X-Mas: Origins – How Much Do You Know About Christmas Bakes?
The fragrant smell of log cakes and fruitcakes waft over the lingering smells of finished turkeys and eggnogs. Then comes the shoddily put-together gingerbread house draped in frosting—or maybe, to keep it simple, some gingerbread cookies instead.
That time of the year has finally swung around! Joy abounds as everyone kicks back to feast on good food, good drinks, and good company. Such smells and sights are redolent of what is touted to be the most anticipated season of the year: Christmas. And what with all the hustle and bustle of festivities, food is an integral part of its schema—especially with baked goods and desserts.
With that, now would be a perfectly apt time to dive into a few of the most iconic and traditional Christmas Bakes, and the who, what, and where of their origins.
Served in alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, eggnogs have come to become a staple part of Christmas traditions. Its primary ingredients include milks, eggs, sugar—and, based on the preferences of party guests, alcoholic drinks like rum, brandy, or bourbon.
However, when it was first invented in the United Kingdom (UK) in the 13th century, Britain’s medieval monks had a different name for it: posset. Posset was also made from different ingredients, such as hot milk, warm wine/ale, and spices. Eggs were only added later on. Yet, by a turn of such events, in the 17th century, eggnog ingredients were scarce and expensive, and naturally, most eggnog patrons were of the elite (i.e. aristocracy) who could afford it.
The UK maintained that pseudo-monopoly on the eggnog until the 18th century, when it finally travelled across oceans to the American colonies and Americas. Over there, rum was more readily available, cheaper, and could do the job just as well. In turn, it became popularised as a key substitute and ingredient to its own version of the eggnog.
Gingerbread houses & cookies
Between the two is a key ingredient: gingerbread. (Obviously) made from ginger, this is often in accompaniment with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, molasses, honey, sugar, and other ingredients where the baker sees fit.
Though its origin story is fraught with uncertainties, it is generally claimed that Greece pioneered the first gingerbread in 2400 BC, which was then developed and exported to Europe by an Armenian monk in 992 CE. At that time, however, gingerbread wasn’t delivered in the round, familiar shape of stick-like men. Instead, they were shaped like flowers, animals, kings, and queens, and often changed as the seasons came and went.
As for Gingerbread houses, this was invented in Germany in the 16th century. Their skyrocketing popularity was further owed to the Brother Grimms’ story of Hansel and Gretel, where the pair find a house deep in the forest that is entirely made of sweets and gingerbread.
(Yule) Log cakes
A sweet roulade filled with sponge cake, the Log cake is crafted to resemble the Yule Log, and is practically synonymous with the idea of Christmas dessert (even if not all of us may eat it). Further given its name, its history is rather straightforward.
Dating back to the 19th century in France, Yule Logs were traditionally burnt on Christmas Eve and the following nights in a piecemeal manner. Such practices were to herald the start of the new year, and usher in good luck for the family. Naturally, these practices were followed in the French colonies.
Over time, however, this practice fell off. It was then that the eponymous bake took its place to keep the memory going of the expired tradition. That is not to say that Yule Logs haven’t been burnt since then—just that the yummy bake may be a tad more popular than the actual Log!
A fruitcake’s main ingredients comprise dried or candied fruits, nuts, and spices; though spirits are optional, they tend to be added in most fruitcakes. Since there is no stipulated recipe for this, its recipes also vary from across countries and continents.
Unfortunately, though the fruitcake is a family member in the line-up of Christmas Bakes, it’s not a crowd favourite—and that’s quite a massive understatement in its own right. (This inclination for dislike would include me, by the way.)
Nonetheless, the fruitcake has an intriguing lineage. First conceptualised in ancient Rome, the recipe mainly called for pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins to formulate a reinvigorating dessert. But this changed when the Middle Ages arrived with an uptick in the production and consumption of preserved fruits, which resulted in the upsurge of fruitcake throughout Europe. Afterwards, it was also uprooted to the American colonies in the 16th century. Today, it’s recognised for being widely available at Christmas feasts—and sometimes, weddings.
What’s your favourite bake?
Among the list, I think gingerbread cookies are my favourite! I really enjoy the scent of cinnamon that bursts from the cookie when you bite down on it. Surprisingly, I haven’t made a gingerbread house before, but I do want to try (—even if my DIY skills are subpar at best). Either way, after dropping-in on some of our local bakers, it seems that everybody’s putting an innovative spin on their seasonal bakes this year. Let’s see what they’re up to!
Check out @wawabakes_sg, for their line-up of beautiful Christmas cakes that feature matcha chocolate, red velvet, and rum-flavoured cakes. With adorable names to pair with these flavours, their bakes diverge from the traditional ones—and take the cakes to the next level.
Over at @loveatfirstbitealways, they’ve already delivered their first batch of Log cakes! A festive ‘Merry Christmas’ perches on top of these life-like Yule Logs dusted with confectioners’ sugar, all ready for Christmas right around the corner.
If you need a topping to spice up your Log cakes, look no further than to @sugarthieves.co, which has cute, miniature Christmas decorations of snowmen and mini Christmas trees!
They are also selling their signature Log Cakes in special flavours such as Ondeh, Orh Nee, and Houjicha as well. And unlike the traditional plain-looking fruit cake, they’ve made an ‘Edible Christmas Wreath’ (i.e. Matcha Raspberry Bundt Cake) to add some flourish to the fun bakes this year!
Where to next?
Seems like this year’s local baking scene is thriving; but if you’re still looking for ideas on door gifts, check out our other article on Macarons! In the meantime, have a happy Holidays and merry, merry Christmas!