CHRISTMAS cakes and puddings are traditionally prepared well in advance to give them plenty of time to mature and develop their intense flavour. Using a high proportion of dried fruits and nuts, flavoured with citrus, spices and a good measure of alcohol, these items also require long, slow baking. It is great to have everything made ahead of time, saving on last-minute preparations as Christmas and New Year arrangements descend upon all of us.

In Scotland, we have a very old tradition of making black bun for Hogmanay. I rarely see this baked at home nowadays, although it is made commercially. I have to admit I've only made it once before and it was incredibly popular with people of my own age who remembered it as part of the celebrations in their childhood. They also remembered it lasting for weeks ahead into the new year, packed in work lunch boxes, or taken on winter walks as an energy boost, or emergency rations on a long journey.

It seems the Scots have had difficulty with the definition of the words "cake" and "bun" in the past. This is because an oatcake was something flat, crisp and savoury as opposed to something more tantalising, soft, sweet and sometimes squidgy. The word bun has also come to denote something soft and sweet, but not as dense as this fruit cake. Earlier recipes for black bun encased the fruit mixture in bread, while those of a slightly later era, made a pastry casing, using a basic shortcrust with lard. I found a reference to a black bun recipe baked in the 1700s. This was prepared in a way similar to a strudel, but using a thin layer of bread dough to encase the fruit and spices, which was then baked quickly in a hot oven. The recipe changed from bread to pastry over the years and at one time it was described as plum cake and exported to England by Scottish bakers during the run-up to Christmas.

However, Christmas was frowned upon by strict Protestants in centuries gone by and the celebrations centred round Twelfth Night – still celebrated in other European countries – which is part of the old Gregorian calendar. Black bun was also described as Twelfth cake and served at this time of year.

Every commercial black bun baker had his own special recipe for the ultimate mixture of fruit and spices. Some used treacle, others used dark brown sugar. Jamaica pepper, or all-spice – very popular in traditional Scottish cooking – can be difficult to find, but search it out and make the most of its special qualities. The ratio of flour to fruit is small in comparison with a normal cake recipe; there is no butter involved and very little liquid.

Below is my own adaptation of an old recipe, with a few personal additions, such as the ginger pieces and my homemade Talisker marmalade. I used Talisker in the cake mix too, but you don't need to be as elaborate. Original recipes usually specify brandy, but as this is a very Scottish festival, I feel that nothing less than a good dash of your favourite Scotch will do.

Serving a slice of black bun with a generous dram to first-footers on Hogmanay has been traditional in Scotland for as long as it has been for family, friends and neighbours to celebrate the turn of the year with all sorts of strange customs pertaining to the sound of the midnight hour. As the bells chime, the cheers go up and another year begins, it is customary to recognise the end of one year and the beginning of another, welcoming it with good luck wishes for health and prosperity over the year ahead. I feel that a slice of Black Bun might be more readily received than a piece of coal or a bag of salt these days, but whatever you decide to share, make it at home and enjoy creating it from scratch. For some extra fun, an old sixpence or a few silver charms could be added to the mixture before baking. Even to this day, I love finding the lucky charm in a slice of Christmas home-baking.

Black bun

(Uses one 23cm round, deep cake tin)

500g shortcrust pastry

785g currants

675g raisins

225g medjool dates, stoned and chopped to same size as currants

110g crystallised ginger, rinsed of syrup or sugar and chopped to same size as mixed peel

225g good quality, chopped mixed citrus peel

225g blanched almonds shopped into thin slivers

110g chopped walnuts

110g dark, soft brown sugar

1 level tsp ground cinnamon

1 level tsp ground ginger

1 heaped tsp ground allspice

½ tsp ground black pepper

½ whole nutmeg, freshly grated

450g wholemeal self-raising flour

2 heaped tbsp coarse cut, Seville orange marmalade

2 tbsp whisky

2 large eggs or binding the fruit together

4 tbsp milk

1 large egg for sealing the pastry


1. Measure all ingredients (except eggs, pastry and milk) into a large bowl and mix together thoroughly. Using your hands is probably the most effective way to do this. Cover with a clean cloth and leave overnight to allow the flavours to meld.

2. The next day, prepare the cake tin. Cut the shortcrust pastry in half. Set aside one half to line the sides of the tin. Divide the other half into two pieces and roll each one into a circle 24cm in diameter.

3. Grease the base and sides of the tin lightly and place one pastry circle on the base of the tin, with the edge rising up the side a little. Brush the edge of this with beaten egg.

4. Roll the second large piece of pastry into two long oblongs, to wrap around the inside of the tin, sitting one edge alongside where the pastry base rises up the side of the tin. Where the two oblongs overlap, brush the edges, to ensure a tight seal.

5. Chill the lined cake tin in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, with the second circle of pastry sitting on top of a plate to chill alongside.

6. Preheat oven to 150°C, gas mark 2.

7. Whisk two eggs with the milk and mix into the fruit mixture to bind it together. The mixture will seem quite dry in comparison with a usual cake mixture. Keep digging deep into the mixture to ensure the liquid permeates as far as possible.

8. Pack the mixture tightly into the pastry case, to almost the top of the cake tin. Fold over the remaining edges of pastry which are lining the side of the tin and brush with egg. Brush around the edge of one side of the second circle of pastry with egg and lay it on top, covering the whole surface and press down around the edge to ensure a tight seal. Pinch the edge together with the back of a dinner fork. Brush the whole of the surface with the remaining egg and prick the surface all over with a fork. Finally, take a skewer and pierce 6 holes at even intervals right through the black bun from the pastry top to the base of the tin.

9. Wrap the whole tin in a protective layer of brown paper or newspaper and tie it with string. Place on the lower shelf of the pre-heated oven and bake for at least 3½ hours, before testing with a skewer. If the skewer removes cleanly from the cake, it is ready. If not, continue baking for at least 30 minutes. Leave to cool in the tin before removing it carefully.

10. Wrap in greaseproof or parchment paper and store in an airtight tin to mature for as long as possible before Hogmanay – or even for a whole year ahead.

Shirley Spear is owner of The Three Chimneys and The House Over-By on the Isle of Skye