Sunday, 5 January 2014

Boiled Fruitcake with Guinness & Marmalade - A Cake for Nollaig na mBan

The Feast of Epiphany or Little Christmas as it was colloquially known was traditionally celebrated in a unique way in Ireland. The 6th January was known as Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas and was a day when Irish men took on all the household duties for the day, giving the women a chance to rest presumably after all the hard work they did for the other 364 days of the year. Although this tradition has largely died out, you sometimes hear it referred to and it is still practiced in some parts of Ireland, particularly south-west Munster.

In the past, women would get together on this day and would have delicious things to eat and perhaps a few drinks. I think that it is a lovely tradition and whilst it may not be widely celebrated anymore, it is something peculiarly Irish and something that we should not forget. Many countries have special foods that they serve at Epiphany, so I started thinking about what I would make to serve at Nollaig na mBan.

I love a rich fruit cake, but they can be time-consuming to make with all the weighing of ingredients, the soaking of fruit and the long time it takes to bake them slowly in the oven and then mature them, feeding them every few days with alcohol. However, I decided that I did want to make a fruit cake and one that tasted rich and fruity but just didn’t take quite so long to produce.

A boiled fruitcake seemed like a good option. For this cake the fruit, sugar and butter are simmered in liquid. This can be tea, orange juice or even water but I decided to use Guinness. I love the slightly bitter taste that the stout lends to the finished cake and the way that the fruit plumps as it simmers away in the beer.

I had run out of citrus peel when making this cake and didn’t fancy going to the supermarket just to get a tub of “mixed peel”, so ever experimental, I added two tablespoons of marmalade with coarse cut peel in it and this was a revelation. It added a lovely citrus fruity element to the cake.

Like most fruit cakes, this one benefits from being wrapped in greaseproof paper and tin foil and being stored for a couple of days before being consumed, but it still tasted delicious if eaten once it has cooled after baking. As with so many things that I like to eat, I think that this cake is lovely spread with butter and served with a good cup of tea.
I think that it is a very fitting cake for Nollaig na mBan!


200g sultanas
175g raisins
100g glacé cherries, halved
100g dark brown muscovado sugar
75g caster sugar
125g butter
2tblsp marmalade (with coarse cut peel)
1 egg
300ml Guinness
350g plain flour
1tsp mixed spice
1tsp bicarbonate of soda


1. Put the Guinness, dried fruit, glacé cherries, sugars and butter into a medium sized saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes stirring regularly and then remove from the heat and allow to cool.
2. Pre-heat the oven to 160C/Fan Oven 140C/Gas Mark 3. Line a deep, round 23cm cake tin with a double thickness of non-stick baking paper and set aside.
3. Sieve the flour, mixed spice and bicarbonate of soda together and add to the cooled boiled fruit mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon ensuring that there are no little pockets of flour. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and level the surface with the back of a spoon. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 1½ hours covering the top of the tin with tin foil for the final half hour of baking to ensure that the cake does not burn. Test the cake by inserting a thin skewer into the centre of the cake after 1¼ to see whether it is cooked. If the skewer comes out clean it is ready, if it doesn’t, give it a further 15 minutes in the oven.
4. Remove from the oven and let cool in the tin for ten minutes, before removing from the tin and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Serves 10-12.