Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Christmas Cake

My grandmother made Christmas cakes every year. She would mail one to us across the Nullarbor, or persuade a travelling relative to squeeze it into their suitcase. I loved the thought but, I must admit, not the cake. It was always a little dry; and I could never get enthusiastic about glacĂ© cherries or mixed peel – but I'd eat it for my grandmother.

My mother had her own recipe, a hearty thing full of raisins, decorated with glacé cherries and brazil nuts, and glazed with apricot jam. It was pretty good, but even it lacked a certain something.

For the first ten years that I lived out of home, it didn't occur to me to make my own cake; yet my Christmases felt strangely bereft. Meanwhile my sister had an annual date to make fruit cake with a friend, and each year I'd taste the latest recipe: one year, a fruity cake made with pineapple; another year, something lighter. They were lovely enough, but a few years ago I realised that, with girls of my own, I wanted a recipe that I can make year after year and which will one day taste like home.

In homage, I tried my grandmother's recipe, and my mother's, but I wasn't entirely happy with either of them. So then I read and fiddled around until I found a cake that I like. It's based on Nigella's recipe in her fabulous book, Feast. Her cake is more moist than the cakes of my forebears, and more delicately fragrant.

As good as it is, I have altered it to suit my taste. Unlike Nigella's, our cake is studded with ruby red cranberries and, thanks to the addition of quince marmalade, it has the faintest aroma of quince. I've upped the orange zest, and once the cake is made I drizzle it with Cointreau to keep it moist.

Made in November, the cake cures for at least a month in the linen cupboard. I bring it out in late December, and enjoy a small slice in the afternoon with a piece of hard cheese, or a sliver late at night with a soothing cup of Rooibos.

As part of developing our own tradition, I've involved my girls in the making of the cake. This year's attempt was like a Buster Keaton scene. My six year old was in a grump; my two year old threw plastic measuring spoons into the mixture and fell sideways off her stool; and my four year old wandered in picking her nose, then plunged her hand into the mix.

Why, I cannot tell, but after the initial screaming I philosophically resolved that as the cake was going to bake for four hours, it made no difference. In any case, it's a good story, the very stuff of family tradition – and it has another advantage. I absolutely adore this cake, scented as it is with cranberries, orange and quince; and with the intrusion of my daughter's grubby finger perhaps this year I'll get it all to myself. Or will you want a slice?

Christmas Cake
(26 cm tin)

- 1 kg sultanas
- 375g raisins
- 175g currants
- 250g dried cranberries (good ones from the organic shop, not those nasty craisins)
- 180ml sherry
- 350g butter, slightly softened
- 300g brown sugar
- 4 tsp orange zest (zest of 2 oranges)
- 6 large eggs
- 4 tbs quince marmalade
- 525g plain flour
- 1 ½ tsp mixed spice
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tbs Cointreau or other liqueur

Combine the fruit and the sherry in a large bowl and leave it to soak overnight. (I use an enormous ancient bowl that was my mother's; you may need to dash out and buy a large plastic tub.)

Preheat the oven to 150°C, and position a rack at the lowest rung. Wrap the tin in a double layer of brown paper extending to 10cm above the rim of the tin; you will need a child or friend to hold it steady while you tie it on. Line the tin with baking paper, also extending 10cm above the rim. This will prevent the top of the cake from catching or drying out during the long baking.

Cream the butter and sugar with the orange zest, then add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each egg. Add the quince marmalade and mix well. Fold in the dry ingredients, then gently stir the mixture into the fruit, scraping up fruit from the bottom until well combined. Use a very stout wooden spoon; a plastic spatula will snap.

Scoop the mixture into the tin, gently smoothing it to the edges. The batter will be very stiff.

Place into the oven and cook for an hour; then lower the heat to 140°C and cook for another three hours or until a tester comes out clean.

When it is done, brush the surface with two tablespoons of Cointreau or the liqueur of your choice. Wrap the entire cake, tin and all, with foil and leave to cool. When it is completely cold, remove the wrappings and the tin, and rewrap in foil. Place in a cake tin, if you have one big enough, and leave it to cure somewhere cool and quiet for a month or so.

Note: For an 18cm tin, use approximately one-third of the ingredients and cook at 150°C for 2 hours; for a 23cm tin, use two-thirds and cook at 150°C for 3 hours. For exact measures, or for a slightly different cake using other aromatics, see Feast.

(Local: sultanas, currants, orange zest, eggs, quince. Not local: raisins, cranberries, sherry, butter, sugar, flour, spices, salt.)

1 comment:

  1. Sounds delicious, I want a slice grubby fingers and all!