December is the time for baking in the kitchen, insulated against the cold weather by a festive fug of spices, brandy and rich dried fruit: cookies, mince pies, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake. The Christmas cake should be prepared well ahead of time so it has time to develop moistness and flavour. Usually I procrastinate and bake it only a week before Christmas but this year I was determined to do it right. So yesterday the kitchen exuded a gentle spicy aroma as the cake cooked extremely slowly for four and a half hours. Just one whiff is enough to conjure up Christmas.
It is just the sort of rich, damp, heavy fruit cake that Captain Hook put out to poison the Lost Boys in the original Peter Pan story. That detail seems to have been omitted in the updated versions, maybe these days it seems too old-fashioned to believe that rich cake is death to young stomachs! My kids aren’t really into the cake itself anyway, but they love the marzipan and icing, so will nibble meagrely at the cake in order to justify feasting on their icing and that of the adults as well, who Jack Sprat-like tend to prefer the cake and leave the excess sweet icing to the children.
Just before Christmas I usually get out the reliable old Delia Smith cook book to check out the
50g/2oz glace cherries(optional)
50g/2oz mixed candied peel chopped
3 tablespoons brandy
225g/8oz plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon mixed spice
225g/8oz unsalted butter
225g/8oz soft brown sugar
4 large eggs
50g/2oz chopped almonds
1 dessertspoon treacle
grated rind of 1 lemon
grated rind of 1 orange
The night before you want to make the cake, soak all the dried fruit and peel with the brandy. Leave it in a covered bowl over night or at least twelve hours.
Grease and line a 20cm/8 inch round cake tin or a 18cm/ 7 inch square one.
Sift together the flour, salt and spices. Cream the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy (make sure you do this thoroughly). Beat eggs and add them a little at a time to the creamed mixture, beating well each time. Next fold in the flour and spices gently. Stir in the dried fruit and peel, treacle and the grated lemon and orange rind. Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin and spread it out evenly. Tie a band of brown paper round the outside of the tin and cover the top of the cake with a double layer of greaseproof paper (with a hole cut in the middle of it) Bake the cake at 140C/275F on the lower shelf of the oven for 4 ¼ – 4 ¾ hours. Don’t open the door to check until at least 4 hours have passed. Once the cake has cooled wrap it in a layer of greaseproof paper then foil. Delia recommends feeding it with brandy every week or so, by poking a couple of holes with a skewer then letting a few teaspoons of brandy soak in.
Our cake is now well wrapped in grease-proof paper and foil and stored on a shelf in the larder to steep in its own flavours. A week before Christmas I’ll make the marzipan to go on it. I’ll have a lot of help with that as the children vie to gather up any scraps that fall or are trimmed off. We’ve even converted marzipan haters in the family to our variety of almond paste, just by leaving out the almond essence, which gives the strong almost metallic taste to shop marzipan. Without it the real almond flavour gets a chance to shine through, more mellow and delicately nutty. (I’ll write up my recipe for the marzipan and royal icing in my next article.)
On top of the marzipan goes the top layer of royal icing, made with icing sugar and egg white, put on rough to resemble a snowy scene. When I was growing up we had a set of figures for a Nativity scene that always decorated the cake and it was my favourite job to arrange them with a few tiny pine trees for added effect. You can be creative with your decoration, go for elegant with a single artificial poinsettia flower or fun with plastic animals – a donkey and ox, or as I often do being in Africa, a zebra, elephant and giraffe – standing around in the snow. Silver balls could make a star or you could find a tiny angel decoration to stand atop the cake heralding Christmas.