It's not too late to bake your Christmas cake ...

 

I promised to post this recipe a while ago, and then got distracted by other things. This is the recipe my mum always made, written into the back of an old book on bakery. It's never too late to bake this one, so if you bake it now, it'll be good, but if you only get round to doing it at the last minute, it'll still taste nice. The trick is in soaking the fruit for a long time and using real butter. Don't use margarine and don't use spreadable butter! Unsalted or ordinary salted butter are both fine, but I don't recommend using those (otherwise lovely) butters with salt crystals.

You'll need

1 kilo mixed dried fruit (with or without peel)
200 grams (1 pack) glace cherries
300 grams (I just use 10 heaped tablespoons) plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 level teaspoon salt
60 grams ground almonds (leave these out if you don't like or are sensitive to nuts) 
1 x 250 gram pack of butter (real butter, not spreadable and never marge)
250 grams soft brown sugar - light or dark will do
4 eggs, beaten.
Juice and zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Half a teaspoon of nutmeg
Half a teaspoon of mixed spice 
(NB these are optional - depends what you like. I add more nutmeg.)
1 teaspoon almond or vanilla essence
1 large tablespoon black treacle or molasses
Milk if needed.
Whisky, rum or brandy, to taste

You will also need a large and as heavy as possible cake tin, preferably one with a loose base. The one in the picture was my mum's, and possibly my nana's before that, so it's more then seventy years old and still going strong! Mary Berry has an excellent Christmas Cake Calculator I think mine is 21 by 9 cm high.

A day or two before you're going to bake the cake, put the dried fruit into a bowl, with the juice and zest of the orange and lemon, and a large sherry or smallish wine glass of whisky, rum or brandy. I favour brandy but sometimes I make a 'whisky mac' with whisky and a good measure of Crabbie's ginger wine, and use that instead. Stir the juices through, cover the bowl and leave at least overnight. You can leave it for a couple more days if you like, stirring occasionally. You can also add a bit more whisky or brandy. If you don't have these spirits, you can experiment with what you do have. I suspect a glass of sherry would do the job just as well. 

The fruit will begin to plump up, and it will smell wonderful. 

Before you begin mixing, line your cake tin, base and sides with a couple of layers of greased greaseproof paper. Let the paper come up over the edge of the tin as in the picture. Grease with a little melted butter.  

Heat the oven to Gas Mark 2, 350 F, 150 C. I actually bake this a little below that, because I have a hot oven, but better to bake slowly for a long time, than to bake it too quickly.

Wash the sticky glace cherries in warm water and leave in a sieve to drain. Pat dry with kitchen towel.

Soften your butter so that it's workable but not melted. You can do this in the microwave for a few seconds, or just leave it at room temperature for a while. 

Sieve the flour into a bowl and mix in the other dry ingredients, salt, spices to taste - include cinnamon if you like it -  bicarb and ground almonds

Put softened butter into a large mixing bowl with soft brown sugar and cream it together until fluffy. You can mix this cake with clean hands and I generally do. Add the beaten eggs a little at a time, and carry on creaming. Don't worry if it curdles. You will need to add your flour mixture also a bit at a time, as you're adding the eggs. You should finish up with a very stiff cake mixture.

Now, tip in your fruit, including any liquid at the bottom of the bowl, the cherries, and lastly a large tablespoon of black treacle. You can leave the treacle or molasses out if you don't have it but it enriches the cake. Mix it up and again you could do this by hand. It should still be softish, but should hold together well, and should not be at all runny. If you lift a big spoonful you should have to shake it quite hard to get it to drop off! If it seems too solid, you can add a little milk. 

Put it in large dollops into the prepared cake tin, and smooth it down, and out, so that there are no airlocks. Make a very slight depression in the middle. This is a cake that won't rise much, and you're aiming for a pretty flat top. 

Put more folded double layers of greaseproof paper around the outside of the tin, (you will need to tie this with thread or string) and then put several more loose layers of paper over the top. 

Put it into the middle of a heated oven. My old recipe says (unhelpfully) 2 - 1- Half. In reality this will take four to six hours of slow cooking, I turn the oven down from 150 C to just over 100 C after the first hour or hour and a half, and then leave it to continue baking at that low temperature for another few hours. After two to three hours, you can slide it out to check that the top isn't burning. It honestly doesn't matter if it cracks a bit - in fact there are benefits to that. If it does burn, and you're planning to ice it, you can simply cut the burnt bits off. 

It will make your whole house smell wonderful.

When it seems cooked, check it with a skewer, which should come out reasonably clean, and without raw mixture although it might be a bit sticky from the fruit. Another old fashioned method is to have a listen! If it is sizzling away, it's probably not done yet. 

Take it out of the oven but leave it in the tin, and - this is where a few cracks might come in handy - baste it while still warm with a few more tablespoons of your chosen spirit. NB - the cake isn't as alcoholic as you might think, because the soaking alcohol will have evaporated, leaving only its flavour behind, so you can afford to be generous.

When it is quite cool, take it out of the tin, peel off most of the greaseproof paper, but you can leave a layer of greaseproof at the bottom. Put away in a cake tin, lined with more paper. If you like, you can add a little more brandy or whisky after a few days. 

It will be good to eat almost immediately, but if you can leave it for a while, it will be even better. You can cover with marzipan and icing in the traditional way, or you can just use it as a cut and come again cake for the holiday. This year especially - when we won't be able to have too many visitors - it will keep for many weeks or even months, in a dry airtight tin. We've eaten the Christmas cake at Easter, and it was delicious. My Yorkshire grandad ate his Christmas cake with a good slice of Wensleydale cheese, and I like it that way too.

Above all, don't panic. This may seem like a complicated recipe, but it is the most forgiving of cakes. You can leave things out and put things in, to your own taste, and it will still be delicious. 












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