Christmascakewithicing rsz

Let the Baking Begin!

With only four weeks to go, Irish cooks have already started to think about the Christmas Cake, the pièce de résistance into which every Irish cook sinks her reputation. Spiced, sweet desserts like this cake have been a part of Irish holiday celebrations for centuries and were highly prized because they included spices and dried fruits, once difficult and expensive to obtain. Irish cooking legend Darina Allen, founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, called it “the cake of the year” in her Simply Delicious Christmas cookbook, first published in 1989. For those who want to get a head start, Allen offered her recipe again in a recent article in Cork’s Irish Examiner. As with all Christmas cakes, most cooks rely on a recipe familiar to them — one from their mum or grandmother — and Allen’s is no exception. This recipe is her mother’s, passed down through generations, which she starts early to enhance the flavors. “This makes a moist cake which keeps very well,” Allen says, “and it can either be made months ahead, or if you are frenetically busy, it will still be delish even if made just a few days before Christmas — believe me!” 

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SERVES 12 to 14

2 cups golden raisins

2 cups currants

2 cups raisins

1/2 cup glacé cherries, chopped

1/2 cup candied peel

½ cup whole almonds

½ cup ground almonds

Grated zest of 1 orange

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1/4 cup Irish whiskey

8 ounces butter, at room temperature

1 cup light brown sugar

6 large eggs

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon mixed spice or pumpkin pie spice

1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and grated

1. In a large bowl, combine dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon rind. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.

2. Preheat oven to 325°F. Line base and sides of a 9-inch round or 8-inch square baking pan with a double thickness of parchment paper. Tie a double layer of brown paper around outside of pan. (Have another sheet of brown or silicone paper to lay on top of the tin during cooking).

3. In a large bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until very soft; add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one a time, beating well between each addition. 

4. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour and mixed spice; stir into eggs mixture. Stir in grated apple and fruit (mix in gently but thoroughly). Transfer to prepared cake. Make a slight hollow on top, dip your hand in water, and pat it over the surface of the cake (this will ensure that the top is smooth when cooked). 

5. Lay a double sheet of brown paper on top of cake (this will protect the surface from direct heat). Bake for 1 hour, and then reduce heat to 300°F. Continue to bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours longer, or until a skewer inserted into center comes out completely clean. Remove from oven and pour remaining whiskey over cake; let cool in pan.

6. Remove from pan the next day (do not remove the lining paper). Wrap in several layers of wax paper and then with aluminum foil. The longer the cake is stored the more mature it becomes. Closer to Christmas, ice and decorate as desired. 


SERVES 10 to 12

         The Christmas Cake is generally covered with almond paste and topped with Royal Icing. I like to decorate it with Sugared Cranberries and Rosemary, a beautiful addition to other desserts as well. You’ll find this and other holiday cake recipes in my new cookbook Festive Flavors of Ireland. To order signed copies, visit

For the cake 

2 cups dried currants

2 cups sultanas (golden raisins)

1 cup raisins

1/4 cup candied 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, or pumpkin pie spice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup Irish whiskey, divided

8 ounces butter, at room temperature

1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

5 large eggs

2 cups flour, sifted

For the almond paste

1 large egg white, beaten

1 (7-ounce) package marzipan

For the royal icing

2 large egg whites

4 cups confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1. Make the cake. The day before baking, combine currants, sultanas, raisins, cherries, mixed peel, almonds, lemon zest and juice, Mixed Spice or pumpkin pie spice, nutmeg and 1/2 cup of whiskey in a large bowl. Cover; let stand at room temperature overnight.

2. Preheat oven to 275°F. Coat a 9-inch springform pan with baking spray with flour; line bottom with a round of parchment or wax paper.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or with a hand mixer), beat butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating in thoroughly and adding 1/4 cup flour with each egg. Fold in remaining flour; stir in soaked fruit. Transfer mixture to prepared pan.

4. Bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, or until top is firm touch and a skewer inserted into center comes out clean. Remove from oven; let cool in pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes.

5. Prick top of cake with a skewer in several places; spoon remaining 1/2 cup whiskey over top. Run a knife around sides of pan; release sides. Invert cake onto rack; remove lining paper and return to upright. Let cool completely. Wrap cake in plastic wrap and aluminum foil. Store in a cool place for several weeks to allow cake to mature. Unwrap cake every week; brush a few tablespoons of Irish whiskey on top. Rewrap.

6. On day before serving, lightly dust a work surface with sugar. Unwrap cake and brush top with egg white. Between two sheets of wax paper, roll out marzipan to a 9-inch round. Place on top of cake; trim edges. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate overnight.

7. Make the icing. In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or with a hand mixer), beat egg whites, sugar, and lemon juice on medium-high speed for 5 minutes, or until mixture is stiff enough to spread. With a flexible rubber spatula, spread icing over top and sides of cake. Decorate top with sugared cranberries and rosemary, if desired.  

SUGARED CRANBERRIES AND ROSEMARY: In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until sugar dissolves; remove from heat. Add 1/2 cup cranberries; stir to coat in syrup. With a slotted spoon, transfer cranberries to a wire rack set over a baking sheet or paper towels to drain excess syrup. Let dry for 30 to 40 minutes. Roll in additional sugar; return to rack to dry completely. Repeat with rosemary sprigs. Store in a single layer in an airtight tin; refrigerate for up to 1 week.

    Margaret Johnson’s “Recipes” page also includes “Ireland Hopping: Adventures in Food, Drink, and Travel.” For further details on her work, or to order signed copy of her cookbooks, visit