The story of the plum cake begins in medieval England, where it was a popular tradition to observe a period of self-denial, fasting, and abstinence from every kind of indulgence in the weeks leading to Christmas. The abstinence and occasional fasting was supposed to prepare the body for the overindulgence and excesses of Christmas.
According to custom, on the eve of Christmas, a rich porridge was cooked and eaten to “line the stomach” for the upcoming feast. The porridge, said to have been made with oats, dried fruits, spices, honey, and sometimes even meat, can be called the grandfather of the Christmas — or plum cake.
With the passage of time, and as more ingredients made their way into the porridge, it started to resemble its current form. It is believed that sometime in the 16th century, oats was replaced with flour, and eggs and butter were also added to the mixture. (The meat had already been taken out of it and was prepared in other forms). This batter was then bound in a muslin cloth and cooked in a pot of boiling water for many hours. What came out was a heavy, dense fudge also referred to as cannon ball. In the richer households that owned an oven, the mixture was baked and not boiled. Every family had a different recipe depending on the preferences of the lady of the house. This rich cake, or pudding, was made a few weeks before Christmas, usually at the beginning of advent, when the period of abstinence began, and was saved until the twelfth and final day of celebration. It was served upside down, garnished with a sprig of holly, after the final celebratory meal.
It is not clear, however, how it came to be called the plum pudding, or plum cake. Some believe that raisins, or currants, were also referred to as plums (or plumb) in England. The recipe was abundant in raisins, hence the name. Yet others believe that dried plums, or prunes, were the main ingredient of the original porridge, and were gradually replaced by other, more exotic dried fruits. Whatever be the case, the name stayed.
The cake stayed too, even though it was very close to being lost in the reformation period of the late 19th century when Queen Victoria banned the feast of the twelfth night. The confectioners (by now it had become a commercial exercise as well) who had stocked their pantries up for the twelfth night celebration decided to use their stock and bake cakes for Christmas instead, lest they suffer losses. The tradition caught on.
Around the same time, families of men working in British colonies in Australia, America, Canada and other parts of the world began to make their cakes weeks, or even months, in advance and send it to them as a part of the Christmas hamper along with wine and presents. And that is how the first plum cake travelled out of England.
In the last two centuries since it first travelled out of England, the plum cake has reached every corner of the world. Every country, region and family has a different version of the recipe. Some are made with nuts soaked in rum, some are fed with sherry or brandy for weeks after being baked, and some have no alcohol at all. Then there are those made up of cream cheese and whipped cream, and those containing minced meat (although they are more of a pie than a cake).
And yet all of them have one thing in common: none of them contain plum.