Christmas Cake for Brides

Catherina Maria Heyns marries Cecil Ernest Helm at Groot Doornrivier

Catherina Maria Heyns marries Cecil Ernest Helm at Groot Doornrivier, South Africa – 19 December 1942

My New Year’s Resolution is to blog like clockwork, which starts a few weeks early. I blame the lack of posts on my wedding blessing last month; a small and beautiful candlelit ceremony in Cumbria that, despite having just 30 friends and family members in attendance, still managed to kidnap all my brain cells and hold them to wedding ransom. ‘Candles…will there be enough candles?’ I have to thank a spirited (and visually sound) congregation for its rousing take on Jerusalem by tea-light.

Which brings me to Wedding Cake. I know it’s all about Stollen/Heston’s Baked Alaska right now, but bear with me. For the Wedding Cake recipe I’m about to present also moonlights as the most excellent and very moreish Christmas Cake, South African style. The recipe was passed down to my mother-in-law, Nina, from her own mother Catherina (above) and so holds much family resonance for me as the newest member of family Johnson – many of whom live (and bake exceptionally well) in and around the Western Cape Province.

Seventy years ago this month, Catherina Maria Heyns married Cecil Ernest Helm at Groot Doornrivier (Great Thornriver) district Zebra near Oudtshoorn, where she grew up on a large ostrich farm. The beautiful karoo farm (a type of rugged semi-desert terrain in South Africa), was home to an old Georgian style home built on solid rock in the early 1700’s, which overlooked a flowing mountain river and poplar forest – today it’s still farmed by 8th generation Heyns family. There was very probably a Dark Fruit Cake in attendance at Catherina’s own wedding, but the recipe I include today was to be uncovered a few years following.

Upon marrying, Catherina trained as a student nurse and moved with her husband Cecil to Mossel Bay (a harbour town 400k east of the capital). She was to make a good friend on the way. Paddy Kerr was a fellow nurse who, serendipitously, was to marry a baker, also based in Mossel Bay. It was Paddy’s husband’s Scottish ancestry that gave the family this recipe that has, in Nina’s words, ‘flavoured so many occasions’ – including Nina’s own wedding to my father-in-law Johnny Johnson in 1979 (see below).

The happy couple flanked by proud parents L-R: Cecil Helm, Catherina Helm, Johnny Johnson, Nina Johnson, Peter Johnson and Susan Johnson

The happy couple flanked by proud parents L-R: Cecil Helm, Catherina Helm, Johnny Johnson, Nina Johnson, Peter Johnson and Susan Johnson

Nina is a deeply warm and creative woman whose love of family and togetherness filters into everything she does in the home. Baking is no exception as I was lucky enough to discover on an extended trip to Cape Town earlier this year. Homemade treats included plump, chewy cookies, melt-in-the-mouth custard biscuits (will post recipe on here soon), and all manner of festive bites that are traditionally baked weeks ahead of ‘the season’ (usually in the trying climes of an African summer) and sourced from the battered and cherished folder of recipes left by her mother.  Christmas Cake, which Nina also baked for our wedding this year, is always first on her to-do list – best mixed up in the stolen hours of a cool summer morning. The rich, dark, fruit cake, which always demands a second helping and is traditionally made in a heart-shaped or ringed-shaped tin, has today come full circle, adorned with one of Nina’s beautiful homemade wreaths. Here it is in time for a very happy Christmas.

Ring or heart-shaped, it tastes delicious both ways!

Ring or heart-shaped, it tastes delicious both ways!

Christmas Cake/Wedding Cake


  • 1lb raisins
  • 1lb dates (cut finely)
  • 1/2lb currants
  • 1/2lb sultanas
  • 1/2lb butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water

Boil these together on the hob for 20 minutes. Cool and add 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda. Stir well. Stand overnight.

Next morning: add to the mixture 1/2lb orange peel, 1lb cherries, 2 tablespoons apricot jam, 6-7 eggs, 1-2 tablespoons brandy, 3 cups of plain flour and 2 tsps baking powder. Stir well.

Add: ginger syrup and preserve (cut finely), 1 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tsp cloves, a pinch of mixed spice and a handful of chopped pecans or walnuts.

Bake: 2-3 hours in a cool oven, approx. 160°C. Use a large heart shape tin or a round ring tin (lined with brown paper/baking parchment). Check with skewer after 90 minutes. Wrap in foil and store in a cool, dark spot.

Time for cake

Mr and Mrs J

Sending a special message of love to cousin Pippa and soon-to-be hubby Jock who are tying the knot in Strandkombuis, South Africa, 15th December 2012. We’ll be thinking of you xxx

Published in: on December 9, 2012 at 11:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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