Friday, November 29, 2013

Sri Lankan Christmas Cake

You must be wondering why would anyone be writing about Christmas cake in August. Believe it or not, if you are a Christmas cake connoisseur, August is THE time to make the cake, soak it in brandy or rum, wrap it tightly and forget about it until December. A good Christmas cake is like an expensive wine, when “young” it is light bodied, floral and happy, pure and vibrant, foolish like the first wind. Having spent a couple of months aging in the darkness of a cool pantry, the cake acquires a whole new identity... Oh, there is nothing like the Christmas cake made in August – opulent, intense and complex, dark and moody, overflowing with untold stories and hidden surprises.
For years I firmly believed that I had tried every single variation of Christmas cake possible. Light, dark, moist, dry, British, Scottish, Italian, Caribbean... That is, until I met Dr. V, my Sri Lankan husband. I would have never thought that the richest, the most decadent, the most interesting and the most delicious Christmas cake of all would come from Sri Lanka. Somehow, Sri Lanka, the land of eternal summer, curries, Terravhada Buddhism and elephants, managed to beat every other nation to pulp in the competition for the best Christmas cake I ever tasted.

Being a commonwealth country, Sri Lankans inherited Christmas cake from their British rulers, but then turned it into something quite unique, by adding exotic spices and native fruits. For several years, our cake would arrive promptly before Christmas, a tiny precious piece of it, wrapped in a foil and neatly packed by my in-laws. We would strive to keep it for as longs as possible, taking a bite after dinner every night and then fighting over who gets the last piece. Once I decided to make my own cake, Dr. V underwent extensive research to locate the ingredients. I collected dozens of recipes, borrowed a little bit here, and a little bit there, and created the one we now use every year. To let the taste of the cake shine through, I eliminated the icing glaze, and replaced it with tiny swirls of icing. Before you proceed, be warned and be prepared, this is a gigantic recipe; putting it all together, the recipe yields three 9x13 inch cakes. But, wrapped tightly it can last for months. And we finally do not have to fight over the last piece anymore...

Sri Lankan Christmas Cake

* 1 pound cashew nuts, finely chopped 
* 1 pound sultanas (golden raisins) 
* 1 pound raisins (such as jumbo flames) 
* 1 pound candied cherries 
* one 16 ounce jar Sri Lankan ginger preserve (or 14 oz candied ginger) 
* one 16 ounce jar Sri Lankan chow chow preserve (which, by the way, is not the same as Chinese, so do not substitute) 
* 8 ounce Sri Lankan pumpkin preserve 
* 1/2 pound candied orange peel
* 1/2 pound candied lemon peel
* 1 pound butter
* 1 pound semolina
* 24 egg yolks
* 12 egg whites
* 1 pound granulated sugar
* zest of one lemon, grated on a microplane
* zest of one orange, grated on a microplane
* juice of two large oranges
* juice of one lemon
* 1 teaspoon rose water (I use Cortes)
* 3 tablespoons vanilla extract (I use Nielsen Massey)
* 2 cups brandy (plus another 2 - 3 for drizzling)
* 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
* 2 tablespoons ground Ceylon cinnamon
* 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
* 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom

Open the preserve jars and drain the fruits from the syrup.

Chop sultanas, raisins, candied fruits and fruits from the preserves into small pieces. Add the orange juice, lemon juice, brandy, half of the rose water and half of the vanilla extract. (The mixture should be quite moist, if needed add more orange juice). Mix well and leave in a jar for at two days and up to a week. 

Beat the butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in the egg yolks. Add the orange zest, lemon zest and remaining rose water and vanilla extract, and continue to beat until combined. Add the semolina, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon and mix until well combined.

Transfer the batter to a large bowl, add the brandied fruit mixture, and stir well until fruits and nuts are dispersed evenly throughout the batter. Taste and adjust the spices if needed.

Beat the egg whites until stiff. Gently fold the whites into the cake batter.

Preheat the oven to 230°F. Line three 13x9 inch cake pans with parchment paper. Turn the batter into the pans and bake for about 3 hours, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cakes begin to pull away from the edges of the pan.

Let the cakes cool for about 30 minutes and then remove from the pan.

Drizzle the cakes with additional brandy (about a cup or so per cake, even more, as they need to be very moist) and let them to cool completely. Wrap the cakes tightly in several layers of grease-proof paper and then plastic or aluminum foil and store in a cool place for at least three weeks before serving. (The cake can be kept for a year in an airtight container. And you can keep on drizzling the brandy to keep it moist!) 

Makes three 9x13 inch cakes

Royal Icing for Writing

* 1 egg white
* 4 oz confectioners sugar
* 1/4 tsp lemon juice

Whisk the egg white for about a minute to loosen it up.
Add half of the sugar and lemon juice and continue to beat until fully incorporated.

Add the remaining sugar and continue to beat for another couple of minutes, until stiff peaks form. 

Pour the icing into your writing bag. (I prefer small plastic bottle with a tiny spout, because it gives me more control when writing.)

Doing sloppy job with icing is a proven way to ruin perfect cake and to avoid that from happening: a) Cut a piece of parchment paper in the exact dimensions as the cake you seek to decorate. b) Draw the design on the paper. c) Squeeze the icing on the paper first, to acquire a steady hand and make sure the icing behaves as desired. If the icing is too runny add a bit more sugar, if it is too thick add a tiny bit more of egg white. d) When you have full control over the paper, proceed to the cake and have fun. 

A note on ingredients: The exotic ingredients are available in several Sri Lankan online groceries (we order from and Kapruka USA).

A note on cutting: Except for the nuts, you will have to cut all the dry fruits by hand. Yes, you will, and do not say I did not warn you. Stay away from the processor, because it will reduce your ingredients to fine pulp, which is not exactly what we want for this recipe (believe me, I tried). The cutting is definitely a bit of a project, but hey, aren't we the kitchen samurais? To give you a sense of the job awaiting, for the quantities in this recipe it will take about 2162 cuts with a good chef's knife, or on average 23 cuts per ounce of fruit.

A note on spices: The amount of spices in this recipe produces what Sri Lankan's would consider a mildly spiced cake. (I usually use more, but I recommend trying this first and then adjusting.)

A note on the booze: This cake loves booze. If you will be aging it for a while, you can keep on refreshing the cake with more brandy. I recommend this only if the cake will be aged for a while (at least a couple of weeks). If you are baking your cake close to Christmas, do not increase the amount of brandy too much, because alcohol will dominate over other flavors. 


  1. Ok. I am intrigued ! SInce there is no way I can find - Sri Lankan chow chow preserve and Sri Lankan pumpkin preserve ( ginger one can make my self ..) in Belgrade what is the best substitute ??? Just skip it?? ANy other jam that can used?? Pumpkin preserve-do you think it can be made at home???

  2. I guess no hope for this one...

    1. I have been pondering over what’s the right approach… Chow chow is very difficult to replace, so I would just substitute with the same amount of other candied fruit. Perhaps use a bit more ginger, or pineapple. Or if you have watermelon preserve (slatko), that would work great. You can try making the pumpkin preserve, or substitute that as well. This cake is very forgiving, and the recipes for it vary a lot. Once you make it, you will get a sense for the flavors, and can then adjust accordingly in the future.

  3. Thank you. Also, if I want to make smaller batch, do you think just dividing the recipe would be enough?? I have a friend visiting from New Delhi ,will ask if maybe they have chow chow as well.

    1. Yes, you can definitely reduce the quantities. Also, this cake lasts for a long time, in Sri Lanka they keep it for almost a year and say that it gets better as it "ages".

  4. Wonderful read. I'm surprised I hadn't discovered your blog sooner! Your perspective is right up my alley. Now that Thanksgiving is over, it's time for all the Christmas cakes in the world.

  5. wow ! this cake looks gorgeous and sounds grand !

  6. This recipe was what first brought me to your blog, beautiful photos and description. We made a trip to get all the Sri Lankan preserves and fresh spices yesterday, and will do a trial run with one cake first. Fingers crossed!
    If I make the cake now, is that enough time to age it, or should I use more orange juice?

    1. Good luck with the cake and please let me know how it turned out! You can definitely add extra juice, I just made mine and added juice from one more orange.

    2. I completely forgot to tell you, the cake was just brilliant! We all loved it, even a Sri Lankan colleague (victory dance!!). We are working out way through the last of three cakes, and you are right they get better over time.
      Here are some photos, sneaked in as part of another post:
      Thanks so much for the recipe!

    3. Hello there! Thank you so much for letting me know and a very special relief for passing the "Sri Lankan colleague" test. Yay! Your cake was so beautiful!

  7. Hi. Please forgive some novice questions. What is semolina? All purpose flour? Cake? Bread?
    Also, what is chow chow?
    Is pumpkin preserve something like the solid pack pumpkin we use to make pumpkin pie (not the pie filling itself?)
    Can I substitute dried cherries for the candied?
    So close to the holidays, I probably don't have enough time to order these online and still allow the cakes time to 'age'. I would like to try half the recipe without these two items.
    Thanks for any guidance.

    1. Hi, not a problem at all… Semolina is coarse durum wheat flour used in making pasta. You can find it in pretty much any supermarket. Chow chow is Sri Lankan fruit preserve. Pumpkin preserve is also a type of Sri Lankan preserve -- it will look more like crystallized pumpkin, or pumpkin cooked in syrup, than the filling used in making pumpkin pies. Chow chow and pumpkin preserve are hard to substitute directly, because they have quite distinct flavors. Instead of worrying what would be the best sub, you could double the amount of candied ginger and then use some other candied fruits (mango, papaya or pineapple would work very nicely). Candied cherries are not particularly loaded with flavors, I think they are used mainly to add festive red speckles to the cake, and again you can sub them with any other candied fruit (or dry cherries). Also, Sri Lankan chow chow and pumpkin preserves are very spicy, and you may want to increase the spices a bit. Instead of adding the spices to the batter, add them to the fruit mixture directly, add the juices, mix and try -- you will get a sense for how it tastes and how much extra spices you would like to add. Do not worry, this recipe is not carved in stone and it will turn out just fine. In the summer, I make another version of the cake with candied fruits that can be more easily sourced in the western supermakets, here is the link to my recipe on food52, you may like that one as well Good luck!!!

    2. Thank you so very much for all that wonderful information. I am going to start this today! And am going to practice patience until Christmas!

  8. Thank you for sharing the recipe! I imagine the admins of these Sri Lankan online groceries wondering right now of the sudden burst in shopping traffic :-)
    I cannot recognize what kind of nut/spice is shown in the last photo on the left (just below the red cloth and above the pencil)?

  9. This is a very interesting recipe and would love to try it! However I don't know if I can get chow chow and pumpkin preserve here in the US. Looking at the ingredient list, this cake seems like it's going to end up being just another fruitcake recipe without the unique Sri Lankan ingredients. :(

    1. Hi. I too live in the US and order online from Here is the link,

  10. This is one of the most interesting cakes I have ever seen on the net so far. I have never heard of a cake that can be stored for a whole year! Unfortunately I am in a place where it is impossible to get the ingredients, even on the net, so trying it is out of the question...but it's a keeper for the future!

    I love the post-thanksgiving Christmas fuzzy kind of feeling there is in the US in this period :)

  11. A woman after my own heart!! I am enamored too of fruit cakes and fruit cake lore :)
    I've heard of Indian and Sri Lankan versions that use cashew nuts and spices but I've never eaten them. How different are they? Is it the spice level, or the spice profile? Now that i've read this post of yours, I have to add this to my list. However, chow chow preserves?? and pumpkin preserves? My question is are these preserves like thick jam with bits of fruits?? Using other dried fruits, as you suggested in the comments above, would the cake be a bit drier since these substitutes are not jam-like??

    PS: Just discovered your beautiful blog. Love your mixture of drawings, photography and still life-like photography, really nice. Off to browse your other posts :))


    1. Hi there, and thanks for the kind words! Here are some of my thoughts on the subject. I have not tried Indian Christmas cake, but Sri Lankan is quite different from the “traditional” ones both in terms of flavor profile and the amount of spices. The flavors distinctly come from the local fruit preserves and the heavy use of spices. The Sri Lankan preserves typically come as fruits in thick sugar syrup, so when you dry the syrup out (which I do), you will end up with something that looks like candied fruits. But very moist candied fruits. I made versions of the cake with dry fruits only, and it generally works, because the amount of fruits is still pretty massive compared to everything else. Hope this helps. Cheers, QS

  12. Hi,

    Thank you very much for the wonderful recipe. I'm planning to make this cake for this Christmas. Need your advice on the following:
    1. should the quantities of Butter and Semolina be same?
    2. Once this cake is made, what would be the approx weight as I'm supposed to be making this cake for my relatives as well.
    3. I thought of adding only 10 egg whites, should I change into yours?

    Thanks once again


    1. Hi Dilani! There are many variations of the recipe, I have seen some with different ratios of semolina to butter, as well as different ratios of egg yolks to egg whites. I have been making this version for a long time and have not experimented with other quantities. This recipe will make three 9/13 inch baking pans, that is a lot of cake (and it is quite dense) -- you do not say home many relatives you have, but I suspect you will be fine with three cakes. Good luck, QS

  13. Hi was looking for a srilanka cake recipe and landed here. Really want to try this cake have a quick question. Is caramalised sugar or any dark syrup not required? The cake looks brown how is it getting the color. Just a bit confused there. Please help. Thanks so much

    1. Hi Saira, some of the candied fruits (e.g. chow chow, pumpkin preserve and raisins) are quite dark and contribute to the dark color. When it is baked the cake will be dark brick orange, and it will get darker as it ages...

  14. Sasha
    I cannot eat nuts, do you think I could substitute with extra fruit? Also in another recipe they substituted the chow chow with melon and ginger jam. I have made a big batch of this for another recipe but like your recipe. I make about 10 cakes each year for family and I love the amounts your recipe makes.

    1. I have not done it, but I think it is possible, since nuts are not used as flour to bind. Also, you can substitute any fruit with other fruits and change spice profile (this version is very gentle with spices, and closer to the "European" version, I sometimes increase the amounts quite a bit.) You can try the fruit mixture and adjust according to your taste.

  15. I have wanted to try this cake and was forever a book mark on my cooking tab. Chopping the fruit part is absolutely true. Tried the easy way out to chop it with a processor. It turned into a mushy glob. Went back to the chopping board for neat cuts. Should have taken you note more seriously. Thank you for sharing this :)

    1. And thank you for stopping by to let me know. I am glad you liked the recipe. I have just finished wrapping one of my cakes -- we are taking it as a Christmas present to a good friend. Have a wonderful holiday!


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