Carrying on a Tradition of Making Jamaican Christmas Cake

Just before Christmas 2000, I walked into the Korean grocery store in my neighborhood, like I’d done many times before. But seeing the packages of raisins, currants, mixed fruits, cherries and brown sugar stacked in neat piles in the store that day, momentarily transported me back to the days when I used to help my mother bake. Before I knew it, I was walking home with a bag full of baking ingredients.

In the years after I left home, I never once thought of baking. I had no reason to. I don’t like rum cake – too many fruits. When I was younger, I hated raisins, and wouldn’t so much as look at currants or prunes, which is exactly why I made the perfect assistant. We did almost everything by hand then so Mama had me grind the fruits with a little handheld meat grinder while she chopped nuts and cherries. She knew I loved cherries and nuts, so she never trusted me not to sneak some while she wasn’t looking.

Mama, the last time she visited me
Mama, the last time she visited me

When we spoke the following day, I told Mama about my purchase. I told her proudly I’d do the baking that year since I’d be home for Christmas with her and my grandmother. Mama burst out laughing.

“But you don’t bake!” she said as if she was telling me something I didn’t already know.

I had to agree: I didn’t bake even after all the times I had helped her. Even after she’d given me her favorite Christmas cake recipe. Written in her own firm handwriting, each time I looked at it, I felt as if I were girl again back in our kitchen.

I made two cakes that year before I left New York, which I gave as gifts, but Mama was still skeptical about my baking ability. On Christmas morning, I woke at 5 a.m. just like we did years before. Unlike the times we baked together, this time, I had a food processor to mix the batter.

Mama was in her room. I didn’t realize she was awake and listening until she called out to tell me that the sugar and butter were creamed sufficiently. She knew I was using a food processor for the first time and was helping me out even though she wasn’t in the kitchen.  I scooped some batter into a spoon and asked her to check. She agreed that it was ready. By the time we had breakfast, my cakes were done and cooling.

Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, we go from home to home to visit relatives and friends. The Christmas cake takes center stage as gifts and we also serve slices of cake with glasses of sorrel or homemade ginger drink when guests arrive. Everyone said my cake was light, moist and rummy and Mama proudly announced that “Marcia did the baking.”

I’ve always admired my mother, a multi-talented woman who excelled at everything she did. Her approval sent me over the moon. Unlike prior Christmases when she’d bake early in December and take every opportunity to snack on a slice of cake, Mama didn’t eat after the small piece she had on Christmas Day. 

I didn’t know it then but that Christmas, Mama passed her spatula to me. Four months later, she left suddenly followed seven months after by my grandmother. Their passing almost took the joy out of Christmas for me that year. I had no desire to bake. But when December came, I knew I had to. I gathered the fruits that I had left soaking in rum since the previous December and the other ingredients and baked. It gave me strength and flooded my heart with warm memories.

I revived an old tradition that year and started a new one in my home. And even though I don’t have a daughter to share it with or eat any of the cakes I make, I still make them in honor of her. Every time I bake a Christmas cake, it’s like we’re baking together.

Rum Cake

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  1. 6 oz flour
  2. 8 oz butter
  3. 8 oz brown sugar
  4. 4 eggs
  5. 1/2 lb raisins
  6. ½ lb currants
  7. 4 oz prunes
  8. 4 oz cherries
  9. 1 tsp cinnamon
  10. 1 tsp baking powder
  11. ½ tsp salt
  12. 1 tsp vanilla
  13. 1 tsp almond essence
  14. 1 tsp Rosewater (optional)
  15. I tsp lime zest (finely grated lime peel)
  16. 4 oz almonds, chopped (optional)
  17. Browning (optional, as the brown sugar and fruits will give the cake a rich, brown color)
  1. Remove any pits or stems from raisins and currants, wash, place in a glass container and cover with white rum. Or, bring fruits and rum mixture to a boil. Turn off and let cool. Set a few whole fruits aside then grind the rest.
  2. Grind prunes and chop the cherries. Add to the fruit mixture.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 9” baking pan with butter and dust with flour or line bottom and sides with grease paper.
  4. Sieve flour, add dry ingredients - cinnamon, salt, baking powder
  5. Beat eggs, add wet ingredients – vanilla, almond, rosewater, lime zest
  6. Bring butter to room temperature and cream with sugar (and browning, if used) until soft. Alternate adding flour and fruits to butter and sugar. Fold in chopped almonds. Mix thoroughly.
  7. Pour into baking tin and bake at 350 degrees for 1½ hours.

Apologies: I haven’t been able find any of my cake photos.

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26 comments on “Carrying on a Tradition of Making Jamaican Christmas Cake

  1. Marcia – what a truly lovely story. You must miss your mother terribly at this time of the year. I’ll be home today and on my to do list this weekend is baking fruit cakes – moist, fruit ones with brandy on the top. I always send them to my father at Christmas but this year I’ll deliver them in person in Scottsdale.

    Rosewater is an interesting ingredient. My cake has grape juice.

  2. I loved reading this heartwarming story about you, Marcia. What a great tradition your mom passed on to you and I’m happy to hear you are baking the cake. I wish I had more time to bake but this cake sounds delicious. I’m sure I can entice a few people with rum cake.

  3. Thanks, Leigh. I’d love to see your recipe — interesting the variations on fruit cakes there are, right?
    I’m thrilled you’re delivering your dad’s cake in person this year. Lovely!

  4. I definitely got a bit choked up on this one as my eyes welled up, Marcia. I’ve lost two parents (one being my bio mom in the past 18 months) so this really tugged at my heart strings. Thank you sooooo much for your candor and openness with us in sharing such a story of bonding with your mom. The picture of the two of you made me smile. It’s such a beautiful thing that you’ve carried on your traditions and hold them in high regard for the wonderful memories they give you. Absolutely awesome post, our friend 🙂 p.s. Sorry, i don’t have a food post this week.

  5. Oh Marcia that is such a heartwarming post, a little sad, but it has lots of heart. I hope your mother is beside you this year and that you can have a chuckle together as you bake that cake. It looks a great recipe by the way 🙂

  6. What a delightfully touching piece, Marcia! It touched a chord and warmed my heart. How sweet of you to have continued the tradition in your mom’s honor! She must be so very proud of you.

  7. What a delightfully touching piece, Marcia. It touched a chord and warmed my heart. How sweet of you to have continued the tradition in your mom’s honor! She must be so very proud of you.

  8. What a touching piece, Marcia! It touched a chord and warmed my heart. How sweet of you to have continued the tradition in your mom’s honor! She must be so very proud of you.

  9. What a delightfully touching piece, Marcia! It touched a chord and warmed my heart. How sweet of you to have continued the tradition in your mom’s honor! She must be so very proud of you. This was beautiful.

  10. Love this post, Marcia. It’s very touching. I love that your mom knew when the batter was ready even when she wasn’t in the room with you – that’s a mom for you! They have a way of knowing. I’m glad that you’re continuing with this tradition. I’m sure that she is with you in spirit when you’re baking Christmas Cake and always.

  11. This story is such a touching, loving tribute to your mother. I was never much of a baker and too much of an ingredient stealer when I was a kid, so I never worked in the kitchen with my own mother. Now, I bake all the time with my own kids, but I don’t have any of my mother’s recipes to pass down. I wonder how your mom knew that the sugar and butter sufficiently creamed? Enough time had passed or just by the sound of it? I can’t imagine grinding fruit by hand.

  12. Such a beautiful story, Marcia. And a lovely way to remember her.

    Your rum cake sounds delicious. I love raisins and currants and all the rest. Not much good at baking, but my kids are quite good in the kitchen. Think I’ll have them try your recipe.

  13. What a powerfully shared story and a great recipe. I’ve never imagined making this famous cake but I might try it soon.
    Thank you dear! Happy Holidays!

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