gently pat the sides of the dough to form a rectangle.

Lightly coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Place loaf on the prepared baking sheet. Cover and let rise in a warm place until nearly double in size (about 30 minutes).

You can use this dough and filling to make any shape coffee cake – horseshoe, ring, etc.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Using a sharp knife, make a shallow lengthwise cut down the center of the top layer, then make several crosswise cuts at 1-inch intervals.

To keep bread layers from slipping while baking, insert wooden skewers (one close to each end of the loaf, inserting each skewer at a slight angle) from top through the bottom layer.

Bake about 35 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when lightly tapped. If necessary to prevent over browning, cover with foil for the last 10 minutes of baking.

Remove from the baking sheet; cool on a wire rack. Remove wooden skewers. Slice thinly to serve.

Christmas Biscotti

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These are especially good with coffee.

Makes: 48 servings

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs plus 1 egg for the wash
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons anise seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 3/4 cup pistachios, shelled
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots, snipped
  • Powdered sugar glaze

Directions

Beat butter in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on medium to high-speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt; beat until combined.

Beat in the 3 eggs, vanilla and almond extract until combined. Beat in as much of the flour as you can with the mixer. Stir in any remaining flour, anise, fennel seeds, cranberries, pistachios, and apricots with a wooden spoon.

Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or until the dough is easy to handle.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Divide dough in half. Shape each half into a 12-inch-long log 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Place logs at least 3 inches apart on a lightly greased cookie sheet.

Flatten each log slightly to 3/4-inch thickness. Combine egg and 1 tablespoon water. Brush over logs.

Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until light brown. Cool logs on cookie sheet 1 hour or till completely cool.

When logs are cool, preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Transfer logs to a cutting board. Cut each log diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Lay slices down on the cookie sheets.

Bake in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Turn slices over and bake 5 minutes more or until dry and crisp.

Remove and cool on wire racks. Drizzle with powdered sugar glaze, if desired.

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