Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

For the Canadian Food Experience Project Challenge Seven: A Christmas Tradition on the Canadian Prairies

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

 My Great Aunt Lucille made the best white fruit cake. I preferred it when I was young. Most likely, the lack of molasses was key to my young palate, yet the candied pineapple with coconut probably added to its charm as both were delicacies. She used whole almonds with bark on. I couldn’t understand how thin the slices could be and how easily the almonds were to slice through. I grew to appreciate and revere the traditional Christmas fruit cake. Making it was a production. Brushing it with rum, or whisky, or brandy or bourbon was a production. Each woman had their way with their cake and how they made and aged it to burgeoning ripeness. Everyone made the dark cake and some made both.

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

Mis en Place is an important step with this many ingredients in a recipe…

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

When the fruit cakes were pronounced ready, there was scurrying from the pantry to the kitchen table. Unwrapping the test cake was a ritual. I know I held my breath. “Just smell this!” Mom would say, peeling away the foil victoriously presenting the soiled and stained aromatic cheesecloth swaddled package to our nostrils. The fragrance caught in the middle of my throat. A deluge of elixir lovingly soaked into the loaves; enough that just whiffing had me a little starry-eyed. Mom and dad quivered as the cheesecloth unwound releasing the pungent black moist bejeweled fruit cake. Slicing it was key.

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

Passing the fragrance and eye test was critical enough. Now the slicing. Great Aunt Lucille’s mother, my mom’s dad’s mother, and my great grandmother, Granny Anderson, had one clearly defined rule that the perfect Canadian Christmas Fruit Cake must pass: it should be able to be sliced so thin that when holding it up to a window, one can see through the candied fruit and the slice should look like a gorgeous piece of stained glass.

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

 Success! I actually prefer the no-nuts version, now that I have made it with nuts again. They are tasty, but I prefer the look without them. The glass is more “see through” and it reminds me more of my old family cakes. You can also see why leaving the cherries whole is important. That is Beavie holding the piece up to the window for me.

Thinly Sliced

My mom and dad had their own criteria: the flavour test. Whatever taste memory they had built in over years and years of Christmas Fruit Cake making and baking and tasting and testing, both knew whether this year was a good one, or not, pretty much after one bite. Fortunately, almost all years were good ones, but some were exceptional. And when the cake could be sliced to Granny Anderson’s standard and taste tested to my mom’s, then we had the best fruit cake on the Canadian prairies that year.

 Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit CakeTraditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

That was the year that mom would wish she had made more. That was the year that she would cut little sections from her loaf for sharing with her neighbours and friends. Her fruit cake next to theirs on the Traditional Christmas Goodie Plate: there was just no comparison. Of course, we were well bred children and knew to compliment both, but the celebration for mom would be coming home to hear how much better her cake was than so-and-sos. That was just the way it was.

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

When someone gifted you with a section of their fruit cake, you knew it was a very good year at their house, and there was a little tremor in the hand accepting that gift. Usually, it was never better than our own, however, what disgrace if another cake surpassed my own mother’s. She took serious pride in her reputation for having the most spotless house on the block, and consistently aspired to be the best cook and baker in the neighbourhood, as well.

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

There was no contest, as for me, she was.

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

And, that is how I have grown into being a connoisseur of Christmas Fruit Cakes. A very honest route to this métier.

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

Homemade Christmas Fruit Cakes have now become an endangered species on the Canadian prairies. No one I know makes them. No one. I have people to take mine to, but no one to seat my slice beside on the equally endangered Traditional Canadian Christmas Goodie Platter. One may think that eases the pressure of making the best Fruit Cake, but it doesn’t. I still have both mom and dad to please. Their learned palate approval of my homemade Fruit Cake is a coveted trophy. I am a novice in the Fruit Cake making world, as I didn’t learn to make this cake at the hip of my own mother. I have floundered through it on my own, and hope to one day, reign triumphant. Just in my own mind.

Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake or Bourbon Fruit Cake

The Christmas Fruit Cake is as fundamental to a Canadian Christmas as the Christmas Tree itself. It is as much a part of the holiday feast as the turkey on the table. Even more, as there is this story to tell. These are my people. To share this tradition to my own children and future generations of my family are the ties that bind. It is these moments and these stories that have contributed to the character and integrity of this family through the lessons learned via our family rituals.  Such is our homemade Christmas fruit cake.

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Traditional Canadian Christmas Cake
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One the prairies, one was measured by the flavour and texture of their dark fruitcake. Everyone made it. Everyone had an opinion. It is the bourbon that makes all the difference to me, in this exotic dark fruit cake. Makes 2 loaves or 5 small loaves. Must be made a minimum of 4 weeks before the holiday season.
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Canadian
Serves: 5 loaves
  • ¾ c softened butter
  • 1 ¼ c firmly packed brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 ½ c all purpose sifter flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • ½ cup dark molasses
  • ½ cup brewed black coffee (or espresso)
  • ½ cup bourbon
  • 1 pound dark raisins
  • ½ pound candied red cherries, whole
  • ½ pound candied green cherries, whole
  • ¼ pound candied orange peel, chopped
  • ¼ pound candied lemon peel, chopped
  • ½ pound chopped citron
  • ½ pound dark pitted dates, chopped
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted whole
  • Bourbon for soaking cheesecloth in and brushing on
If Gifting Cake:
  • ½ cup warmed red currant jelly
  • Pecan halves, and candied cherry halves
  1. Preheat oven to 300°F and grease two 9 x 5 loaf pans 2½ inches deep or five 5¾ x 3 pans 2 inches deep
  2. Line bottoms with parchment paper; butter it (the original recipe was waxed paper)
  3. Cream together butter and brown sugar; beat in the eggs.
  4. Sift all dry ingredients; beat into butter mixture
  5. Add molasses, coffee, and bourbon to mixture; combine well
  6. Fold in the fruit and nuts
  7. Carefully pack the batter into the prepared pans almost to the top (I used an offset spatula to finish the tops of each cake)
  8. Place pans on centre rack of oven in a bain marie (place pans in a larger pan and pour hot water halfway up the sides); bake for 2 to 2 ½ hours, or until toothpick comes out clean (the small cakes took 50 minutes, so watch carefully after 45 minutes)
  9. If the tops brown too quickly, place foil over the top
  10. Cool 30 minutes, then remove and set on wire rack
  11. Wrap carefully in a triple layer of cheesecloth that has been soaked in bourbon
  12. Seal tightly in aluminum foil and store in a cool dry place until the holiday season
  13. Once a week, remove foil, and brush additional bourbon onto the cheese cloth
  14. The longer it is stored, the more times it is dowsed, the more pungent and flavourful it becomes.
To Gift the Fruitcake:
Brush top of cake with warmed currant jelly; arrange pecan and cherry halves decoratively
Brush again with jelly; allow jelly to set completely
I have made this cake without nuts and had good results; this year I added an extra cup of toasted crushed nuts for extra nuttiness, and may regret it due to the lack of clarity in the slice (which remains to be seen)

 I sure hope that when my Traditional Canadian Prairie Christmas Fruit Cakes 2013 are cured that the images will evidence success. I hope I can show you a thinly sliced stained glass cake that has flavour like no other. Meanwhile, I brush the cakes lovingly each weekend, relish the aroma and pray for the best.

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About Valerie Lugonja

Educator, Writer, Gardener and Traveler who believes in buying and eating locally, and most importantly cooking at home!

Join The Conversation!

  1. Dang! I was going to post about MY fruitcake! Actually, it’s been a ritual for me only since 1989 – I do the Victoria Magazine “Quick” fruit cake – which wins over non-fruit cake lovers every time…

    Your post is beautiful and inspiring… I’m filming my third “episode” of Dale’s Delectables and will be making Christmas cookies and fruit cake… off to work!

  2. Hiya Valerie… reading this, as I drink my macchiato, I can almost smell all those wonderful aromas from here in Australia! I’ve not ever made a traditional fruit cake like this, although we used to run classes on how to make them in the cooking school that I co-owned. Being Hungarian, it was something my mother never baked… and I can only eat it in small quantities… but do like a good one… and yours certainly ‘takes the cake!’

  3. Back in the day I used to make a two toned fruit cake from Canadian Living to gift to family and friends. I know my parents appreciated it. It would have reminded them of their own childhoods.

    • Valerie Lugonja says:

      Why is it, Valerie – that we did so many of those things “back in the day” and don’t do them now? Is it that we are waiting for grandchildren, or that there is so much else to buy that we buy instead?
      I know that working out of the home definitely contributes to the lack of time we have to bake and cook, there is no doubt about that!

  4. Valerie, I have a very old family recipe for the richest, darkest fruit cake ever. It starts with “Take 8 pounds of assorted fruits and nuts, whatever is available. Place the fruits in your largest earthen bowl and dredge it with a gill of your finest single malt. Cover it with a clean linen cloth tied securely and let sit overnight.” Isn’t that priceless? I have made this but not for years as it takes 24 hours between the dredging, mixing and baking in a slow oven but so worth it. You need another gill of single malt for the curing process, which was always done in a large stoneware crock. A gill, if you’re not familiar with it, is 5 fluid ounces. The weekend closest to November 15th was always fruitcake making time when I was a child. The dark cake was always the favourite of dad and I but mom and my sister preferred the light cake, made with pineapple, red cherries and plump golden raisins.

    • Valerie Lugonja says:

      What a gorgeous recipe. Do you know where it came from? Can you write out or better yet, scan it and send it? I would love a copy and the story behind it if you can find where you got it from. This is my first lesson on gill. I was just about to google it when I realized you didn’t make a typo. I am assuming that is old English… absolutely brilliant. These are the stories that we must tell. Can you imagine? And, yes, you probably can: “whatever is available.” And 8 pounds of it! I imagine that the fruit from the harvest was dried and collected specifically for this purpose… and the exotics bought and traded. I still remember the first time I saw a golden raisin. It was a bit of a shock til I thought about it, and then I wondered why I hadn’t seen them as often as the dark. I have my grandmothers earthen bowl… the size is stamped on the bottom. Size 12, I believe it was the biggest made. It is precious. And, I have her earthenware butter churn that I use for a crock when I need one, so I am set. It is just that a gill seems like such a small amount! :) I actually used 4 ounces to soak my cheesecloth. I would have used whatever it took. Then, interestingly, it took 3 ounces to brush on the tops the first week… so, we are looking at a few gills come the holidays.

  5. I love fruit cake! My grandmother would make it every Christmas, but so few people make it these days. It’s such a tragedy.

    • Valerie Lugonja says:

      Do you make it Laura? Who, in your family, has taken on your grandmother’s role?
      (I sure hope someone has kept her recipe!)

  6. Valerie, here it is:
    Take 8 pounds of assorted fruits and nuts, whatever is available. Place the fruits in your largest earthen bowl and dredge it with a gill of your finest single malt. Cover it with a clean linen cloth tied securely and let sit overnight. Roast the nuts until golden and fully scented and stir into the fruit. In another bowl combine 3 cups of your finest milled and sifted flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt, 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1 1/2 tsp allspice, 3/4 tsp nutmeg and 1/2 tsp cloves, making sure you have completely ground your spices with your pestle. Combine 1 cup freshly churned butter with 2 cups darkest brown sugar, beating well until all of the sugar is creamed, add 4 large new laid eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each one. Sift in the flour mixture, a little at a time, alternating with another gill of your finest single malt. Beat the batter smooth after each addition. Stir in the fruits and nuts and have all family members take a turn stirring, starting with the eldest, each person making a wish for the Yule season as they stir, until all persons present have blessed the cakes. Generously butter 2 pieces of brown paper, cut to fit your loaf pans, with enough paper to fold over the top of each cake. Line the loaf pans and pour in the batter. Place a pan in the bottom of the oven and add 2 cups water to it. Bake in a slow oven (300F) for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, watching to make sure it doesn’t brown too quickly, folding the excess paper over the tops if needed. It will be done when a clean straw from your broom comes out clean when poked in the centre of the cakes. Allow the cakes to completely cool, then remove from the paper and wrap in cheesecloth. Saturate the cloth with single malt and place them in your crock, closing the lid tightly. Each week thereafter check the cakes for freshness and add more single malt as needed. Allow at least 6 weeks to ripen well, then slice thinly. The first slices should not be taken until after Evensong service on Christmas Eve.
    I absolutely love this recipe and the directions about using only the finest and freshest ingredients always bring a smile to my face. This was truly a labour of love. My family is Scots-Irish and this came down from the Scottish side. We have no idea how old it actually is but my dad remembered his great grandmother making it and he was born in 1922, which would date it back to the 1850’s or 1860’s and was probably passed on before then. It is well worth the work. I do hope you try this one year. The small glimpses into my ancestor’s lives is priceless.

    • Valerie Lugonja says:

      Thank you for sharing this precious recipe with me and my readers. I do think your family name should be on it, Brendi, if you don’t mind, and for ownership purposes… if you can add that back onto it – or send it to me and I can edit it in. That is about the most precious recipe I have read. Truly. It sounds like a goal for next year… but maybe I will do only 4 pounds of dried fruit?

  7. Valerie, of course you can add our family name to it, our last name is Walls. We have lots of old recipes we have passed on over the years and happily share with all the cooks we know as that is the best way to ensure they don’t disappear into the mists. I hate it when I hear someone say “my mother used to make the best …. but I don’t have the recipe”. We have my great aunt’s biscuit recipe that she got from her grandmother or maybe her great grandmother and they have to be the easiest, lightest biscuits I have ever made or tasted. Great aunt Nora’s banana bread that has baking soda stirred into the buttermilk, a quick bread that is a standard in most homes but this one is so yummy. These old recipes are the ones we need to keep sharing, especially now when so many people think that cooking from scratch is a chore. I cringed when I saw a new cookbook of “500 easy family recipes” only to discover they were all based on mixes and premade dishes to which you added a tiny bit of real food. That is not cooking!
    The fruit cake recipe makes several pounds, feel free to cut it in half if you wish. One year my dad doubled the recipe so we would have some left so he could have fruit cake for his birthday instead of the usual cake. Too funny but it was his favourite cake. We had fruit cake all year and no one minded at all.

  8. What a delightful treat to time travel here, Valerie. I’ve never made fruitcake and have only had the fortune to witness the production a couple of times but never in my own home. My maternal grandmother, who hailed from near you, made it every year, but she was a teetotaller … and so it wasn’t until my young adulthood that I ran into my first 40-day fruitcake that had been carefully basted with rum throughout its life. My eyes popped when I ate that … and I was happily gifted with one of those cakes for many more years whilst I lived in Calgary. Clearly my reaction was the right one. :) But truly, what you weave in your story is pure art, both in the telling and in the love and attention it takes to create such a treasured confection. I’ve always loved fruitcake, always sat in that strange minority, and always wanted to make my own. Thank you for sharing a treasured recipe and I look forward to taking the plunge next year. Yum!

    • Valerie Lugonja says:

      Hey Dale…
      I am no expert, yet… working at it. Cannot wait to see if this batch passes “the family test”. Sure hope so!

  9. This post brings back memories of my mom lovingly carrying on the Christmas fruit cake tradition from her mother! It is her must-make Christmas recipe and gift, but sadly she never convinced any of her 5 daughters to love it…I almost want to carry on the tradition just for it’s own sake, whether I love the cake or not!

    • Valerie Lugonja says:

      Hey, Anna,
      That is actually kind of what I am doing. I do enjoy the cake. A piece, or two… over the season… but even the smallest recipe makes much much more than that. So, about every two years I make a batch and give half or more away. I save a cake for the following year as it will definitely last that long. I was wondering about whether I should date each of these and age them over the next five years, and take notes. I think I have too many people expecting cake, but that would be fun!

  10. I have so many fruit cakes recipes to try from the old days in Québec. Yours turned out beautiful. I should be your neighbor and we would eat it together :)

  11. Valerie Lugonja says:

    If you are able to come to the Food Bloggers Conference In October, I will bring some for us to Eat Together!

  12. One day I will tackle fruitcake….Mike and I both love it, unlike so many people, we’re always given a hard time LOL.

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