It’s that time again. Unlike many gateaux, the Christmas cake doesn’t require the finest of baking hands. But to be really delicious it needs time to drink (don’t we all). If you make your cake now you’ll have time to feed it over the next few weeks. More to the point: if you make your cake now, you’ll have made your cake. Honestly, it will taste better than any bought one, however posh. Any one who sells a Christmas cake simply won’t have included enough of the more expensive ingredients, like booze, and really good quality dried fruit. Icing the cake is not necessary (you can always put some whole almonds on the top instead), but quite fun.
We have a competition in our house for the best Christmas cake, and so have tried and tested many recipes. Our favourite is Nigel Slater’s in The Kitchen Diaries, which we have adapted, because Nigel uses hazlenuts and we think almonds are better in a fruit cake, and he includes figs and prunes, which, on much reflection and after great debate, we think are best left out. Here is the winning formula.
One note: for a really good cake you need to soak the fruit the night before baking commences.
Winning Christmas Cake
For the cake:
900g dried fruit – we do about three quarters sultanas, raisins, and currants to a quarter apricots (cut them up), sour cherries (available from most supermarkets) and cranberries
125g light muscovado sugar
125g dark muscovado sugar
100g candied peel (Italian delis sell the best stuff by far. Buy whole quarters of orange or lemon peel, then cut it up yourself, as finely as you like it.)
3 large free range eggs
65g ground almonds
100g whole almonds
Irish whiskey or brandy
the zest of one orange and the juice 4 oranges
the zest of one lemon
250g plain flour
half a teaspoon baking powder
For the Icing:
500g Marzipan (or more if you like a really thick layer)
A couple of boxes of bought fondant icing (again, the amount depends on how elaborate your decorations will be).
Apricot jam (which will act as glue)
Soaking: The night before you intend to make the cake, soak all the dried fruit in the juice of three oranges and a good healthy glug of either the Irish whiskey or brandy. About three tablespoons will do it, but I slosh in a bit more.
Lining: The only other time consuming job you now have is to line the tin. You need a deep 20cm round or square tin with a removable base. You can get away lining it, bottom and sides, with a double layer of greaseproof paper. Butter the tin a bit to make it tacky so that the paper sticks to it, and have the paper rise up above the sides of the tin a few centremetres, so the cake has room to rise. This is the minimum amount of lining you can get away with. I prefer to go the Krypton Factor route and line with cardboard too, as this really ensures the cake won’t burn round its edges. You can keep your cardboard moulds from year to year. Extra brown wrapping paper, doubled up, would be another option if you can’t find any cardboard. I also put a double layer of greaseproof paper, with a whole cut out in the middle (so steam can escape) on top of the wet cake mix, to protect it from burning on top. I think it’s definitely worth the hassle of doing all this. It’s disappointing to make a cake and then find that the sides and top are burnt.
Heating: Set the oven to 160° C.
Making: Beat the butter with both sugars until the mixture is pale and fluffy. This is infinitely easier with a mixer. Slow down the mixer to add each egg, one at a time. Speed it up again between each egg and let it really mix together – for longer than you think necessary. This helps to prevent the mixture curdling. If it does curdle, don’t worry. It will all come together again when you add the flour.
Meanwhile add the ground almonds, whole almonds, candied peel, lemon zest, orange zest, the juice from your last orange and another generous slug of your booze to the dried fruit. Give it a good mix. Then mix this into the butter, sugar and egg. It’s best to do this by hand.
Finally, add the flour and baking powder and fold in lightly. Dollop the mixture into the lined tin, smooth the top gently and put into the oven. Bake for an hour, then turn the heat down to 150° C and cook for another hour and a half. Make sure the cake is done when the time is up by inserting a skewer. If it comes out clean (if a bit crumby), then you are fine. If there is raw cake mix clinging to it, put the cake back in the oven for a little longer. All ovens vary which is why you need to check your cake. Let the cake cool in its tin before removing it from it’s tin and brown cardboard/ paper casings.
Feeding: Feed it once a week until you come to ice it (as near Christmas as possible, though remember that you have to do a layer of marzipan first and that needs to dry out for a few days before you add the icing). Skewer holes all over the cake and spoon yet more booze over and into it.
Icing: I used to make my own marzipan and icing. What a faff. Now I buy Crazy Jack marzipan from the whole food shop, which is good and natural (own brand supermarket stuff is fine too), and a lot easier to roll. Ready to roll fondant icing, which you can buy easily, is by far the easiest icing to use and tastes just as good as homemade stuff. It’s just icing sugar and egg whites after all.
Put your cake on the stand or board you are going to keep it on. Lightly dust a clean working surface with sifted icing sugar and roll out the marzipan to fit your cake. Do this in several stages. First measure your cake using a piece of string. The top of the cake will be one square or circle of marzipan. You can do one long low rectangle to wound around the sides or don’t worry if you’d rather do two smaller ones. It is easy to smooth all the edges. Gently warm the apricot jam in a small saucepan and if it’s got chunks of apricot in it, sieve them out. Then paint the cake with the jam. Drape the marzipan that goes on the top of the cake first and smooth it down so that there aren’t any air bubbles or lumps in it. Use a palette knife or a blunt knife to do this. Cut off any excess marzipan. Then cover the sides and do the same smoothing process. It’s all easier than it sounds. Leave the cake with its marzipan coat on for a few days in a cool place (preferably in a tin, or wrapped up in greaseproof paper and tin foil) or a week if you have the time. This allows the oil from the marzipan to dry out so it won’t stain the icing.
When it comes to icing the cake, follow the same method as for the marzipan. You can get Christmas themed cutters to make things like holly leaves. Bought ‘writing icing’ or flowers makes it easy to squeeze or plonk on a bit of colour. Here, below, is last years effort.