Sunday, December 16, 2007

Queen Ann Christmas Cake

A couple of years back I had the pleasure to work with a lady named Anne, who was as passionate about baking and kitchen craft as I am. But that wasn't the first thing that stood out about Anne - it was her incredible sense of style.

Anne had grown up in a family that worked in the "rag trade". At the same time, she also had acquired a love of the fashions from the 1950s Hollywood golden years. Flattering bodices, A-line skirts - the kind of glamour personified by the like of Grace Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Audrey Hepburn. In much the same way that I spent my lunch times scouring stores for kitchen equipment, Anne spent hers scouring boutique fabric stores for unique prints and imported pieces of cloth.

Anne would take these treasures to her dress maker, along with a video or dvd of a movie she'd seen something in, and ask the dressmaker to replicate it for her. Keep in mind, Anne did not have the figure of any of these screen goddesses - and that was irrelevant. Where the 20-somethings in the office were choosing slimming cuts to accentuate theĆ­r already painfully thin frames, Anne embraced flounce. She went for layers. She made sure her voluptuous curves were always clearly outlined - and she looked more of a lady for it.

So you can imagine my horror the day Anne turned up to the office with one of her best outfits (and one of my favourites from her wardrobe) smeared with mud. I asked her what happened, and a flood of tears burst forth as she announced she'd on the street and fallen over! It was absolutely heart breaking to see Anne so humiliated, the way we always are when the pot-holed streets of Sydney conspire to make fools of us. But the indignity was made all the worse by the evidence clearly spattered on her coat, and of course, the inevitable torn tights.

Anne left our project not long after that, but not before she imparted her best ever recipe for fruit cake. I made it for my remaining colleagues the following Christmas, and have forever more dubbed it Queen Anne Christmas Cake, because it is as regal as Anne.

250g each of currants, sultanas and raisins
90g each of dates and pitted prunes
60g each of mixed peel and glace cherries (although I love the cherries so always add more)
60g each of dried apricots and figs
60g blanched almonds
2 tblps each of rum, brandy and sherry
5 eggs
250 g butter
250 g brown sugar
300g plain flour
1tsp each of nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice
1 tblsp plum jam
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp parisienne browning essence
2 tblsp golden syrup
1 tsp glycerine
1 tblsp lemon essence

1. Put all the fruit into a large bowl, making sure you cut any large pieces into quarters (like dates, figs and apricots). Add the rum, brandy and sherry and mix to throughly wet the fruit. Leave to soak for as long as you can - a week at the minimum, but a month is best if you can!

2. On the day that you bake, prepare your tin by double lining the bottom and sides with thick baking paper. The paper should peak an inch and a half above the top of the tin. Then wrap the exterior of the tin with a double layer of newspaper. This is to stop the cake from burning.

3. Pre-heat the oven to 120 degrees celcius.

4. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition.

4. In a separate dish, combine plum jam, vanilla, parisienne essence, golden syrup, glycerine and lemon essence. Mix until combined.

5. Add the jam mixture and the flour to butter mixture. Mix slowly on a low speed to gently combine. Add spices and mix until combined. Do not over mix! Don't eat this mix either, as it's extremely rich!

6. Pour the cake batter over the dried fruit mix and combine it with clean hands. This is much easier than using a spoon, since fruit cake mix is extremely heavy. Once the fruit and batter is combined, pour into the tin, being careful not to flatten the paper lining. Place the cake tin on a cookie tray double lined with newspaper to stop the bottom burning. Fruit cake is notoriously easy to burn!

7. Bake on a low shelf in the oven for 3 to 3 and a half hours. Do not over cook! When you begin to smell the cake, it's close to being cooked. Lightly touch the top - if it's dry, the cake is done. Pierce it was a fine skewer if your not totally sure - the skewer should come out clean.

8. Allow cake to cool in the tin. When you remove it from the tin, leave at least one layer of baking paper on the cake. Wrap it in aluminium foil, then again in Glad Wrap, then store in an airtight container, prefferably in a dark cupboard - it's light that makes the cake go stale. Try to bake this cake about six weeks before you need it so it has time to mature. The older fruit cake is, the better it tastes!
This recipe works really well as cupcakes. I'd recommend the Texas muffin size - as the people you give these fruity cakes too will want more, it's so delicious. Cupcake-sized fruit cake only needs about an hour to cook. And it's less likely to burn - still watch it carefully though. And use your best judgement.

Christmas Cupcakes

What is it about Christmas time that makes everybody so thingy? Or so kooky? Or just plain positional? Firstly, I think it's the fact that Christmas only comes around once a year (and we should all thank the Maker for that!). Because Christmas only comes once a year, we tend to put a whole lot of energy into making it a wonderful, over the top, sensory experience. And when we have an experience like that, we want it to happen over and over again.

And that, I think, is how Christmas traditions are born. We do something once, decide it's really good, and we keep doing it because we like to feel good again and again.

When I was a little kid I loved the excitement of Christmas. My mother did a great job of establishing a set of Christmas traditions that we repeated every year with great joy: setting the tree up exactly one week before Christmas, wrapping up little bundles of edible goodies in coloured celophane and tying them to the tree... and of course, the Christmas lunch, which was always relyably the same every year.

When I became a teenager, my family lost interest in Christmas. And being a virgo - ie a stickler for routine - I picked up the thread where everyone else had left off, and took it upon myself to perpetuate the Christmas experience I loved. And this included the cookery. With my penchant for sweeties, I took over the cookie baking. I'd also make rum balls, white Christmas and coconut ice - anything to feel the festive spirit.

When Mark came into my life a few years ago, we had an opportunity to craft our Christmas experience anew. I was delighted to discover Mark's Christmas fare had never been something he enjoyed eating. So I introduced him to the unbridled pleasure of roast turkey. Last year, we added ham (just a small one) and we loved both these things so much, we have raced out this year and procured both turkey and ham so we can do it all again. As I unpacked both these treasures from my shopping bag and placed them in the freezer today, I had an insight into how Christmas traditions are born.

I was lost in the Christmas wilderness for a few years. My Christmas experiences were not what they had been, and instead were a source of upset and disappointment for me. I am glad that I've found a way back to joy at Christmas with Mark, and our little dog Derek (light of my heart). I took a stand for the Christmas I wanted, and I finally got it. This year, we are in our new home with a fabulous five star gourmet kitchen for me to cook in. I predict this will be our best Christmas to date! I hope your Christmas is as equally wonderful and filled with lots of delicious traditions, fun and joy!

1 jar Robertson's fruit mince (two if you like a very fruity cake)
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup dark rum
1 cup of buttermilk
250g softened butter
2 cups dark brown sugar
4 eggs
3 cups plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp mixed spice
1 tblsp vanilla
1 tsp lemon essence
1 tsp parisian browning essence
1 tsp glycerine
28 glace cherries
A big bag of blanched almonds

1. Preheat your oven to 170 degrees celcius. Line two 12 hole muffin tins with confetta cups of your choice. Red, green, silver or gold are great for the festive season.
2. Pour the fruit mince into a bowl and combine with brandy and rum. Set aside.
3. Cream the butter in the large bowl of your mixer. Add one cup of the brown sugar and continue to mix until sugar begins to dissolve. Add the second cup of brown sugar, and keep mixing until the mixture becomes pale and fluffy.
4. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing for one minute after each addition. For best results, make sure your eggs are at room temperature.
5. Add the flour and baking powder to the butter mixture. Combine gently on low mixer speed while gradually adding the buttermilk.
6. Add the spices, vanilla, lemon essence, parisian browning essence and glycerine. Mix on low speed until all ingredients are combined.
7. Carefully add the fruit mince mixture and continue mixing on low speed until ingredients are well combined.
8. Using your #12 icecream scoop, drop scoopfuls of mixture into each confetta cup. Decorate the top of each cake with a glace cherry in the middle and four blanched almonds stragically placed around it.
9. Bake for 20 minutes, or until cakes are golden brown on top and spring back when lightly touched. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.

I present these cupcakes with no topping - they are a delicious morsel alone. If you felt compelled, you could dust them with icing sugar as an extra finishing touch (however, you'll need to serve them immediately as the cake will turn the sugar sticky if stored). However, they are suitable for topping with Royal icing, which looks very festive if topped with two little balls of red sugar paste and a couple of green leaves. Or you can pipe dark green butter cream onto them and decorate them with silver cachous to make them look like little Christmas trees.