No sooner is Halloween and Bonfire night over than thoughts turn to Christmas preparations and first up is the cake. Some people make theirs as far in advance as February and allow it to mature over the following year but they can be made right up to a month beforehand so there is still plenty of time. My favourite recipe and one I come back to again and again is my reliableold Good Housekeeping cook book version from my battered old 1950’s copy – with a few tweaks. Namely, I take the dried peel out of the equation and substitute something else because I cannot bear the stuff. I went for dried apricots to replace the peel and kept the others as the original recipe states but any combination of dried fruit from blueberries, cranberries or mango to the more ordinary raisins, sultanas and currants can be used. Same with the nuts, its entirely down to individual taste.
In years gone by I have made up to a dozen Christmas cakes and given them as gifts but this year I’m just making one big cake (in a 23 cm square tin) for the family to share, hence the large quantities given here. So large in fact that it took 7 hours to cook! The amounts below can be directly halved and made in a round 8-inch spring form tin which will only take a mere 3 and 3/4 hours to cook.
The first step is to double-line the tin and surround it with a collar made from several thicknesses of newspaper tied securely with string:-
Once you have carefully prepared your tin – and don’t skimp on it or you’ll regret it later – you can start making the cake. Proceed in much the usual way. Cream the sugar and the butter until they’re nice and fluffy. Next add in the beaten egg little by little, whisking well after each addition. Add the sifted flour in two batches stirring well each time with a metal spoon. Finally, add your alcohol and grated zest followed by your fruit/nut combination.
Its at this point that Michael always puts in an appearance to give the mixture a stir and make his annual Christmas wish (and still I live).
Once its all thoroughly combined pack the mixture into your prepared tin. Remember to make a dip in the centre. This is to counteract the cake’s natural tendency to rise more in the centre giving a domed shape; celebration cakes like this tend to be decorated so the flatter the top, the better. Bake all Christmas cakes, whatever their size, on a very low heat – between gas mark 1 and 2 or equivalent thereof. Place a folded up newspaper on the oven shelf and then place your filled tin on top. It won’t burn, I promise you. It will protect the cake. If anyone has different sized tins and wants alternative cooking times and weights, let me know and I’ll be happy to oblige. After around an hour and a half cover the tin with several thicknesses of grease-proof paper and a plate or a baking tray to prevent the top of the cake over-browning.
Once the cake is cooked allow it to cool in the tin and then wrap it in several layers of cling-film. Put it in an airtight tin but before you do, pierce it several times with a long needle and gently pour over a few tbsps of brandy. If, like mine, your cake is too large to fit into any tin you own it can instead be wrapped it in foil on top of the greasproof. From now until the time you come to decorate it, unpack the cake once a week and ‘feed’ it more brandy or whisky. Only a little each time – just a few tbsps – because you don’t want it too soggy to deal with once decorating time comes around.
In terms of how to adorn the cake, there are many different paths one can go down. I’m very lucky to live not too far from a fantastic little Aladdin’s cave of a cake craft shop called Basique in North London which has an unbelievable array of cake decorating paraphenalia. A more central (London) option is of course the wonderful Jane Asher shop and there are also various online suppliers in which you’ll find ideas as as well as the craft items to use on your cake.
This year I’m thinking of keeping mine reasonably simple; I’ll be using a layer of marzipan, a layer of soft icing, some gold cake paint, some glossy red ribbon and some golden cake decorating balls and the obligatory apricot jam to stick everything down! I’m planning on making it look like a wrapped present. Lets see how that pans out, shall we?!
* these are for my large cake, remember to halve them if you’re doing an 8-inch version
4lb dried fruit of your choice
4 0z nuts of your choice, toasted and crushed up a little
1lb soft dark brown sugar
1tsp cinnamon, 1tsp nutmeg – or again, spices of your choice
Zest of 2 limes or 2 lemons or 1 of each
8 large eggs
4tbsp brandy or whisky
Method: as above.
I will be decorating my cake in Part II around 21st/22nd December. Watch this space!