Behind the recipe: How to make Christmas cake

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A couple of weeks ago I made this year’s Christmas cake. I make my husband’s grandmother’s recipe, although, much to his horror, I do make some adjustments here and there. But it produces a fruit-packed dark cake that we both love, so it always seems worth it. And more than ever now we are a family of three, I enjoy the ritual of digging out the fruit in October, and making the cake, knowing that it promises cosy evenings and feasting to come in a couple of months. Even when all my good intentions of early Christmas shopping and house decorating come to nought, I feel comforted knowing that at least I have a cake stored away, that will make tea times feel festive.

Shauna from Gluten Free Girl wrote a lovely post earlier this year about the ritual of making the same food each week, of having a pattern to the week that everyone recognises. I feel the same way about these annual rituals of cooking. There is great comfort in a cooking ritual that evokes a specific time of year: marmalade in January, strawberries in June. But for a Brit, Christmas is the one time of year that we celebrate with specific festive foods. Americans have Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl to mark their cooking year. With Hot Cross Buns seemingly available all year round, Christmas is the last food feast in the calendar, even if it does seem to start in September.

When making a fruit cake for Christmas, there are certain rituals to the process that seem arcane. It seems to be a very complicated recipe, and it’s tempting to shortcut as many steps as possible. But why is the process so peculiar, compared to baking a straightforward sponge cake?

The main thing to remember about fruitcake is that it is (or should be) more fruit than cake. And dried fruit needs a few things to bake well: to be moist enough not to dry out; to be cooked slowly so that all the sugar in it doesn’t scorch; and to be suspended in a cake batter firm enough so that it doesn’t all sink to the bottom when baked. Here are some of the steps you might find in your Christmas cake or fruit cake recipe, and why they are worth doing:

Soaking the fruit

Many recipes start with measuring the fruit, and soaking it overnight (or for even longer). This plumps up fruit like raisins and currants, and the liquid they take in here will help keep the cake moist as it sits. And if you soak in brandy, rum, whisky or another spirit, it will also help to preserve the cake.

Wrapping the tin in brown paper

Using all my Blue Peter skills on the cake tin for the fruit cake

This is what really says Christmas to me. The idea when lining the tin with multiple layers of paper, and then wrapping newspaper or brown paper around the outside is to insulate the tin, and prevent the outside from browning, and ultimately scorching, before the centre of this dense cake is cooked through. You may also be asked to cover the top with paper, to prevent it browning too far.

Brushing/soaking with brandy/rum

This one definitely depends on how far in advance you’ve made it, and how often you remember to do this. It should serve two purposes – to help keep the crumb moist, and to further preserve the cake, and prevent any mould from forming. You should also make sure you wrap the cake well each time you do this, so that the moisture is kept in.

Wrapping in marzipan

So it’s been baked, and soaked, and wrapped, and it’s nearly Christmas. Just time to ice it. But first you have to cover it in marzipan and then let it dry out?? This is really a royal icing thing. The marzipan is there to stop the dark fruit of the cake from bleeding through the pristine white icing. And letting it dry out prevents oils from the almonds from leaking into the icing.

I’m not a huge fan of royal icing, or of shop-bought marzipan that is so sweet it makes your teeth ache. But I could be persuaded by Nigel Slater’s homemade almond paste with orange zest, and golden icing sugar icing.

Here is the recipe I use. The dried fruit can be varied, as long as you keep to the same weight. I like to keep a base of raisins and currants for their dark, rich flavours, but you may prefer paler, sweeter fruits: sultanas, figs and apricots chopped small, dried cherries. I have to confess that I no longer whisk the egg whites separately – I just couldn’t see how the air would survive folding in with the fruit. Instead I mix the whole eggs into the creamed butter and sugar. 

Recipe: Pendleton Christmas Cake

PREP TIME: 1 hr plus soaking

TOTAL TIME: 5 – 6 hr

This recipe – for 9 inch round tin (or 8 inch square) – 20cm square.

Ingredients:

  • 450 gram Raisins
  • 450 gram Sultanas
  • 340 gram Currants
  • 110 gram Candied Peel — finely chopped
  • 110 gram Glace Cherries — halved
  • 75 ml Brandy
  • 75ml orange juice
  • 110 gram Almonds, Blanched — shredded
  • 285 gram Flour, Plain
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Ground Cinnamon
  • 1 tsp Mixed Spice
  • 1 pinch Nutmeg — grated
  • 225 gram Butter
  • 225 gram Sugar, Soft brown
  • 1 tbsp Black Treacle
  • 6 Eggs
  • 55 gram Plain Chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda
  • 1 tsp Warm water

Combine the fruit with the brandy and the orange juice. Leave to soak overnight.

Line tin with 2 thicknesses of baking parchment and tie a band of brown paper around the outside of tin that comes 2-3 inches above the rim.

Set oven at 300F/150C/130C fan or gas mark 3.

This recipe is in three parts: the cake mixture, the fruit, and the whisked egg whites. Each part gets a separate portion of the flour mixture until they are all combined at the end.

Sift flour, salt and spices together and divide into 3 portions. Mix one portion with the prepared fruit and nuts (especially coat the cherries well in flour).

Cream the butter in a mixer, or with a handheld mixer, then add the sugar and beat well until fairly light and fluffy (at least 3-4 minutes), then stir in black treacle. [To measure the black treacle, take the lid off the tin and stand it in hot water for a few minutes – this makes the treacle more liquid and easier to measure. Also, oil your measuring spoon with a little vegetable oil before scooping out the treacle- this will help the treacle to slide off the spoon]. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, or over a pan of gently simmering water. Stir in the melted chocolate.

Separate eggs, and whisk yolks together until slightly thickened, and add to butter mixture alternately with second portion of flour. Mix gently, so as not to overwork the flour and make the batter tough.

Fold the 1st portion of flour (mixed with fruit and nuts) into the cake mix.
Dissolve bicarbonate of soda in the warm water and stir gently into the mixture.

Whisk the egg whites until holding very soft peaks and fold into the cake mixture with the third and final portion of flour.

Turn cake mixture into prepared tin, smooth top with palette knife and brush with a little tepid water to keep cake soft while cooking. Put cake into oven and bake at least 3 and up to 4.5 hours. After the first hour, place a folded square of baking parchment on the top to reduce browning (this can go on from the beginning, but then tends to stick to the mixture).

When cake has been in the oven about 1.5 hours, turn cooker down to 290F (145C) or Mark 2. At the end of cooking time (or after about 3 hours) test with a skewer to see that it comes out clean with no batter clinging to it. Leave in tin to cool for 30 minutes then turn out carefully on to wire rack.

When cold wrap in several sheets of greaseproof paper and store in completely airtight tin. Store for at least one month. Will keep for a year or more. Cover with almond paste two weeks before needed and ice one week later.

More about making fruit cake, and some recipes:
BBC Food Fruit cake
Nigel Slater’s Christmas cake
Felicity Cloake on her perfect Christmas cake

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louise-marston

I’m Louise, and I’m a compulsive baker, cookbook hoarder and a bit of a food geek. I learnt to cook at home, and later at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. With a science degree and a background in IT analysis, I like to understand why a recipe works, not just how to do it. Why the rules are there and when they can be broken.

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