Manitou Winds’ 2019 Winter Songs & Carols program celebrates home, holidays, and hygge. To prepare for this year’s concert, we’re excited to bring you Comfort & Joy: a new series of musically and seasonally-inspired recipes from the Woodwind Gourmet.
My most cherished holiday memories tend to originate somewhere around the kitchen — the warmest place in the home for so many reasons! Maybe it’s because holiday baking brings the whole family together to revel in the season, telling stories, making memories, and eating all the best things. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share special recipes I hope will inspire you to rekindle old memories with loved ones or to start brand new traditions with your family.
Nollaig, is the Irish word for the month of December and also the Irish festival of Christmas. In the United States, we tend to think of Christmas as a one-day affair: a single day preceded by weeks of hurried shopping and incessant warbling on local radio stations beginning roughly the moment Thanksgiving dishes are done. Meanwhile, in Ireland, Christmas Day means the celebration has only just begun with tons of traditions and parties ahead. Nollaig begins December 24th and lasts through January 6th.
One happy Nollaig tradition is the long-awaited slicing of the Christmas Cake (Cáca Nollag) — a very special dessert whose preparations begin weeks in advance. Unique family recipes, special decorative touches, and anticipation are hallmarks of the classic Christmas Cake. With just a touch of planning, you can make this festive cake the center of your holiday celebration.
Recipes vary from family to family, but the traditional Cáca Nollag is a hearty, fruit-filled, whiskey-steeped cake topped with a layer of marzipan and covered with a sparkling white royal icing.
You’ll quickly notice none of the ingredients are exotic or hard to find. Instead, what makes this cake a marvel is its “maturing” period: after baking, it’s drenched with whiskey, wrapped, then aged for several weeks before finally being frosted, decorated, and eaten. A special sort of magic happens during the maturing period that elevates this from fruitcake (an unfortunate concoction sure to send most people fleeing from well-meaning relatives) to sublime. Maturing also preserves the cake so it can last throughout the festival — a good thing since a small slice of it goes a long way!
Cáca Nollag (Irish Christmas Cake)
2 1/4 cup dried currants
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup dark raisins
1/3 cup chopped dried cherries
1/3 cup candied orange peel
2/3 cup chopped toasted almonds
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
grated zest and juice of 1 medium orange
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup Irish whiskey, divided
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup firmly-packed dark brown sugar
7-8 ounces marzipan or almond paste
2 egg whites
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
VERY IMPORTANT: Begin this recipe 30-40 days before December 25th! Immature Christmas Cakes are like bad party guests: both have no taste and reek of booze!
The day before baking, combine the first 14 ingredients (currants through cloves) in a large bowl; drizzle on 1/2 cup whiskey, stir to combine thoroughly. Cover and allow to soak overnight.
The next day, preheat oven to 275-degrees. Lightly butter a 9-inch springform pan, line bottom with a round of parchment, then butter parchment as well.
Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; whisk to remove any lumps and evenly combine. Using a trusty large wooden spoon, cream together softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy; add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and adding about 1/4 cup of the flour mixture after each egg. Fold in remaining flour mixture and the soaked fruit mixture in two additions (it’s a thick, sturdy batter; don’t add any additional liquid). Spoon batter into prepared pan; bake until cake is firm to the touch and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean (this will take approximately 2 hours). Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes.
While cake is cooling, cover a large plate or round platter with two long sheets of aluminum foil, overlapping the long sides by a few inches. Cover the foil with two long sheets of parchment, overlapping the long sides by a few inches. Finally, place the still-slightly-warm cake into the center of the covered platter. Using a skewer or chopstick, prick top of cake all over; slowly pour remaining 1/2 cup whiskey over cake. Allow cake to cool completely before wrapping.
Bring parchment over cake as securely as possible followed by the foil to completely seal. Store in a cool, dark place for several weeks to allow cake to fully mature. [Note: Some folks prefer to “feed” the cake by unwrapping it and drizzling on a little more whiskey once a week, but this is totally optional and definitely makes a boozy-tasting cake. I personally like the cake without additional “feedings”!]
On Christmas Eve, it’s time to assemble and decorate! Unwrap cake and place on a cardboard round or decorating surface. Dust a work surface with a little confectioner’s sugar. Roll out marzipan or almond paste to about a 10-inch circle (the marzipan layer will be covered by thick icing, so it doesn’t have to be beautiful). Gently place marzipan round atop cake and lightly press into place with fingertips; trim marzipan layer with a sharp knife so it fits the top of cake (eat any marzipan trimmings right away!).
To make the Royal Icing: with a hand-held mixer or stand mixer, beat egg whites in a large mixing bowl until slightly frothy. Continuing to beat, gradually add confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice. Beat until icing is stiff enough to spread (a bit more or less confectioner’s sugar may be required). If you’re feeling extra festive, divide finished icing into a few small bowls to dye it festive colors for piped decorations.
Spread the white icing over top and sides of cake to completely cover. Pipe on any colored icing decorations you’d like then decorate with holly sprigs or other festive festoonery. (FYI: Fresh holly sprigs are the traditional decoration for this cake, however holly is not edible and both the leaves and berries contain a mildly toxic substance. Festoon with artificial holly if you want to be extra safe!)
Store decorated cake covered in the fridge. Within a few hours, the frosting will harden to a solid shell. Serve slices to friends and family with strong Irish Breakfast tea or strong coffee and cream.
I baked my first Cáca Nollag in 2018. As it baked in the low oven, our entire house slowly filled with the rich smell of spices and fruits. Drizzling whiskey on a still-warm cake felt decidedly naughty, and added another dimension to the festive smell. Once the cake cooled and absorbed its whiskey bath, it no longer smelled like hooch!
Wrapping and stashing the cake in the back of our dark pantry for weeks was like writing a long letter to Santa or hiding presents under the tree (no peeking!). All throughout Advent and the approach of Christmas, when I’d see the package in the pantry, I’d feel a childish giddiness creeping up on me. Decorating the cake (while blaring traditional Irish music) was a total blast.
Then, finally taking that first bite on Christmas… wow! All the flavors melded into a heart-warming, rich, memorable, multi-faceted taste that just doesn’t yield to words. We savored it well into January and got to share slices with several friends (including those who ordinarily despise fruitcake). You don’t have to be Irish to create this unique holiday treat. Will this be the year you make your first Cáca Nollag?
Recipe adapted from:
Johnson, Margaret. The Irish Heritage Cookbook. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.
Quirky Irish language fact: the word for Christmas is Nollaig, but when the word is used in the genitive case (e.g., Christmas Cake, Christmas gifts, etc.), the spelling changes to Nollag. Depending on the dialect, the pronunciation remains the same.