Walk through the baking aisle of any supermarket and you’ll be immersed in the flurry of shoppers filling their carts with Karo syrup, vanilla extract ,and bags of sugar. Lively conversations about the merits of almond flour versus all-purpose or pricier chopped pecans instead of whole ones flow freely. One thing I’ve noticed is that nobody seems to be baking Christmas cakes. They’re stocking up for cookie and candy baking. A magazine article about a mother's Depression-era tradition of baking seven Christmas cakes when buying presents wasn’t possible touched my heart. Even better, I baked one that encapsulates the reason for the season.
As I worked on my cake, I thought about the decline in Christmas cakes. In a way, I blame it on fruitcakes. It’s a polarizing subject. Either you love or hate these dense cakes filled with chopped candied cherries, nuts, and my least favorite ingredient, dates. And we’ve all heard the joke about the one fruitcake that’s being re-gifted around the world, but never eaten. Even if you’re in the group that enjoys fruitcake – and I’m not – it’s something you may not admit due to fruitcake’s reputation.
Looking for variations to a traditional fruitcake, I found a recipe I've used when filling friends' and co-workers' Christmas bags. Christmas Cherry Loaf is the perfect substitute for that "other" cake. Best of all, ingredients can be dumped in a mixer in no particular order and ready for the oven in less than 15 minutes.
To make the light, flavorful loaf, pour the following ingredients into a mixing bowl: 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, cup of buttermilk, 1/4 cup juice from 10-ounce jar of maraschino cherries (reserve the cherries), 1/2 cup each white and brown sugar, 1/4 cup softened butter, two eggs, three teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda, and a cup of chopped walnuts. Beat well, scrape sides of bowl, and beat again. Add chopped cherries and mix well. Bake in a greased and floured bread pan in a 350 degree oven for 60-70 minutes. Store for 3-4 hours before slicing.
Wrapped in red Saran wrap and tied with a ribbon, Christmas Cherry Loaf is the perfect gift for those who value a home-baked gift. Using low-fat milk and sugar substitutes doesn’t radically alter the taste for health-conscious friends or family on your list.
Finally, the moral of the story about the seven Christmas cakes. The writer loved hearing her great-grandmother’s story of how her mother refused to let her children experience a Christmas without any presents. She began stocking up on baking ingredients in January, squirreling away a little flour and cinnamon here, a few pecans there.
By the time Christmas Eve arrived, she was ready for an all-night baking session. The children could barely sleep as the aroma of delicious red velvet, chocolate, raisin, spice, apple, and other flavorful cakes wafted through the house. On Christmas morning, they ran to the kitchen to see seven frosted cakes lined up on the table. Each day during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the children got to enjoy a different cake.
The story of the seven Christmas cakes taught me a valuable lesson. Sometimes, the gifts made with love mean the most. Making the cake the children enjoyed on Christmas Day (with the addition of modern-day red and green gelatin stripes) reminded me of the real reason for the season.
Happy Birthday, Jesus! Cake
2 baked 9-inch round white cake layers
1 package (4-ounce) red gelatin, strawberry flavor
1 package (4-ounce) green gelatin, lime flavor
2 cups boiling water, divided
For buttercream frosting:
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Red and green candy canes, crushed (candy canes are thought to symbolize the shepherd's hooks present on the night of Jesus' birth)
To make the cake: Grease and flour cake pans and bake layers according to package directions. Cool on rack; do not remove from pans. Punch small holes in cake layers, using the tip of a knife, 1/2 inches apart. Stir a cup of boiling water into dry gelatin, stirring well until dissolved. Pour red gelatin over one flavor; green over the other. You can reduce amount of gelatin to 3/4 cup if you desire less filling. Refrigerate for at least three hours.
Place bottom of one cake pan in warm water for a few minutes, then un-mold onto cake plate. Spread with a layer of frosting, then add second cake layer. Ice the top and sides of cake. Crush red and green candy canes in food processor or place in Ziploc bag and beat with a hammer or mallet. Sprinkle over top of cake to decorate.
To make frosting: In a large bowl, mix all ingredients on low speed until thoroughly combined. Increase speed to medium and beat for 3-4 minutes until frosting is fluffy.
Note: I doubled the recipe to create a four-layer cake with alternating red and green layers. Frosting recipe doubles easily.