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Never Too Early To Start a Christmas Cake


Ireland Hopping | By Margaret M. Johnson

The ancient Celtic harvest feast called Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the “darker half” of the year. Celebrated October 31-November 1, it was suggested in the late 19th century that it was the “Celtic New Year,” and over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ Days merged to create our modern celebration of Halloween. Several foods are traditionally eaten in Ireland at this time, barmbrack in particular, a yeasty fruit bread that was baked with tokens inside to foretell the future — a ring for the bride-to- be, a thimble for the one who would never marry, and a small piece of cloth indicating the one who would be poor. I usually bake at least one for this holiday, but for me it’s more of a signal to get started on my Christmas cakes — yes, I said it— Christmas, only eight weeks and four days away! I’ve added a few new recipes to my fruitcake repertoire this year that you might like, too, but you’ll find most in my cookbooks "Favorite Flavors of Ireland" and "Christmas Flavors of Ireland." Order signed copies at

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SERVES 16 to 20

Spiced sweet desserts like this cake have been a part of holiday celebrations for centuries and highly prized because they included nuts and dried fruits, once difficult and expensive to obtain. This cake is generally covered with marzipan, topped with royal icing, and decorated with frosted cranberries, candied fruit, nuts or other festive ornaments, but it’s equally delicious with a simple dusting of confectioners’ sugar.

1 cup chopped dates

1 cup golden raisins

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped apricots

1 cup sweetened dried cranberries

1/4 cup candied red cherries

1/4 cup candied green cherries

1/4 cup candied mixed peel

3/4 cup chopped almonds

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 1/2 teaspoon Mixed Spice (see Note) or pumpkin pie spice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 cup whiskey, plus more for soaking

8 ounces butter, at room temperature

1 cup (packed) light brown sugar

5 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1/2 teaspoon salt

  1. In a large bowl, combine dates, golden raisins, raisins, apricots, cranberries, cherries, mixed peel, almonds, zest and juice, mixed spice and nutmeg. Stir in whiskey; cover and let stand at room temperature overnight.

  2. Preheat oven to 275° F. Spray bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with cooking oil spray. Line bottom of pan with a round of parchment paper. Cut a 4-inch-wide length of parchment paper and wrap it around sides of pan to create a “collar.”

  3. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or with hand mixer) on medium speed for 4 to 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, adding some of the flour with each egg. Fold in remaining flour and salt; mix in fruit in two additions.

  4. Scoop mixture into prepared pan a little at a time, smoothing with a spatula dipped in water as you work; bake for 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours, or until a skewer inserted into center comes out clean.

  5. Remove from oven and let cool in pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Run a knife around edge of pan and release sides; remove lining paper. Cover loosely with a clean tea towel and let cool overnight.

  6. Invert cake onto rack, remove bottom and lining paper, and return to upright. Prick cake with a skewer in several places and spoon in 1 to 2 teaspoons whiskey. (Repeat every week until serving time).

  7. Wrap cake in brown paper and tape it closed, then wrap in aluminum foil and store in an airtight container for several weeks to allow the cake to mature.

Note: To make Mixed Spice mix 1/4 teaspoon each ground allspice, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Store in airtight container.



Makes 20 mini loaves

This is my “go to” gift-giving fruitcake. Use a pan that makes 8 mini loaves or 5- x 3-inch aluminum mini loaf pans; repeat baking until batter is used.

For the cake

2 cups dried cranberries

2 cups fruitcake blend (1/2 cup each golden raisins, currants, chopped apricots, candied lemon peel) OR

2 cups candied mix peel

1/2 cup brandy

8 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon orange extract

5 large eggs

3 3/4 cups flour

1 cup orange juice

1 3/4 cup chopped candied red cherries

2 cups diced pecans

For the glaze

2 tablespoons orange juice

2 tablespoons brandy

4 tablespoons sugar

  1. Combine cranberries, fruitcake blend or candied peel, and brandy in glass bowl; microwave 1 to 2 minutes, stir, then set aside to cool.

  2. Preheat oven to 325° F. Spray mini loaf pans with cooking oil spray.

  3. In a large bowl, beat together butter, sugar, baking powder, salt, and orange extract. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in flour alternately with orange juice; add undrained fruit, cherries, and nuts.

  4. Spoon batter into pans, filling each about three-quarters full. Bake for 30 to 33 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into center of one comes out clean. Transfer pans to a rack and let cool for 5 minutes; invert pan onto rack, then return cakes to upright.

  5. Make glaze. Heat juice, brandy, and sugar in a small pan until sugar melts. Brush tops of warm cakes with glaze. Cool completely and then wrap; store in airtight container for up to 4 weeks.




If you’re not a fan of dark fruitcake, you’ll like this one because it’s much lighter in texture and tastes more like a spicy raisin cake than a fruitcake. If you make it in advance, wrap and store as with the other recipes. Top it with whiskey-flavored icing at serving time.

For the cake

1 cup sultanas (golden raisins)

1 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon ground cloves

3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Dash of ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup Irish whiskey

For the icing

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

1 tablespoon milk

1 tablespoon Irish whiskey

Chopped walnuts for topping

  1. Make cake. Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease an 8- or 9-inch springform pan and dust with flour; tap out excess.

  2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine raisins and water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes, or until liquid begins to thicken. Drain; reserve 3/4 cup of liquid and raisins.

  3. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and salt; set aside.

  4. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat until smooth. Beat in flour mixture alternately with reserved liquid. Fold in raisins, walnuts, and whiskey.

  5. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 30 to 33 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool on wire rack for 15 minutes. Release sides of pan. Invert cake onto a plate, remove base, and return to upright; let cool completely.

  6. Make icing. In a medium bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium until blended. Add milk and whiskey and beat until smooth.

  7. With an offset spatula, spread icing over top and sprinkle with walnuts. Let icing set for 15 to 20 minutes before cutting the cake into slices.


Margaret Johnson’s “Recipes” page now includes “Ireland Hopping: Adventures in Food, Drink, and Travel.” For further details on her work, including how to order her cookbooks, visit

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