You're not limited to classic British fruitcake for Christmas: there's a whole world of festive delights in London, from the traditional Twelfth Night cakes popular in many parts of the world, to light Japanese sponge with strawberries and cream. Impress your festive guests with one of these Christmas cakes from around the world.
Perhaps as ubiquitous as the British Christmas cake nowadays, panettone is a tall, dome-shaped round loaf from Milan, studded with diced candied fruit. Its light, fluffy texture appeals to those who don't like the dense (and often dry) traditional fruitcake.
Panettone takes several days to prepare, after which it is slow-baked. The original recipe dates back to the Roman Empire. It's sold in beautiful hat box-like packaging in dozens of London delis, Italian food shops and supermarkets, and comes in many different flavours. It's usually eaten sliced with a hot drink or sweet Italian wine.
There's a wide variety available at this smart Italian deli in Hampstead. Here you'll find classic cakes laced simply with sultanas and candied fruit (with or without almond glaze), one soaked in Vin Santo wine and covered in tiny raisins, a slow-cooked sourdough version without fruit, and a few other flavours such as chocolate and chestnut.
Giacobazzi's Delicatessen, 150 Fleet Road, Hampstead, NW3 2QX
Valentina Fine Foods
There's a large selection at this chain of west London Italian delis, including ones flavoured with chestnuts, pear and chocolate, almonds, mixed fruit, and fig and hazelnut. There are also boozy varieties, infused with amaretto, limoncello and sambuca.
Valentina Fine Foods, 404-406 Chiswick High Road, W4 5TF. There are several branches, mostly in west London
This popular Italian deli-restaurant chain sells classic cakes with candied fruit peel and raisins or sultanas, one studded with milk and dark chocolate pieces topped with a hazelnut glaze, and a version with prosecco-infused custard.
Carluccio's, St Christopher’s Place, W1U 1AY. There are several branches in London — bound to be one near you
Originally from Verona, this is sweet, yeasted, pyramid-shaped bread, often with an eight-point star section and a dusting of vanilla icing sugar to resemble snow-capped Italian Alps at Christmas.
The first mention of the cake is in the 18th century, but it was also eaten in some form in ancient Rome, and enjoyed by the nobility in the middle ages. The recipe for the modern cake as we know it was developed in Venice, once the centre of sugar and spice trade. It was a favourite of the Venetian aristocracy.
You don't have to travel to Venice — or indeed be royalty — to enjoy a slice of pandoro. Giacobazzi's sells plain vanilla pandoro, and one with chocolate drops. Valentina Fine Foods has in stock a small selection of mostly plain cakes, plus tiramisu and chocolate flavours. At Carluccio's, you’ll find a plain cake with a separate sachet of icing sugar to create that Italian Alps effect.
Just as ubiquitous as panettone in London's delis and supermarkets, stollen is more correctly known as Christstollen or Weihnachtstollen. It's a rectangular or round yeasted, eggy fruit bread packed with raisins, almonds, spices like cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla, brandy or rum, and orange or citron zest. Its distinguishing feature (though not present in all versions of the cake) is a slab of marzipan in the middle to symbolise baby Jesus swaddled in blankets. In ancient times, stollen was plain bread made from oats and turnip oil. It started being baked as a Christmas cake around the mid-16th century.
The city of Dresden is synonymous with it, and it's been available at its Christmas market since the 15th century. Today it's baked by around 150 bakers, who use a special decorative seal to distinguish it. During the city's famous stollen festival, an over-sized cake is paraded, ceremoniously cut, and distributed to the visiting crowds to raise funds for charity. When buying pre-packed stollen, look out for 'Dresdner stollen' if it's available; it is the most 'authentic'.
Good-quality packaged stollen can be found at this busy German food shop. In addition to plain and butter flavours, there are ones with apple and cinnamon, almonds, dried fruit, and marzipan. Additionally, the famous Dresden stollen is available in an attractive golden tin... but is hugely popular and sells out fast.
German Deli, 3 Park Lane, SE1 9AB. There's also a warehouse shop in Hackney, and a stall at Borough Market
Flour Power City
This popular bakery's freshly baked stollen is highly acclaimed, and rightly so. It's bursting with raisins, currants, citrus and cherries, with a ribbon of marzipan in the middle. If you have never eaten a freshly baked stollen before, you're in for a treat.
Flour Power City, Marylebone Market, Cramer Street Car Park, Marylebone W1U 4EW. They have stalls in many other farmers' markets
Buche de Noel
Also known as Yule log, this French cake stands out as it's not round or rectangular, but shaped like an actual log that's been cut from a branch of a tree. The cake is a genoise sponge roulade, often in chocolate flavour (to give it the colour of a log); and the surface has bark-like texture achieved by running a fork all over. Icing sugar is sprinkled on top to resemble snow; and decorations often include marzipan holly leaves, meringue mushrooms and fresh berries.
There was an ancient pagan tradition of using a real tree log in some European countries during Christmas. This custom eventually died out and, by the middle of the 20th century, a cake log had taken its place, much to the delight of the sweet-toothed.
The classic buche has had a glamorous makeover at this chic French patisserie in Angel. There are three varieties: raspberry and white chocolate cheesecake with fresh raspberries, dark chocolate with the prized amarena cherries, and limited-edition orange and dark chocolate with crunchy chocolate sable and a crème brulee centre.
Belle Epoque, 262 Upper Street, N1 2UQ. Other branches are in Newington Green and Selfridges
This lovely neighbourhood bakery sells three varieties: chocolate with morello cherries in kirsch, vanilla with raspberries and armagnac, and vanilla with nougatine and praline with rum.
Boulangerie Jade, 44 Tranquil Vale, Blackheath, SE3 0BD. Other branches are at Blackheath station, Peckham Rye and East Dulwich.
The French patisserie chain sells a good selection of flavours and sizes. Choose from lemon meringue, chocolate with passion fruit, and coffee with nougatine. New this season are gingerbread with raspberry and speculoos biscuit, plus dark chocolate with caramel and mascarpone.
Paul Hampstead, 43 Hampstead High Street, NW3 1QG. There are many other branches in London — bound to be one near you
Galette des rois
Also known as king cake, this French pastry is associated with the festival of Epiphany after Christmas, and is eaten between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night. It originated in the 12th century, when it was created to honour the Three Kings.
There are a few French regional variations (plus many different versions around the world), but the most popular in London is the northern French and Belgian tradition. This is a round or rectangular cake made from flaky puff pastry with a ground almond frangipane filling.
Traditionally, a bean or a porcelain or plastic figurine was hidden inside, and whoever found it was crowned king for the day, with the responsibility of buying next year's cake. A figurine — which can be anything like a car, cartoon character or movie star — is sometimes sold separately for health and safety reasons, for you to insert yourself, alongside a paper crown for the king. The trinket symbolises luck and prosperity for the finder.
Le Pain Quotidien
This well-established Belgian chain's cake comes with a ground almond filling, a chocolate-covered almond in the centre, a porcelain trinket and a gold paper crown
Le Pain Quotidien, 64 Tottenham Court Road, W1T 2ET. There are several other branches in London
Additionally, Boulangerie Jade sells puff pastry galette filled with ground almonds and a ceramic figurine. From 26 December until the end of January 2017, Paul will sell a classic galette with frangipane, along with a ceramic figurine and a crown for the king or queen.
Bolo rei de natal
Also a type of king cake eaten during Epiphany with a bean, figurine or candy hidden inside, this version of the cake is completely different. It's made from rich yeasted dough with dried fruit and spices. It has a ring shape to symbolise a crown; with coloured sugar crystals or candied fruit such as cherries, figs or quinces on top to resemble jewels. Furthermore, the crust symbolises gold; the aroma, incense; and the fruits, myrrh.
Originating in Notting Hill, this much-loved Portuguese patisserie now has several other branches. It sells a soft, freshly baked bolo rei, attractively studded with vibrantly hued candied fruit.
Lisboa Patisserie, 57 Goldborne Road, W10 5NR. There are other branches in Chelsea, Camden, Stockwell and Vauxhall
Stockwell's Portuguese food shop and café sells a classic colourful king's cake; plus another version containing pumpkin jam.
Sintra, 146-148 Stockwell Road, SW9 9TQ
Japanese Christmas cake
Japan doesn't really have a tradition of Christmas — so is there such a thing as 'Japanese Christmas cake'? Well, yes. It originated in Tokyo at a time when the country was becoming modernised. In the 20th century, Western desserts were associated with social status and considered a delicacy.
Traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve, this cake is a very soft, light sponge covered with whipped cream, decorated with strawberries (or occasionally other fruit), along with chocolates and a Santa decoration. As Christmas became popular, quirky or outlandish modern versions of the original Japanese Christmas cake started appearing in Japan.
This tiny, pristine patisserie and café marries classic French techniques with a Japanese sensibility. It sells a sumptuous vanilla and strawberry sponge with cream and white chocolate flakes, topped with a Christmas decoration. It's available until the end of the day on 24 December, but you'll have to order it online. There's also a green tea version, with the green sponge and red strawberries giving it attractive Christmas colours.
Lanka, 9 Goldhurst Terrace, NW6 3HX
Light and fluffy Japanese Christmas cake can be ordered whole (or available to buy in slices) at this friendly little Japanese bakery in Ealing. It's made from a soft sponge covered with whipped cream and strawberries.
WA Café, 32 Haven Green, Ealing W5 2NX
So you've eaten your way around international Christmas cakes, but you're not ready to give up the classic British fruitcake just yet: it is, after all, one of the foods that you most associate with the festival.
Fruitcake dates back to ancient Rome, when it was made with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and barley mash. Gradually ingredients seen as rich and indulgent such as butter and eggs began to be added with the blessing of the Catholic Church. Including candied fruit was a result of sugar becoming more widely available and affordable; and nuts were associated with the harvest season.
Many countries around the world, including USA and countries of the Commonwealth, have their own distinctive version of the Christmas fruitcake — ranging from the semolina sponge with chayote preserves of Sri Lanka, to the rum-soaked cakes of the Caribbean.
Melrose & Morgan
There is, of course, no shortage of English Christmas cakes in London — but we particularly like this north London deli's own-made version. It's studded with currants, sultanas, raisins, orange and lemon peel, almonds and glace cherries; flavoured with apple juice, treacle and apricot jam; laced with French brandy, and covered with marzipan and white fondant icing. There's also a smaller loaf cake, and a highly popular wheat-free version.
Melrose and Morgan, 42 Gloucester Avenue, NW1 8JD. There’s another branch in Hampstead
This is a rich fruitcake containing currants, sultanas, and sometimes candied fruit peel along with a dash of whisky — but normally no glace cherries. Its most distinguishing feature is the concentric circles of blanched almonds on its surface.
The modern cake originated in the 19th century when Keiller's marmalade company introduced it as Dundee cake. However, as we know, fruitcakes have been around for centuries. It's believed that Mary Queen Of Scots didn't like glace cherries, so a cake made from almonds instead of cherries was first baked for her.
This long-established, family-owned Crouch End bakery sells a great selection of old-school and contemporary Christmas cakes. Their round and square Dundee cakes are packed with dried fruit and fresh orange and lemon, and hand-decorated with split almonds.
Dunn's Bakery, 6 The Broadway, Crouch End, N8 9SN