I absolutely love Christmas Cake. I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I could eat a boozy, marzipan covered bit of fruit cake any day! In fact, when Mr B asked what cake I would like for my 40th Birthday, I requested a stollen Christmas cake taken from a recipe in Sainsbury’s magazine. Because, extra marzipan, obviously!
In an ideal world I would follow in the footsteps of my mum and bake my Christmas cake in August, definitely no later than September. However, I am not always that organised (and who wants the oven on for hours in the middle of a heat wave?). If I am baking Christmas cakes for customer orders or market stalls then I will bake in October, to give plenty of time for feeding and maturing. However, with our own cake I am not always so prepared.
The process of baking my bespoke fruit cakes starts anything from 3 days to 3 weeks before the actual bake, when I soak the fruit. I make both traditional alcoholic fruit cakes as well as a non-alcoholic variety.
For the alcoholic version I put the dried mixed fruit into a bowl, then add in some generous sloshes of alcohol. It doesn’t matter what alcohol you use, as long as it is a spirit of some sort. Brandy is traditional for a European cake, but in the Caribbean rum or spiced rum is the spirit of choice. I am a fan of sloshing in whatever I have, in whatever combination. Our family Christmas cake is a mix of brandy, sherry, rum, spiced rum, bourbon, flavoured vodka, Gran Marnier, cherry brandy and anything else I can find lurking in the cupboard! We sound like big drinkers, but in reality, most of these bottles gather dust in the cupboard all year, only coming out for the annual Christmas cake making ritual. The Gran Marnier came from my mother-in-law’s house with about half of it gone. We’ve just marked the fifth anniversary of her death, so that tells you how long that bottle has probably been open!
The trick is not to drown the fruit – I made that mistake one year, the cake was delicious and squidgy, but the marzipan and fondant just melted off it! You want to soak the fruit in just enough liquid to coat it, but not so much that it is swimming in the bowl. This is not your morning cereal! My trick for not pouring half a bottle of brandy on it? Add some freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice to the mix, and if you still don’t have enough liquid, pour on some tea too (hot or cold, but without any milk, obviously). Give the mixture a good stir, cover with clingfilm (or mix in large Tupperware) and leave to macerate for as long as you have.
For the non-alcoholic version I make up some black tea, add in the squeezed orange and lemon and leave the fruit to soak. It works in exactly the same way. It’s a myth that you need the alcohol to preserve the cake, dried fruit is so full of sugar it will happily sit in its tea/juice bath and still make a totally delicious cake that will keep for months if stored correctly.
“But how is this last minute, Clare?” I hear you cry. “I don’t have 3 hours, let alone 3 days!” Do not despair. The Christmas cake fairy is here to help!
Have you ever made a tea loaf or a boiled fruit cake? Well the same principle applies. If you can let the fruit soak even overnight, then do so, but if it really is last minute then bung the fruit and soaking liquid in a saucepan and put over a VERY low heat. You aren’t cooking it, you aren’t trying to reduce a sauce, and if you are using alcohol you definitely aren’t trying to burn off the booze! It just needs a gentle heat, stir now and then and watch the fruit plump up before your eyes. Phase 1 is complete. Let the fruit sit and cool a bit, then make your cake as per the recipe (I’ll share mine below).
You have baked your cake, the kitchen smells like Christmas, full of warm spice aromas and that festive cake smell. You’ve opened the back door because the oven being on for 4+ hours has heated the downstairs to furnace-like temperatures (or is that just our house?). You have carefully removed your precious cake from the oven and set the tin on a rack to cool and now sat down for a well-deserved cuppa. STOP – switch the kettle off for a moment. Phase 2 commences when you take the cake out of the oven. Whilst it is still hot in the tin get stabbing with a skewer (carefully, you don’t want a dented tin) and pour over a tablespoon (or two) of alcohol (or tea/fruit juice). Let it soak in whilst the cake cools (go and have your cuppa now, these cakes hold more heat than a nuclear reactor). Once completely cool, remove from the tin and wrap in greaseproof paper and then cling film or a large reusable plastic bag. Then freeze.
Yep, you read that correctly. Freeze that bad boy. Even if it is just overnight. With some sort of wizardry unknown to all except Santa’s Elves, freezing the fruit cake speeds up the maturation process and makes the cake taste like you have been diligently feeding it once a week for months. To defrost, remove from the freezer and leave wrapped up on a rack for a few hours (time will vary depending on the size of the cake and the temperature in the room). Don’t be tempted to unwrap it to defrost. As the cake warms up condensation forms on the surface. You want this on the wrapper, not the actual cake. (That was the science bit, did you spot it?)
Et voila! You have a rapidly matured Christmas cake. Will it work if you don’t have time to freeze the cake? Absolutely. Just whack on a bit more alcohol or tea whilst it cools.
So now you have no excuse for not making a Christmas cake before the big day. There is still time.
So here (with a grateful nod to Queen Mary Berry, whose classic rich fruit cake recipe I have adapted) is my recipe for a last-minute Christmas cake:
This will make a 6” round cake – perfect size for a family gathering.
Line a 6” round, deep cake tin with a double layer of greaseproof. If making all on the same day then preheat your oven to 120C Fan (Gas mark 1). If not, then do this when you are ready to start your mixing.
To start off put 375g dried mixed fruit, 50g Glace cherries, the zest and juice of a lemon and an orange and the alcohol or tea into a saucepan (or a bowl or Tupperware if soaking overnight). Heat gently until the fruit is plump then set aside to cool.
In a large mixing bowl or a stand mixer cream together 100g of softened butter and 100g of soft dark brown sugar. Once creamed add in 2 large eggs and a big dollop of black treacle. I love black treacle, hence the unmeasured dollop, but it will also add a nice rich flavour to your last-minute cake. Mix in well, then add in the fruit and its liquid.
Finally add in 25g of chopped almonds (if using, if not then omit) and a teaspoon each of cinnamon, mixed spice, ginger and half a teaspoon of ground nutmeg (you don’t have to be exact; it depends how much you love Christmas spices).
Give it all a thorough mix with a wooden spoon (your mixer would break up the fruit and nuts). If you want to start a family tradition, give everyone a chance to mix the cake, making a wish as they go. Pour into your tin and put in the oven. It should take 3 and a half hours to cook, but after 2 and a half check that the top isn’t browning too much. If it is, make a little hat for the cake with a folded piece of greaseproof resting on top. You will know the cake is nearly done when the kitchen smells amazingly festive. If a skewer comes out clean, then take it out and leave it in the tin to cool – don’t forget to skewer it and spoon on another soak of your chosen liquid.
When it is completely cool, follow phase 3. When you are ready, cover in marzipan (if using) and icing of choice. Decorate and enjoy. Try serving it with a tasty bit of cheddar – honestly, trust me. Totally delicious!
I’d love to know if you try this. Pop me a comment below if you have.