Expert tips to bake your best Christmas cake this year

By Jess Spiro, 17 November 2021

Ahead of stir-up Sunday, we’ve chatted to 3 experts on how to bake the best-ever Christmas cake this year.

Carianne and Alicia Wilkinson

The famed culinary school is a family-run affair with Carianne and her mother Alicia at the helm. Silwood has become known for its Christmas cake recipe, which also forms part of the first-year curriculum.

Can you start with a little history of Silwood’s Christmas cake recipe? Where does it come from? What makes it so special?

There are two Silwood’s Christmas cake recipes, the creaming method cake, which needs to be matured, and the boiled fruit cake. Both are delicious, rich and fruit-packed cakes but the boiled cake version literally "takes the cake", without a doubt. It can be made at the last minute before Christmas  and no one will know that it hasn't been made weeks in advance because of the method  for plumping the fruit and the steam baking. It's also an old family recipe passed down to Lesley Faull, Alicia's mother, by her Irish mother.

What are your non-negotiables when making Christmas cake? What ingredients have to be included? Do you have any tips for people wanting to make substitutions?

The original boiled fruit cake recipe is a celebration fruit cake, which means it can be used as a wedding cake too, but to give it a traditional Christmas flavour, we suggest adding sweet spices such as mixed spice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Dates are an absolutely essential ingredient whether you like dates or not, as they disintegrate during the initial fruit plumping preparation and form a soft, deeply coloured mixture that disperses throughout the cake,  producing a moist mixture. Leaving out the dates will result in a cake that is pale and wan, without the traditional matured Christmas cake character, and it definitely won't be as moist. The proportion of fruit as called for in the recipe is also  important. Currants are essential as they contribute a delicious sour flavour to the finished cake.

How far in advance do you suggest baking the cakes and why? What would you advise someone to do if they left their baking a little too close to Christmas?

Creaming method cakes, if made and served without being matured, taste dry and somewhat insipid. Maturing imparts the rich, moist flavour you expect from a Christmas cake. Silwood’s boiled fruit cake can be made and served immediately as it's moist and rich – although we do always mature it for, at least, a few days to give a bit more of a boozy flavour. Traditionally, creamed Christmas cakes are made three months before Christmas, however six weeks can suffice. Stir-up Sunday is the name of the day on which the Christmas pudding is made, and generally includes the making of the Christmas cake.

What are some of the common mistakes you see people make when baking Christmas cakes? Such as a dry/crumbly finished product; mix-ins sinking to the bottom of the tin, etc.

To avoid a dry or sunken cake, it's best to steam bake it for a moist, deeply coloured result, which tastes as if the cake has matured for weeks. To steam bake, insulate the cake pan with layers of newspaper on the outside and underneath, cover the pan with a foil lid, and sprinkle with water at intervals during the baking. The most important thing is that the cake is perfectly cooked. If it's underbaked, it will sink in the middle as it cools and if it's overbaked, it collapses into crumbs when you cut it. After the suggested baking time, test the cake by inserting a skewer into it. It should come out with nothing sticking to it.

silwood christmas cake

What is your advice for feeding the cakes? How often do you feed them? What's your favourite thing to feed them with?

By  preserving the cake with a gentle dousing of a mixture of alcohol such as brandy and sherry, the cake will keep for months without going stale or mouldy. If you're maiking Silwood’s boiled fruit cake, it really only needs one dousing, with no need to mature. The cake is so delicious that you won’t have any leftovers to keep fresh. If you're using a traditional creamed-method cake, it should be doused weekly for 4 to 8 weeks, depending on how long it needs to be preserved.  The longer it needs to be kept, the more it needs to be doused. Remember to alternate dousing the top and the bottom of the cake.

Learn how to make a Christmas cake the Silwood way with their course.

Mynhardt Joubert

Chef Mynhardt is known for his Christmas cakes that do good:  every year he bakes hundreds of Christmas cakes to raise money for Butterfly House, a community resource centre in the Drakenstein District aimed at creating a hopeful future, and Helpende Handjies in Montagu. Both NGOs run feeding schemes for children as part of their programmes. While you can order your cake from Mynhardt, he also has some tips for anyone making your own at home.

What is your one non-negotiable when it comes to Christmas cakes?

The first rule is to use quality ingredients, as each ingredient supports the others. So don’t compromise, especially not with the butter.

How far in advance do you suggest baking fruit cake?

Who intends to bake a fruit cake and keep it for a decade? While it can last that long, you  want to make it a few months or weeks in advance. As the batter is dense and candied fruit and nuts don’t spoil, the cake will be shelf-stable for weeks, even months when properly wrapped and stored at room temperature. However, if you don’t get round to baking it in advance, a day or two is okay.

Why do you think fruit cake has a bad reputation?

It always comes as a surprise to me when people say they have a love-hate relationship with fruit cake. Perhaps they’ve only tasted shop-bought fruit cake made with cheap ingredients, inferior dried fruit and no love. They might complain about overbearing spices, as using too much easily overpowers the fruit and nuts. Mixed spice contains cloves, allspice and nutmeg – rather go for the warmth and familiarity of cinnamon and vanilla. If you want some punch, get adventurous with the floral notes of cardamom, ginger, or even caraway seeds.

How do I prevent the dried fruit and nuts from sinking to the bottom?

If you're not using the boiling method for the fruit, lightly toss the fruit and nuts in cake flour before stirring it into the batter. This prevents them from settling at the bottom.

Why is my fruit cake so crumbly?

The balance of fruit to cake batter is most likely out of proportion. Too much sugar can make a cake crumble when cut, while too little will make it dense – that’s why it’s essential to carefully measure the ingredients.

Get the recipe for Silwood fruit cake here.

How do I prevent my fruit cake from burning?

Baking a fruit cake is not a speed test, so take your time with it. The fruit has a high sugar content, which may burn easily if you’re not patient – rather go for a lower oven temperature, 120 °C at the most. Properly prepare your pans by lining all sides and the bottom with 2 to 3 layers of baking or brown paper. Some experts even tie brown paper or newspaper around the outside of the tin for extra protection, but if you bake it at 120°C it’s not necessary. The cake doesn’t rise much, but only fill the tin to about two-thirds for  even baking. It's also important to remember that ovens may differ – so if a skewer still comes out doughy when inserted, lightly cover the cake with foil or baking paper to prevent drying out or browning too quickly, and bake for a little longer.  Make a small, coin-size hole in the middle to allow the steam to escape. Placing a bowl of water on the oven's floor will also help to keep the cake tender and moist.

Read more about Mynhardt and his Christmas cakes here.


Jason Lilley

Jason, the owner of Jason Bakery in Green Point, is known for his daily fresh breads, croissants and baked goods, but come Christmas, his fruit cake is steeped in history – and brandy – as the recipe comes from his great-grandmother (a.k.a. Grandma Babs).

Can you start with a little history of your Christmas cake recipe? Where does it come from? What makes it so special?

The recipe comes from my Scottish Grandma, Grandma Babs (my mom’s mom), she turned 93 on 16 November! She used to make this cake for the family every Christmas and I loved it so damn much I got her to make me one for my birthday every year. Grandma’s recipes have played a huge role in the product line at the bakery.

What are your non-negotiables when making Christmas cake? What ingredients simply have to be included? Do you have any tips for people wanting to make substitutions?

Our cakes are made exactly the way grandma made them. We have been making them for 14 years now.  Nothing has changed or ever will.  It's a very traditional Christmas cake.  Whole almonds, red glaće cherries, sultanas, currants, raisins and candied citrus peel. And loads of brandy! I guess you could substitute dried cranberries for the raisins if you really wanted to.

How far in advance do you suggest baking the cakes and why? What would you advise someone to do if they left their baking a little too close to Christmas?

We start baking our cakes in June and feed them with brandy every 3 weeks, so by the time December comes around they are well fed (almost a full bottle of brandy goes into each cake!) and beautifully moist. I would not suggest driving or operating heavy machinery after having a slice. If you have left it too late, feed the cake a little brandy every week. Flip the cake 2 days after the last feed to allow the brandy to seep through the cake evenly.

jason bakery christmas cake

What are some of the common mistakes you see people make when baking Christmas cakes?  How can people avoid making these mistakes?

Be patient. Don’t take shortcuts. Use the best ingredients. FOLLOW THE RECIPE.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to decorate their cake?

Use real marzipan! None of that cheap Persipan s**t so many South Africans think is marzipan. IT IS NOT AND IT IS AWFUL!

What is your favourite way to serve Christmas cake?

The best way to eat Christmas cake is the Yorkshire way! A thick slice (about 15 mm thick) topped with a 5 mm-thick slice of no less than six-month matured Cheddar.  My dad was born in Leeds in Yorkshire and this is how he’d eat Christmas cake. I always thought it a bit odd until I tried it. It's fantastic.

Orders for Grandma Babs's Christmas cakes are open. Contact Jason Bakery here.

Find our favourite Christmas cake recipes here:

Peter's luxury fruit cake recipeGet the recipe for Peter's luxury fruit cake here.

Get the recipe for easy fruit cake here.

Jess Spiro

Article by Jess Spiro

Jess Spiro is a freelance food writer, chef and restaurant critic based in Cape Town, who can often be found in search of the next great plate of food. Follow her on Instagram @jess_spiro to see what she's eating.
View all articles
Load more