All the Yum Without the Rum: Alcohol-free Christmas Cake

Written by on 22 November 2011 in Food & Drink, Seasonal - 5 Comments

This is a guest post by Dr Janis Callister.

Not the actual cake. Photo: Ross Angus

As a scientist, I often have to evolve my experiments, adapting them change.  The cooking analogy is well used in the lab, and with good reason. The approach is familiar: finding tried and tested methods, then adjusting them for your own use with your knowledge of the ‘ingredients’, depending on what you wish to achieve.

I am lucky enough that those close to me have always gone out of their way to make sure the things they buy, bake or cook for me are completely free of things I am allergic to. My aunties have made Christmas cakes and puddings in the past, carefully omitting all nuts, just for me. Every one was appreciated and delicious; probably extra tasty because of the thought and effort put in, and because they could be enjoyed by the whole family.

For that reason, I’m making my first christmas cake as a gift for my family this Christmas, and we’ll all share it with my brother, who doesn’t drink alcohol. Now you may think this is no big deal – there are plenty of alcohol-free Christmas Cake recipes – and you’d be right. But I like my festive fruits with alcohol, and I’m pretty sure my brother Neil (whose site this is) used to as well, so this can’t be any old orange-juice substituted cake.

Depending on how much alcohol you usually ‘feed’ your Christmas cake, this could well be a better cake to give to your guests who may be driving too: the number of units in a piece of cake is highly variable, and they soon add up over the festive period. Besides, the point of this is cake is that it will be delicious, and no one will ever miss the loopy juice.

With many traditional fruit cakes, alcohol is often used not only for added for flavour, but also to moisten and preserve. The subtle flavours that come from distilled spirits are due not simply to the ethanol, but also esters and other alcohols that are collected during distillation.

For this reason, I’m upping the subtle flavours in my cake by adding tea-soaked fruit (a la Dominic Hopkinson), but spicing it up with Chai, and adding a nod to Temperance Bars with sarsaparilla, but you could easily substitute with a little Manchester Magic (a more readily available traditional temperance drink in UK supermarkets). As for the moisture and preservation, I’ll detail that in the recipe, which is based on the tried-and-tested Delia great “The Classic Christmas Cake”.

I’ll update this blog with photographs of the finished cake (and maybe us stuffing our faces with it), but it is important to remember that however these things turn out, the thought, time and effort put in to them alone makes them a wonderful gift. Take that from someone who knows (thanks aunties!).

Chai Spiced Christmas Cake


1 kg Mixed dried fruit (I used around 750g ready mixed fruit {rasins, currants, sultanas and mixed peel}, plus 150g chopped ready-to eat dried apricots, 100g cranberries)
2 Chai Teabags
2 tablespoons Sarsparilla Cordial (Stockists of Mawsons, which is great, here)
1 tablespoon vanilla syrup (the kind you use in coffee)
225g butter
225g soft dark sugar
225g plain flour
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground mixed spice
1 Piper longum (long pepper) bashed (subtitute with a few peppercorns)
1/2 teaspoon of salt (only if using unsalted butter)
4 large free range eggs, beaten
1 dessert/soup spoon/blob of treacle
50g chopped walnuts


Preheat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius.

Place the fruit into a large bowl, and steep the two chai teabags in 25oml of boiling water for five minutes, then remove the teabags and pour the tea over the fruit, following with the Sarsparilla cordial and the vanilla syrup.

Cover and leave for about two hours (but no more, as the lovely rich colour will drain from the fruit). Drain the liquid and reserve. Add the walnuts and mix in.

Cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Sift flour and spices separately in a large  bowl. If using a stand mixer, use a low speed (Kenwood- speed 2).

Gradually add the beaten eggs to the creamed butter and sugar mix with patience, adding a small amount at a time until they are well mixed in. Take this mixture and add half the mixture to the flour, folding in gently with a big metal spoon. Add the treacle.

Next add half the fruits and nuts, and fold in. Follow with the remainder of flour, and again the remainder of the fruits. Check the consistency, and add some of the reserved tea mixture strained from the dried fruit so that it has a soft dropping consistency, between 1-3 tablespoons (if you fruit was very thirsty and took it all up- brew a little more!).

For the cake tin, use an 8 inch (20 cm) round cake tin or a 7 inch (18 cm) square tin, greased and lined with silicone paper (baking parchment). Add two layers of parchment on the outside to above the level of the tin too.

Transfer the cake mixture to the tin, spread well to the corners (if square!) and add a small indent to the centre to encourage a flat bake.

Finish by covering the top of the cake with a double square of silicone paper with a 50p-size hole in the centre (to protect it during the long slow cooking).

Bake in the oven at 150 degrees for 2 hours, then drop the temperature to 140, and bake for a further hour and a half.  Check it is baked by inserting a cocktail stick.  If it doesn’t come out clean, continue to cook until it does so. Making christmas cake is a slow process, enjoy it!

Once finished, let cool for 30 minutes in the tin, then transfer to a wire rack until completely cool. Store in an airtight container and allow to mature for at least a couple of weeks.

You can then ‘feed’ the cake once in a while,  if you wish. Traditional cakes would be fed with Brandy or a similar spirit – the alcohol helps to preserve the cake. Adding too much non-alcoholic liquid, however, may have the opposite effect. So if you would like to feed the cake I recommend using a very small amount of a sugary liquid, with some extra flavours added. I’ll be feeding mine with a small amount of strong black chai tea boiled with some dark soft brown sugar to make a syrup.

Once you are content with your cake, you can marzipan and ice it. This aids in preservation and to lock moisture in. It is recommended that you do this a couple of weeks before you want to eat / give your cake, so early December is ideal for a christmas cake. See here for some tips on icing your cake.

Update (Neil): Christmas cake was received and duly scoffed – brilliant thanks Jan! See below with hand of said scientist creeping into shot. 

5 Comments on "All the Yum Without the Rum: Alcohol-free Christmas Cake"

  1. Rahaf 16 November 2013 at 7:30 pm · Reply

    Hi, am baking a couple of Christmas cakes for a seasonal fair in (believe it or not…) Saudi Arabia and I obviously can’t use alcohol in my recipes so very excited about your recipe!
    I have a couple of questions if you wouldn’t mind answering them?
    How long would the above cake, once iced, keep for? Also, how much do I feed it?
    Many thanks!

    • Janis Callister 14 December 2013 at 12:04 pm · Reply

      Hello Rahaf, hope your festive baking has gone well.

      I’d usually feed the cake a tablespoon or two once a week, it’s really to keep it moist though, so this could change depending on the climate you’re in. If it’s a dry heat, you may find that the cake will dry out if you’re not careful. However if it’s very humid then you’ll be feeding mainly for flavour, so once or twice in total is probably fine (if it’s needed at all). A soggy cake is maybe worse than a dry one!

      Once I have fed and iced my cake, it will usually keep for a month or two in an airtight container. Again, this will differ depending on the local conditions, but the cake is pretty robust.

      Good luck!

  2. Howard 22 November 2014 at 4:16 pm · Reply

    How and when in making the cake is the “Piper Longum” used and if not available, how do you use the pepper corns?

    I am so looking forward to trying this cake but want to avoid a crunchy, hot peppery taste for an unsuspecting eater!


    • Janis Callister 28 November 2014 at 3:03 pm · Reply

      Hello Howard, and sorry for my delayed reply!
      Yes, just bash the peppercorns up, or just add a few grinds of a mill. It’s certainly not essential, but I do love a bit of black pepper in sweet things in general to add some warmth.
      Hope it goes well!

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