Christmas cake cuties

Not everyone loves traditional Christmas cake, but what’s not to love about these cute Christmas cake decorations?

Christmas cake decoration, circa 1950, Hamburg, by Hugo Cordts. Gift of Annette Baier, 1996. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH004855/83)

Christmas cake decoration, circa 1950, Hamburg, by Hugo Cordts. Gift of Annette Baier, 1996. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH004855/83)

These miniature Santas are part of a collection of cake decorations associated with the Wellington bakery and coffee house Konditorei Aida. They would be more at home on a white iced, firm rich fruit cake, rather than on top of New Zealanders’ beloved Christmas dessert, the fruit and whipped cream covered pavlova.

Christmas cake decoration, circa 1950, Hamburg, by Hugo Cordts. Gift of Annette Baier, 1996. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH004855/51)

Christmas cake decoration, circa 1950, Hamburg, by Hugo Cordts. Gift of Annette Baier, 1996. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH004855/51)

Cake rituals

While I was growing up, my mother left the Christmas pavlova to my grandmother and focussed on the cake. The recipe she used most often was one that involved soaking lots of dried and jewel-like glace fruit in ginger ale.

Bottle top, maker unknown. Gift of Toby Stevenson, 2011. Te Papa (GH021674/225)

Bottle top, maker unknown. Gift of Toby Stevenson, 2011. Te Papa (GH021674/225)

My brother and I were allowed to stir the cake batter 12 times before it went into the cake tin. If you made a wish at the same time it was supposed to come true. The final product was usually slathered with a butter icing laced with brandy.

My mother, grandmother and aunts also had, and continue to subscribe to an excellent tradition: for every different variety of Christmas cake you taste, you will have a happy or lucky month in the coming year. This is very convenient family folklore that justifies eating a lot of delicious cake.

Dough or duff?

A close relation of the Christmas cake is plum pudding or duff (a variation on the word dough), a hot steamed dessert that, despite its name, is made from any variety of dried fruits, flour, sugar and suet. Spices such as ground nutmeg and lemon peel are common ingredients in published recipes.

Ground Nutmegs, Mid 20th century, New Zealand, by David Strang Ltd, Coffee and Spice Merchants. Gift of Mrs Sheila Douglas Dunbar, 2009. Te Papa (GH012696)

Ground Nutmegs, Mid 20th century, New Zealand, by David Strang Ltd, Coffee and Spice Merchants. Gift of Mrs Sheila Douglas Dunbar, 2009. Te Papa (GH012696)

Plum pudding has been part of the New Zealand cuisine and Christmas fare since the 19th century, and the winter Christmas menus brought to New Zealand from the northern hemisphere. As one 19th century settler put it:

‘If we had a couple of handfuls of currants and raisins, we shoved them into a lot of flour and sugar, and we put a bit of mutton fat into the middle, and tied it all up together in the sleeve of an old flannel shirt and boiled it, and it used to come out a first-rate plum duff.’

Hidden dolls

Other ‘ingredients’ in plum puddings were small porcelain ‘pudding dolls’ like the one below. What a delight to find one of these treasures buried in the cake, or lurking under the custard.

Pudding Doll - head and body glued together, maker unknown. Gift of Beverley Randell Price, 2009. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH012256)

Pudding Doll – head and body glued together, maker unknown. Gift of Beverley Randell Price, 2009. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH012256)

Puddings on the peninsula

Even during World War One, New Zealand soldiers on Gallipoli looked forward to plum duff – despite their circumstances. In November 1915, while preparing for a winter in the trenches, Douglas Rawei McLean informed his mother that he and his mates had raisins and sugar, and were ’only waiting for an issue of flour to try our hand at plum duff’.

Plum pudding was often sent overseas to soldiers during the war. It was relatively cheap to make, kept well over the long journey, and was a taste of home. Local meat canneries also donated plum puddings to the soldiers, a good way of using up their suet. Suet is raw beef or mutton fat, especially the hard fat found around the loins and kidneys; some recipes for Christmas cakes, puddings and fruit mince still call for this ingredient.

Do you have a special or unusual ingredient in your festive cooking?

We’d love to know – leave a reply below.

See more about New Zealand’s evolving Christmas fare in:

  • Alison Clarke, Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth Century New Zealand (AUP, 2007), chapter one.
  • David Veart, First Catch Your Weka (AUP, 2008), chapter fifteen.

 

5 Responses

  1. adele

    oopsie I made an error said 6d in Christmas Puddings, it was little silver 3d kept especially for the Puds.. some families used to have their coins in a small sachet kept for Christmas. I have some 3d somewhere safe!

    Reply
  2. adele

    wonder if the Museum has the Princess Mary Tin put out in 1914, I had a Christmas card made about it this year, 100 years on… gave Aratoi a card.. the history of the card is so interesting, lovely idea for each person serving WW1 off the Commonwealth should have a present in 1914, but would the nurses had received one as well, or just soldiers? I have one of these lovely tins.. brass.. have seen a family one silvered. thanks.

    Reply
  3. adele

    what about the silver coins put in Christmas Puddings many moons ago.. history! silver 6d. etc.. still have some in my hoards… hadnt heard about a doll though.

    Reply
    • kirstie

      Yes – I was surprised about the pudding dolls too – imagine biting into one! We have more than one in the collection, although they are bit worse for wear. Did you read the history of the dolls? Part of an amazing children’s hoard of special things.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)