Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Traditional Christmas Cake

In my family there is no greater tradition than the Christmas Cake. Unless of course we're talking about Christmas Pudding!

As a little kid, I had absolutely no interest in either of these fruit-laden, booze laced Christmas staples. Their flavour was far too complex and mature for me to appreciate. It wasn't until well into my twenties that I started to take an interest in the fruit cake and puddings my mother makes. She and her sisters had obviously learned the art of Christmas cookery from my Nana, who cooked a wicked fruitcake in her heyday, if I do say so myself.

But my interest in Christmas cookery always lay with the sweeter delicacies we liked to enjoy on the day - rum balls, coconut ice, mixed spice biscuits. I appointed myself at a very early age to cook the Christmas fancies, and took great delight in seeing my family devour them and grow fat as a result!

A couple of years back, my dad suddenly passed away. When Christmas came round that year, my mother arrived at the family gathering with a massive pudding and a beautifully decorated Christmas cake - complete with marzipan, fondant, the red foil wrapper with silver 'Merry Christmas' written on it, and a glazed holly leaf poking out the top. It occurred to me that Mum's pudding and cake would go with her to the grave if I didn't do something about it - lord knows my sister would never be able to cook them. So I asked Mum for her Christmas Cake recipe, which she gladly gave me. I took it home, put it inside my copy of Jill Dupleix's 'New Food', and proceeded to ignore it.

Until last year. I was going away for Christmas and wasn't going to see my mum before hand. The realisation that I'd be without fruit cake struck me like a bolt of lightning! I scrabbled through my cookbooks looking for Mum's recipe. I reviewed the list of ingredients and felt afraid. But I decided I was equal to the task despite my trepidation.

I went off to the supermarket, acquired all the ingredients, took them home and covered them with sherry. By that stage I was sooo excited, I think I only let the fruit soak for three hours! I decided to divide the mix between two large loaf tins, making one cake for my best friend Jeannette, and one to take to my holiday hosts. I wrapped the tins in layers of newspaper then put the cakes in the oven. It was 6.05pm on the clock. They would be done at 9.05pm.

By 8.00pm the smell of Christmas filled my house. I knew I'd gotten the cakes right and I couldn't wait to taste them. Christmas cake! Yum!

750g sultanas
250g raisins
125g currants
125g dried pineapple pieces
125g glace cherries
125g mixed peel
1 can fruit salad in natural juice (Golden Circle is best!)
1 cup sherry (or brandy or whiskey)
250g butter
1.5 cups dark brown sugar, tightly packed
4 eggs
1 tsp orange zest
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2.5 cups plain flour

1. Combine all the fruit in a large bowl. A LARGE bowl! Cover with sherry and allow to soak for one week. If you can't manage a week, make it a least 24 hours. Stir periodically to make sure all the fruit has a chance to absorb the sherry. You'll know it's good to go when you can see the raisins are plump with extra moisture from the soaking process.

2. In a large bowl on the electric mixer, combine softened butter and brown sugar. Mix until just combined. Try not to eat this mix - it's delicious, but you should resist!

3. Add eggs one by one, scraping down any mixture on the sides of the bowl to make sure it's properly combined.

4. Add the orange and lemon zest and then the spices. You can use one of those zest strippers to create long thin strips of zest, or just use the zester side of the grate for finely grated zest.

5. Change beaters on the mixer to dough hooks (if you have them). Alternate adding flour and fruit mix, combining on the lowest speed so as to gently fold the flour and fruit into the cake mix. Dough hooks will prevent your glace cherries from being minced (a slice of cake with a whole cherry in it is very enticing!). Continue until all ingredients are combined. (If you don't have dough hooks for your mixer, combine the ingredients by hand - and don't lick your fingers until you've finished mixing!).

6. Line a large round cake tin - at least 22cm in diameter for this size mix- with a double layer of heavy baking paper - make sure you cover the bottom and sides. Then wrap four layers of newspaper around the outside of the tin, securing with sticky tape. Place tin on a tray covered with four layers of newspaper - this will help prevent the cake from burning.

7. Spoon the fruit cake mix into the tin, leaving about an inch of space at the top. Tap the filled tin on the bench top about eight times to help the cake mix to settle. Don't forget to smooth the top down, ensuring the mix is level in the tin.

8. Bake in a slow oven (160 degrees Celsius) for three hours or until cake is cooked. If your oven is good, this cake should be ready dead on three hours. If anything, it might require an extra 15 minutes cooking time, but no more! Test by inserting a skewer in the middle of the cake - if it comes out clean, the cake is cooked. But honestly, the smell will tell you when this cake is cooked - it is positively Christmasey!

9. Cover a board with foil and place over the top of the cooked cake while it's still in its tin. Turn upside and leave on the bench to cool over night. This will help flatten the top of the cake which is handy if you're planning on decorating it. In the morning, lift the tin off the cooled cake, leave baking paper on base and sides of cake and wrap in Glad Wrap. Then wrap in aluminium foil and for extra measure, store in an airtight container. Keep in this manner for as long as possible before serving. Fruit cakes can keep for an incredibly long time if they've been stored correctly. A fruit cake that's about three months old when cut will be absolutely delicious.

10. If desired, decorate cake with marzipan and fondant about a week before serving. You'll need to leave it exposed to air at this stage, as an airtight container will encourage the fondant to become wet and sticky. If giving the cake as a gift, wrap tightly in clear cellophane, then bag bottom of cake with decorative paper, leaving top exposed. Secure paper with a gorgeous big bow!

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