I used to think Christmas cake was an old-fashioned, unnecessary extra in a season of feasting and indulgence. It is, of course. But now I love it all the more for its incredible usefulness all winter long.
The Christmas cake recipe here was a combo of my dad’s tried and tested recipe emailed, and one handed over on the school run as a folded, slightly crumpled A4 sheet typed up by an English friend in the village. Who knows where any original Christmas cake recipe comes from; each family has its own hand-me-down.
My dad hates currants (can be pippy) and my friend doesn’t like glacee’ cherries. None of us put nuts in the cake mix itself and we can’t be bothered with apricot jam-fixed marzipan, and eschew the pomp and ceremony of royal icing (the horror of those dry wedding cake slices). All of us aim for a simple, moist, hearty cake that family members can dig in to at will over the season on lean days between the feast days. Christmas cake is all the better after a winter walk, or late at night to soak up alcohol! Mind you, it’s soaked up quite a bit of alcohol by the time we eat it; a cake needs feeding after all, and in the Christmas spirit!
With Christmas cakes, it really doesn’t matter if you aren’t so precise as it’s not going to rise, just cook, solidly. If you don’t like glacee’ cherries (ones here in Malta are like traffic lights and so artificial a red, yellow and green that I avoid them too) you can replace with the same weight of some other dried fruit. I opted for dried cranberries to give a pep of red instead. Just ensure the total weight of dried fruit is the same. Use any stiff drink – Brandy, Whisky, Cognac, Sherry, Port – to soak the fruit and feed the cake. I admit to being the last to make the cake from the recipe givers. But, heck, who cares…this cake lasts til February most years, our coldest month in Malta and the one we really need some stoking up in for to survive houses with scant heating and prone to damp maritime chill!
All images © Liz Ayling 2012
A Christmas Cake recipe
100g dried cranberries (or glacee’ cherries)
100g dried, chopped mixed peel
75g dates, chopped finely
30g crystallised ginger, chopped finely
50g currants or dried figs (optional)
75g dried apricots, chopped finely
125ml whisky, brandy, sherry or port (to soak fruit + more to feed cake)
275g softened butter
275g soft, light brown sugar (or dark, if you like a rich taste)
5 large eggs
1 tsp each of grated lemon and orange zest + juice of orange to soak fruit)
50g ground almonds
275g plain flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
a hint of grated nutmeg (all spices are optional)
Cake size: this makes a 24cm round (used spring-form, loose bottom) tin or a 20cm x 20cm square cake. Line tin with baking parchment/greaseproof paper, buttered to stick to sides, and wrap in thick brown paper tied with string to prevent burning. Cover cake loosely with foil half way through cooking time, if you need be, to avoid a burnt top.
Place all the dried fruit, large fruit chopped finely, in a mixing bowl and pour over whisky and orange juice. Leave preferably overnight, or at least for 3 hours. When ready to make the cake, preheat oven to 150°C.
Cream the butter and sugar with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time ensuring they are well mixed in. By hand, stir in the citrus zest, ground almonds, sifted flour and the spices. When well mixed in, fold in the soaked dried fruit adding any excess liquid left in the bowl. The mixture is quite stiff at this stage, but keep folding over and over until the fruit is evenly mixed in. Spoon mixture into the prepared tin, ensuring no pockets of air are left (it’s a heavy mix so you may need to flatten gently in a bit, and shake the tin to even it out).
Bake for 2½ to 3¼ hrs, checking the cake about mid-way through cooking time and covering loosely with foil to prevent burning. Check the cake is done by inserting a wooden skewer or metal BBQ spike in the centre for 10 seconds; if it removes cleanly, no sticky bits on it, the cake is done. Once cooked, remove from oven and cover immediately with foil, leaving the cake in its tin. Allow to cool down (can take all night!), remove from tin and wrap in foil and place in a cake tin. Feed the cake every 2-3 days drizzling in some of your chosen alcohol in small holes made with a cocktail stick. Best made around a month before eating so it’s really moist, but the cake lasts ages – at least 2-3 months, if kept in dry, air-tight conditions and well wrapped in foil.