Sunday 24 November 2013

Boiled fruit cakes and things

My first shot at a Porter Cake led to a discussion on the origin of the method of cake making referred to as "boiled" - British, Australian? This procedure starts by boiling sugar, fat (butter, margarine or shortening), dried fruit and water (or dark beer) in a saucepan for a few minutes, cooling the mixture, adding a little bicarbonate of soda and eggs, stirring in flour with spices then baking in a lined tin for a good long time in a moderate oven. Sometimes the wet ingredient mixture is added to the dry mix, sometimes it's the other way round, and sometimes the bicarb is part of the dry mix, but the boiling bit is always the same.

The Porter Cake came from the BBC Good Food Cakes and Bakes recipe book (thanks again to Jean for this). It was published in the BBC Good Food magazine but is no longer on the web site. Lynn Burns's Fruit Cake is the only version I can find on-line. Needless to say it is wonderful. My dried fruit consisted of sultanas, giant golden raisins, currants and diced crystallised ginger. I reduced the sugar a little as the ginger was quite sugary. Like everyone else, I found that the cake needed another quarter of an hour to cook through.
To add my five penn'orth to the discussion, I recall my parents, not the most adventurous of cooks normally, making a boiled fruit cake in a state of high excitement, to an American recipe in a women's magazine (or the Radio Times perhaps). This would have been in the sixties, probably. Referring to my cooking bible (Good Housekeeping Cookery Book, 1966 edition) I find no recipes for such a cake. Indeed the gingerbread recipe states that the sugar and butter should be carefully melted together without allowing the mixture to boil.

However in my 1963 copy of the Stork classic The Art of Home Cooking there is a recipe for Fruit Cake (melting method).

Make that fifty years' service - we've knocked about a bit!
Cook books of this era tend to be rather less discursive than modern books of the Celebrity Chef era (although Celebrity Chefs existed in the 60s, such as Fanny Craddock, but does anyone remember Philip Harben? My first skillet, aka lidded frying pan, was Harbenware, one of the earliest non-sticks, and a real innovation in 1969). Anyway, there is no indication of the origin of the boiled cake in the Stork book. I reproduce the recipe as it stands, just with the addition of metric measurements.


100g/4 oz. Stork Margarine [other margarines are available, but it was propaganda for Stork!]
100g/4 oz. demerara sugar (4 rounded tablespoons)
200g/8 oz. dried fruit (currants, sultanas, raisins, etc.)
150ml/¼ pint hot water
200g/8 oz. self-raising flour (8 heaped tablespoons)
½ level teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 level teaspoon mixed spice
½ level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 egg (beaten)
Pre-heated to moderate (gas 4, 360°F, 180°C)


  1. Line a 20cm/7-inch cake tin.
  2. Put the Stork, sugar, mixed fruit and water into a medium-sized saucepan. Stir over a low heat until the Stork has melted and the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil and simmer for three minutes. Remove and allow to cool to luke-warm.
  3. Sieve the flour, nutmeg, mixed spice and bicarbonate of soda into a mixing bowl.
  4. Make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour in the cooled mixture and the egg. Stir quickly together, mixing thoroughly.
  5. Turn into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top.
  6. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 1½ - 1¾ hours 45 minutes - 1 hour.
  7. Test [with a skewer] before removing from oven. Leave in the tin for 2-3 minutes. Turn out; remove paper and cool on a wire tray.

Let's travel forward in time from 1963 to the wonderfully-named Modern Fruit Cake from Baking with Stork (such exotic fruit! milk, not water! two eggs! but where's all the sugar?). Then back in time to Jean's 1940s  War Cake, a luxury at a time of rationing (so much sugar! lard! and water! no egg!). Then further back to 1920s Depression Cake, also called "Milkless, Eggless, Butterless Cake" and yet further to 1860s Civil War Cake. That refers to the American Civil War, 150 years ago. Yes, it's an American cake...or maybe German? Or Italian? The trail goes cold!

Many thanks to Susan for Daisy's Best Boiled Fruitcake (an Australian version).


Colin and Elizabeth said...

Yes I remember Philip Harben. I also remember my parents cooking up a Christmas cake year after year. Maturing it, and then eating it with strong cheese, which my mother said was a Yorkshire custom! It is very good though. I am not sure of the method they used, it could have been this one! Col

Colin and Elizabeth said...

I have a recipe for a boiled fruit cake but it was always known in the family as "Auntie Freda's Cake". Auntie Freda was my father's sister and one not to be questioned on anything.... so I guess no-one asked her where she got the original recipe! Elizabeth

Jean said...

I used to have a recipe for "aunty Vera's boiled fruit cake" which was delicious.
I think she put lard and cold tea in it, but sadly I have long since lost the piece of paper where she wrote it out for me in her own handwriting.
I have yet to make a porter cake but did get a slice at this year's CIN cake stall ~ it was lovely.

Tim said...

Fruit cake and sharp cheese is definitely a Yorkshire custom - it had to be Wensleydale though Gromit! The Aunties sound really powerful ladies. A good cake is a fine memorial, I think. P.