The best cheese sandwich?

Image: Pixabay

“Cheese?” I asked, with knife poised. I had just cut a slab of rich fruitcake and put it on the  plate. The half-stifled “ewww…”  and the horrified expression was all the answer I needed. I sighed. People don’t know what they are missing. You simply cannot eat the dense, dark confection without cheese… or at least, not if you come from Yorkshire.

It is one of those oddities of taste that does not seem to have wandered far from its roots, though it did make it across the Pennines and into parts of Lancashire, I am told.

There is no knowing just how far back this culinary tradition goes, but it has been around at least since Victorian times when the modern Christmas Cake became part of the festive fare. It may have descended from an even earlier traditon, and certainly my great grandparents, who were born when Victoria held the throne, would always bring out the cheese with the cake. The cake itself had already made it into the realm of folk magic, and formed part of the New Year tradition of ‘first footing’, when the first person through the door…always a man and preferably dark-haired… would bring a piece of coal, a silver coin and a slice of cake into the house. The cake would be ceremoniously wrapped and kept , with the coal and coin, until the following New Year. In this way, there would always be money, coal and food in the house.

The traditional Christmas could be kept that long because there was little in it that could deteriorate. Packed solid with dried vine fruits, heavy with sugar and best butter, what little actual cake there was holding the stuff together would be effectively embalmed by the judicious and copious application of brandy, sherry and/or rum. Apparently, my great grandmother’s strict interpretation of Methodist temperance did not extend to her kitchen.

The cakes would be made in late summer, cooled, triple wrapped in waxed paper and laid away in sealed tins. Every couple of weeks they would be carefully unwrapped, pricked with a skewer and drenched in a libation of alcohol. By the time Christmas had arrived, one slice was potent enough to knock a small army on its back.

During the war years, with rationing making the baking of rich fruit cakes nigh-on impossible, great-granny developed a substitute recipe. Margarine took the place of butter. Dried egg powder was often all they had and was supplemented with a tablespoonful of malt vinegar. Gravy salt was added to darken the mixture and the dried fruits, were boiled to make them plumper, moister and go further. Grated apples and carrots were added too, for sweetness, given the sugar rationing and to supplement the currants and raisins. There was no shortage of ingenuity.

Great granny passed her recipes down and, when the boys were at home, there were always boiled fruit cakes in the cupboard to add to lunchboxes and, at a pinch, serve with custard as a dessert. The proper fruitcakes were reserved for celebrations, being rather expensive to make, and many people, not knowing the origins of the recipe (or its ingredients!)  preferred the slightly lighter and much cheaper wartime version.

These days, I seldom bake… except for special occasions and requests from my menfolk for my lemon meringue pies…. so with Christmas stock well and truly on the supermarket shelves, I will treat myself to a slab of their own brand Christmas cake and a nice, sharp cheese. Having become a lazy so-and-so these days, and with a view to saving on dishes, two slices of cheese slapped either side of a slice of cake will hold it together to be eaten without crumbling, in the manner of a sandwich and in place of a meal. I would normally, at this point, insert an illustrative picture…but I ate it.


If anyone fancies trying granny’s recipe, adapted to more modern tastes, it is very easy. All weights approximate… it is a very forgiving recipe:

240g (8oz) self-raising flour (or plain with baking powder)
320g (12oz) mixed dried fruit
30g (1oz) glace cherries
I small can crushed pineapple, drained  (optional)
A spoonful of chopped nuts  (optional)
120g (4oz) butter or (block) margarine
1 beaten egg
15cl (1/4 pint) water (plus the juice from the pineapple, and/or a splash of brandy or fruit juice)
1 tablespoon malt vinegar
120g (4oz) dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon spices to taste (mixed spice, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg)

Method

  1. Put all liquids (except the vinegar), margarine, sugar and fruit into a large pan. Once boiling, cover, turn down and leave to simmer gently for 20 minutes. Leave to cool.
  2. Once cooled, beat the egg with the vinegar, and and this, the flour and spices to the pan. Stir well, making a wish as you go (it’s traditional).
  3. Grease and line with greaseproof paper either one 20cm/8″ cake tin or two small loaf tins. Bake in a low oven, (150C/300F/Gas mark 2/3) for about an hour. The cakes are done when they are firm to touch and a warm skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
  4. Cool on a wire rack, wrap in greaseproof paper and seal in an airtight tin. Leave them alone for a couple of days at least to get the best from the cakes.

If you can’t wait, try baking a small quantity  in a cupcake tin, just so you can try it 😉

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She has written a number of books, both alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com
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100 Responses to The best cheese sandwich?

  1. Wow…I never knew these Christmas traditions. Sounds so interesting and yummy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jack Eason says:

    Don’t forget Spotted Dick! or my childhood favourite snack – a freshly pulled Manglewurzle. Yum, yum, yum…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ritu says:

    Nope… Never heard of the cheese accompaniment before!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ksbeth says:

    makes me understand the fruitcake a bit more and i do understand the unlikely combination with cheese. here, people often pair a thick slice of cheddar cheese with fresh apple pie.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My mum or one of my sisters always used to send us a Christmas cake and a round of Wensleydale. Husband, who’s from Essex loves both. I’m not sure they have cheese down there 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lovely.
    (A lot of people just don’t understand the good old ‘Brummie’ jam and cheese sandwich….choice of jams and cheese to your personal taste.)

    Like

  7. Mary Smith says:

    Yep, rich fruit cake and cheese has always been enjoyed in my family. I like your idea of making a sandwich with the cake between cheese slices! On Boxing Day, leftover Christmas pudding was sliced and fried with bacon – yum. Thank goodness we only have it once a year 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      It saves washing up and crumbs 😉
      Bacon and pudding… not that sounds interesting too… 😉 Sally’s Mum served cold pudding with cheese…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mary Smith says:

        I like your thinking. Christmas pud and bacon go beautifully together – and I usually add a slice of black pudding. I saw Sally’s comment about her mum liking cold pudding and cheese – not so sure but am quite prepared to give it a go. Let’s face it cheese goes with just about anything!

        Like

  8. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord Blog Magazine and commented:
    In our household both Christmas cake and what remained of the Christmas pudding (my mother preferred hers cold) was served with a slice of mature cheddar.. something my father who came from the North East brought to the party. Sue Vincent celebrates this marriage of rich, dark fruit cake (sometimes slightly enebriated with a little brandy) with cheese. Plus you get her gran’s Christmas Cake recipe… this cake will withstand the test of time and can be made months ahead… go for it.. but don’t forget the cheddar…#recommended

    Liked by 1 person

  9. jenanita01 says:

    This recipe sounds tasty, so I will be making several of these for Christmas!

    Like

  10. Jordan says:

    Wonderful history of the Christmas cake! My mother used to bake one every year and oddly enough, I would always get some cheese to eat with it. I do not think my Mom knew about the cheese, but it is yummie. She has been gone now for many years. Armed with your Great gran’s recipe, I will bake one for my father this year. He always enjoyed the cake.
    Thank you, Sue! 💗

    Like

  11. lizannelloyd says:

    I still bake a christmas cake but only a small one nowadays. We always had cheese with cake at home, probably after living in Yorkshire. When i was a toddler I ate the whole family’s cheese ration (1951) which had been stowed in my pram.

    Like

  12. Ruth says:

    Fruitcake and cheese sounds absolutely fine to me, the stronger and sharper the better – yum! Sweet and savoury together isn’t really that odd, what about the usual combination of pancakes and bacon in American breakfasts? And in my house a traditional toasted teacake with crisp grilled bacon inside tastes divine, it makes for a very different take on the standard boring bacon roll. Mind you my friend’s dad always used to like a plate of thick homemade vegetable soup with a slice of fruitcake as accompaniment rather than bread… but I think that’s maybe pushing it a bit… 🙂

    Like

  13. jwebster2 says:

    My paternal grandparents were strict methody but still had Rum in the house. Grandfather had been in the Army in WW1 and anyway we were part of the Cumberland ‘rum belt’ where rum is a food staple

    Like

  14. Jennie says:

    I never knew there were so many ways to make fruitcake. Piercing with a skewer every so often and soaking in liquor. My, my!

    Like

  15. Adele Marie says:

    When Becca first came here, she introduced me to cheese and Christmas cake, I’ve never looked back since. xxx

    Like

  16. TanGental says:

    My wife – Norfolk born and bred – introduced me to cheese and fruit cake ( she also added sliced apple- Norfolk huh?) When I first met her in 1976. My mum (London and home counties) looked at her rather oddly but Dad (Northamptonshire and The Fens) knew exactly where she was coming from.
    The making of the Christmas Cake with the monthly stir and wish as alcohol was added was a childhood treat. Gran even had some that were several years old in the 60s – one famously with cobwebs when it was cut. Didn’t stop gran enjoying it. Waste not…

    Like

  17. fransiweinstein says:

    Now you’ve made me hungry.

    Like

  18. davidjrogersftw says:

    I remember my aunt Sarah’s Christmas cakes all those years ago, I am an American but my lineage is Welsh, and Sarah and other relatives brought their recipes with them from the old country. Thank you, friend, for bringing those precious memories back to me. Best, David

    Like

  19. Sue, that sounds wonderful, thank you! And sooo pretty to look at too 🙂

    Like

  20. CarolCooks2 says:

    Piercing with a skewer and soaking with booze we have always done..Not eaten with cheese but I can imagine how good it would be…Pressed This and scheduled for Saturday and will definitely be eating a sandwich with cheese…Thank you for sharing, Sue 🙂

    Like

  21. Love fruit cake with cheese, and I’m from Dorset!
    As for Christmas Cake, I would make it in September, wrap and seal, then at the end of October and November, dose it up with brandy. Two weeks before Christmas t would get its final dose and marzipaned, then iced on Christmas Eve.
    A dear friend made her cake and her son helped himself to a slice as it was cooling. She didn’t say a word, marzipaned and iced it as usual, but come Christmas, he wasn’t allowed any as he’d already had his!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. dgkaye says:

    Sue, I’m not a fan of that cake, but appreciate the history behind it. And cheese too? Lol. OKay, seems I’m far from being a Brit with the passion for these cakes, lol. 🙂 xxx Wondering if Ani likes it? ❤

    Like

  23. buffalopound says:

    There are many uses for cheese, Sue. My dad used to say “Apple pie without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze”.

    Like

  24. Widdershins says:

    Never heard of that before but we might just give it a try in a couple of months time. 😀

    Like

  25. jjspina says:

    Sounds yummy, Sue! Thanks for sharing! 🤗😘

    Like

  26. I’m going to give your recipe a try, Sue. It’s amazing how certain foods, eaten certain ways, carry such vivid memories… as if they’re stored in the flavor. My Dutch grandmother would get fruitcake for all of us at Christmastime. I remember making a face, but what I would give for those moments again. 🙂

    Like

  27. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Weird tastebuds 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  28. I’ve never had fruit cake with cheese, but I see how that could work, and intend trying that taste combination.

    Like

  29. Pingback: The best cheese sandwich? | Retired? No one told me!

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