I’ve been putting this off for some time, as it’s quite a of a labour of love – but as Christmas is fast approaching, I know lots of people might try their hand at a Christmas cake any day now. So here it is, presented as a page rather than a post, as it is quite a lengthy process. To begin with, I know anything involving dried fruit is a bit of a Marmite affair, so fruit cake isn’t for absolutely everyone. People either love it or hate it! Needless to say, I am very much a fan, and I always have been. If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you are, too! There is something deeply comforting about a mince pie or a slice of fruit cake in the colder months. Lavished with brandy butter, it is, for me, the definition of the festive season in edible form; cosy, intoxicating nostalgia. Pretty iced Christmas cakes are easy to buy in any supermarket, but it defeats the point. It’s not just about the cake, it’s about the process. Don’t get me wrong, there are quite a lot of things that I would rather buy at Christmas than make myself. You can’t do everything yourself – it just becomes a never-ending chore. Christmas cake is the one thing I would urge everyone to have a go at. It is fun to put together with children, as they love to help with the stirring here and there. They can also get involved with the decorating process, if you choose to go down that road. (I do. And it is inevitably strewn with sugar crafted bows, snowflakes and edible glitter).
It’s a good idea to set aside a day to make the cake. It takes a long time to make and bake, with a fair bit of prep involved, too. But there is something joyously calming in it. The steeping of the fruits, measuring the heady spices and preparing the tin for its lengthy stretch in the oven – it’s like slow cooking in baking form. Slow baking. It’s a loving process and shouldn’t be rushed; a Christmas cake is too expensive to mess up. You can make it months in advance – it will definitely benefit from being wrapped well in a Tupperware and fed liquor every couple of weeks. One very organised year, I made four of them just after Easter, and fed them fortnightly until Christmas – needless to say, by the time December arrived, the cakes were practically walking themselves to a rehabilitation clinic. You don’t need to make so far in advance; a couple of months is ideal, but even a couple of weeks, i.e. now – would be fine.
My strong sense of kitsch has led me in recent times to use cherry brandy in my ever-evolving recipe. I think it has actually reached its pinnacle; this is the recipe I will pass on to my daughter.
This quantity will make one 8″ round cake (make sure the tin is a good 3″ deep. Now is not the time for a sandwich tin!) Alternatively, you can use a 6″ square tin, with a minimum depth of 4″.
You’ll also need plenty of baking paper, brown paper, tin foil and string.
750g mixed dried fruit (get one that includes mixed peel)
50g glacé cherries, chopped
125ml cherry brandy (Lidl do a brilliant one!) Or whisky, sherry or normal brandy if you prefer.
225g unsalted butter, softened
225g dark brown sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
1/2 tsp natural almond essence
1 tbsp black treacle
3 large eggs
225g plain flour
1/2 tbsp mixed spice
1/2 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
Optional: 100g chopped almonds or brazil nuts (or a mixture of both)
Preparing the fruit: A day or so before you plan to bake the cake, empty the dried fruits and cherries into a large container (preferably one with a lid) and pour over the alcohol. Give it a really good mix, put the lid on (or cover with clingfilm) and set aside. Try to give the container a shake a couple of times during the steeping process (this is why I suggest using something with a lid!).
Preparing the tin: Using the bottom of your tin, trace a circle on to a piece of baking paper and cut it out. Cut a long strip of baking paper, a good couple of inches bigger than the circumference of the tin. An inch or two deeper than the side of the tin is ideal, too. Lay the strip flat, then fold over about half an inch from the edge as shown above. Cut into the fold, just to the edge, all the way along the strip.
Butter your tin, then place the strip of baking paper inside, with the cut bottom edge facing inwards as shown. This just makes it easier to fit the bottom of the tin snuggly. Ease the paper into place, making sure the sides are flat against the tin and not ‘pulling’ away, as this will affect the shape of the cake. If the paper comes up higher than the sides of the tin, you may need to snip along it every few inches, to help allow a bit of movement. Now simply place your pre-cut piece circle of baking paper inside, covering snipped bottom edge. Your tin is ready! Incidentally, I use this technique for all cakes (except sponge cakes).
Preheat the oven to 150c/300f/gas mark 2. Using a mixer, cream together butter and sugar together until a fluffy, pale coffee colour.
Switch off the motor for a moment and add the lemon and orange zests, almond essence and black treacle. Mix thoroughly, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing for about 10 second between each addition.
Meanwhile, stir together the flour, spices and salt. Add to the mixer using a heaped tablespoon, until it is completely incorporated.
When the mixture looks smooth and creamy, add the soaked fruit and any remaining liquid.
Bake in the centre of the oven for around 2 hours 30 minutes. Check with a cake tester after 2 hours; it is unlikely to be cooked through, but may look quite dark. If you don’t want it to colour any further, carefully cover loosely with brown paper. When a cake tester comes out clean, it is ready. Place on a wire rack and jab it with a cake tester or skewer all over, then brush approximately 3 tablespoons of cherry brandy all over the top, paying close attention to the sides. Doing this while the cake is still hot means the liquor is absorbed better into the cake. Cover the top of the tin with foil (be careful as the tin will be incredibly hot) and leave it to cool completely. This can take all day. When completely cold, turn out the cake and wrap with baking paper. Store in a tin or airtight container until you need to decorate it; I would allow at least a week, but the longer the better. In the meantime, feed the cake every couple of weeks – simply unwrap and brush an extra couple of tablespoons over the top and sides. Re-wrap and store.