Ale Cake

I recently made the same fruitcake for the 3rd time since hearing of the recipe early this year. I first heard the recipe on Woman’s Hour in my lady-of-leisure days. It’s a lovely recipe, simple and tasty, that has to be approached in quite a leisurely manner, requiring pre-soaking of the fruit and a long, long cooking time. However, it didn’t occur to me that it was particularly unusual until the other weekend. The reason for making the cake this time around was to take as a birthday cake for a friend of ours that we were meeting up with in Woolacombe (that’s a great surf spot in Devon by the way). As this cake (in fact, any fruitcake) can be made in advance and is robust enough to travel, it seemed an excellent choice. Both Friend and his fiancee loved the cake, but she made a particular point of saying that she usually dislikes fruit cake, but liked this one – which made me wonder, (as Carrie Bradshaw might write):

What makes this one different?

The Ale Cake recipe fits with most other fruitcake recipes – it calls for you to cream together the butter and sugar, gradually beat in the eggs, fold in the flour gently, then the fruit, and back at a low temperature for a long time. The quirks are that the fruit is first soaked overnight in a generous quantity of beer, the sugar is dark brown muscovado, and the cake starts off at a moderate 160C for the first hour, lowering to 120C after that.

So to think about it further, my starting point was to compare this recipe with a standard fruit cake – and what could be more standard than Delia’s Classic Christmas Cake? I also compared it with Delia’s Dundee cake recipe. So here is the comparison of the quantities of the three recipes (I increased the quantities of the Dundee Cake recipe in proportion so that all used 4 eggs – the original uses 3 eggs):

All in grams (unless stated) Classic Christmas Cake Ale Cake Dundee Cake
Fruit 900 875 600
Liquid 45ml 250ml
Butter 225 225 200
Sugar 225 225 200
Eggs 4 4 4
Flour 225 225 300

This ignores the minor ingredients, such as treacle & spices, plus any chopped nuts, which shouldn’t make any real difference to the texture. The two things that jump out at you are

  1. the ale cake has much, much more liquid than the other two and
  2. the dundee cake has a good deal more flour and less fruit in.

I would expect this to mean a moister, and possibly flatter cake for the ale cake and a drier, ‘cakier’ texture for the dundee cake, which certainly fits Delia’s description. The reason that the 250ml of beer in the ale cake doesn’t play havoc with the cake batter is that the fruit is soaked overnight in it, and it is virtually all absorbed. So instead of a runny cake batter, what you have instead is lots of moist, plump fruit, that doesn’t draw moisture from the cake after baking, and helps keep the cake moist and give it its almost fudgey texture. I suspect that the relatively mellow beer, compared to the brandy in the Christmas cake, helps to ensure that the flavour is not too sweet or too bitter, which some vine fruits can be.

So, as we are getting into Christmas Cake baking season, I am asking myself if this recipe would work well as a Christmas cake as well? I suspect that it could stand a few modifications to make it a bit more ‘Christmassy’, but would hold up well. Perhaps a shot of brandy in with the beer (would that be too weird?) and a bit more emphasis on citrus flavours – citrus juice and citrus zest and peel – would help give it that hot toddy feel. Or what about using red wine for soaking the fruit to give it a mulled wine feel? I will let you know how I get on with this one. Christmas cake is an important tradition in our household. Nathan’s gran has baked him a personal Christmas cake for at least as long as I have known him. As she sadly died earlier this year, this will be our first Christmas without her, and there will be complaints if it is not up to her standard…

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