It is time to bake the annual Christmas cake – a rich, dark fruit cake of some sort or another, for those of us from the UK. Dense, moist, more dried fruit than cake batter, these cakes are often baked weeks in advance and then fed a steady trickle of booze as they age and settle (until just before Christmas Day itself, when the boozing stops and the cake is topped with a layer of marzipan and iced in a snowdrift of white icing).
Christmas cakes should be sturdy and slightly alchemical, as they absorb their boozy libations and somehow blossom in flavor and texture over the weeks before the holiday. They are long-lasting, wrapped up and nestled in their cake boxes, and perfect with a cup of tea on a wintry afternoon in January, if you are abstemious enough to still have cake in the New Year. My dad receives a Christmas-style fruit cake from my sister in early December every year, and he keeps his well into the Spring months. My sister’s cake is the best I’ve ever had – she is a Christmas cake wizard.
I used to make the cake from Nigel Slater’s original Kitchen Diaries book every year, happily weighing out kilos of fruit, stirring it all by hand with a wooden spoon in my grandmother’s enormous mixing bowl, hoarding a bottle of apple brandy all year so I’d have plenty for the cake.
This year, I have diverged from the plan. Slater’s cake is so, so good, but it has just about as much dried fruit as it can have and still hold together, which makes for a very crumbly cake. Now, I don’t mind a good fruitcake crumble, and would rather have more fruit than more cake, but I wanted a cake like my sister’s this year. E’s cake is moist and crammed with fruit and nuts, but still slices into lovely, cohesive, non-crumbly pieces. Her trick (apparently, though I still think there is some devilry that she isn’t telling me) is to cover the fruit in boozy liquid and simmer it for a bit. Armed with this tip, I browsed around and cobbled together a cake with which I am very, very pleased.
Now, this is not E’s cake. It is not the pinnacle. But it is very, very good, and has the added virtue of being a slacker cake – I will still feed it with booze, but this cake is good right out of the pan, no additional alchemy required. Which extends my Christmas cake-eating season nicely. If I could, I would bring a piece to all the firefighters who are battling the blaze in almost every direction around me right now. May your days be merry and (not too) bright, folks.
- 300g prunes, chopped
- 50g dried cherries
- 200g raisins
- 50g dried cranberries
- 175g golden raisins (sultanas)
- 175g butter
- 175g dark brown sugar
- 175 ml honey
- 125 ml rum, brandy, or whiskey - I used an orange spiced rum
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon allspice
- 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
- juice and zest of 2 oranges
- 3 eggs
- 150g plain flour
- 75g ground almonds
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- Poach the fruit: Put the prunes, cherries, cranberries, raisins, golden raisins, butter, sugar, honey, rum, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cocoa power, and orange juice and zest in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring for 5-10 minutes or so. Turn off the heat and leave to cool for at least an hour, possibly more.
- Prepare for baking: when you're ready and your fruit is soft and cool enough not to scramble the eggs, heat an oven to 300F/150C. Line either a deep 8 inch square or a deep 9 inch springform pan (those are the pans I've used - feel free to approximate with what you have) with baking parchment.
- Add the eggs to the fruit and beat to combine. Add the flour, almonds, baking soda, and baking powder, and fold until combined. Pour into the lined pan and bake for an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours.
- Cool the cake in the pan. If not serving for a while, pierce the cake all over with a skewer and sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of rum on top before wrapping the cake in parchment and foil and storing it in an airtight container. Take out the cake every week or so and feed it a bit more booze until you are ready to serve.
- You can top the cake with marzipan and icing, but this year I'm going for the pure cake experience with no added adornment.