In the 1920’s times were hard, being just after the 1st World War, and also at the start of the first world-wide ‘Great Depression’; and it was especially hard for the urban working class labourer’s who had little money to spend on luxuries. So as a substitute for the much richer (and expensive) Christmas Cake, a ‘Christmas Loaf’ was baked at this time in the North West of England, particularly in and around Liverpool, for the Christmas and New Year period.
At the end of the Victorian period, and into the Edwardian Period, many housewives in the growing towns and cities had no cooker in the house, and so relied upon the local baker to cook their cakes for them, costing them a few pence to do so. The Christmas Loaf was usually made a week or two before Christmas and sometimes a little ale would be poured over during the first week to help preserve it and improve its texture and taste.
It was a familiar sight around Christmas to see the ‘Mary Ellens’, (a nickname for poor housewives in black shawls and stockings, wearing thick woollen skirts over their flannel petty coats) hunched over against the cold returning from the baker’s with the delicious aroma of the Christmas Loaf rising from the tins wrapped in newspapers carried under their arms.
Christmas Loaf Recipe
For the ferment
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 75 ml warm milk
- 25g sugar
- 15g bread yeast (dried)
- 50g strong white bread flour
For the dough
- 125g lard (softened)
- 125g soft brown sugar (Demerara)
- 1 tbsp black treacle (molasses)
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 225g strong white bread flour
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp grated nutmeg
- 2 tsp ground mixed spice
- 225g currants
- 125g sultanas
- 25g mixed, chopped candied peel
To prepare the ferment, mix the beaten egg and warm milk together in a large bowl. Then whisk in the sugar, yeast and flour. Cover with a clean cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.
To make the dough soften the lard and beat it to a cream with the sugar and then the treacle in a large mixing bowl – until light and fluffy. Beat the egg into the mixture, then sieve in the flour, add the salt, baking powder, nutmeg and mixed spice.
Mix together thoroughly, then after half an hour pour in the ferment and mix well until all the ingredients make a smooth mixture. Work the currants, sultanas and mixed peel into the mixture and make sure everything is evenly distributed in the dough.
On a floured work surface knead the dough for five minutes, working it so that it becomes soft, silky and elastic. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover, and leave somewhere warm for two hours to rise.
Grease a 2 lb. loaf tin (1kg)
After two hours gently knock back the dough, and knead for about two minutes. Put the dough into the prepared loaf tin, cover with a clean cloth and leave somewhere warm for 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200C
After 45 minutes (on the second rise) bake the Christmas Loaf in the preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes.
Serving: If making this on the day you want to eat it, allow to cool and eat it fresh with a little honey or butter – or make it a few days earlier, allow to completely cool, keep it in an air tight container and toast the Christmas Loaf for Christmas breakfast with a little butter and honey spread on it. If you want to be really traditional make it a week before Christmas, after a few days pour over 50ml of ale, put it back in to store and then eat, toasted, on Christmas day.