The story of the plum cake begins in medieval England, where it was a popular tradition to observe a period of self-denial, fasting, and abstinence from every kind of indulgence in the weeks leading to Christmas.The abstinence and occasional fasting was supposed to prepare the body for the overindulgence and excesses of Christmas.
History of Christmas Pudding
Christmas cake is an English tradition that began as plum porridge. People ate the porridge on Christmas Eve, using it to line their stomachs after a day of fasting. Soon dried fruit, spices and honey were added to the porridge mixture, and eventually it turned into Christmas pudding.
In the 16th century, oatmeal was removed from the original recipe, and butter, wheat flour and eggs were added. These ingredients helped hold the mixture together and in what resulted in a boiled plum cake. Richer families that had ovens began making fruit cakes with marzipan, an almond sugar paste, for Easter.
For Christmas, they made a similar cake using seasonal dried fruit and spices. The spices represented the exotic eastern spices brought by the Wise Men. This cake became known as "Christmas cake."
It is not clear, however, how it came to be called the plum pudding, or plum cake. Some believe that raisins, or currants, were also referred to as plums (or plumb) in England. The recipe was abundant in raisins, hence the name. Yet others believe that dried plums, or prunes, were the main ingredient of the original porridge, and were gradually replaced by other, more exotic dried fruits. Whatever be the case, the name stayed.
The cake stayed too, even though it was very close to being lost in the reformation period of the late 19th century when Queen Victoria banned the feast of the twelfth night. The confectioners (by now it had become a commercial exercise as well) who had stocked their pantries up for the twelfth night celebration decided to use their stock and bake cakes for Christmas instead, lest they suffer losses.
The tradition caught on
Around the same time, families of men working in British colonies in Australia, America, Canada and other parts of the world began to make their cakes weeks, or even months, in advance and send it to them as a part of the Christmas hamper along with wine and presents. And that is how the first plum cake travelled out of England.
In the last two centuries since it first travelled out of England, the plum cake has reached every corner of the world. Every country, region and family has a different version of the recipe. Some are made with nuts soaked in rum, some are fed with sherry or brandy for weeks after being baked, and some have no alcohol at all. Then there are those made up of cream cheese and whipped cream, and those containing minced meat (although they are more of a pie than a cake).