Yes I should really know better, being a *proper* baker now and all, but my family Christmas cake is still, as yet, unbaked. My dad is a big fan of Christmas cake and I'm also hoping to convert certain non-believers in my family with this one so I have a big challenge ahead.
Usually Christmas cakes, like most rich fruit cakes are matured for at least two months before eating. There are a few reasons for this - one, it develops and deepens the rich flavour; two, you can give your cake regular "feeds" with brandy (or other spirits of your choice) to add even more flavour, moistness and festivity; and three, it makes the cake cut better without crumbling, which is particularly important for a wedding cake, where the cake must be cut into lots of small portions.
So how do you cheat it? According to Jane Asher, the secret is to boil the fruit mixture with whisky, stout, orange juice and treacle for ten minutes and leave overnight before adding the rest of the ingredients. She claims it will give the same "matured" flavour, and can be made as close to Christmas as you like.
So I'm putting her to the test, although I am making a few alterations to her recipe, mainly in the addition of ground almonds, lemon and swapping the whisky for Drambuie. I would normally lean towards using brandy, but I inherited the bottle of Drambuie along with several slightly leftfield spirits in the drinks cabinet when my grandpa died and I've been waiting for a reason to use this one. Plus it means there will be a memory of him in our Christmas celebrations, which makes me happy.
I've just boiled up the fruit and I have to say it has already put me in the Christmas spirit, as the house is filled with delicious festive aromas. And as it's the season of giving, I thought I would share with you my version of Jane's recipe. I will report back in the New Year with the family's verdict!
Last Minute Christmas Cake Recipe
(makes 1 x deep 8 inch round cake)
100g dates, chopped
75g dried prunes, chopped
75g dried figs, chopped
150g glace cherries, halved
225ml Guinness (a little nod to my lovely wife's Irish heritage)
Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Juice of 1 orange and 1/2 lemon (to make 75ml)
2 tablespoons black treacle
200g butter, softened
200g muscovado or dark brown sugar
200g plain flour
50g ground almonds
5 medium eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
75g blanched almonds, chopped
1. Take a large saucepan and fill the pan with the dried fruit, Guinness, Drambuie, orange and lemon juice and zest and treacle. Bring the mix to the boil and simmer gently for ten minutes, stirring every so often. I like to add a bit of Irish Christmas spirit by singing out loud very badly to The Pogues' Fairytale of New York as I'm stirring, but that's optional.
2. Take the pan off the heat and leave to cool. Once it's cold, tip the mix into a bowl, cover and chill in the fridge overnight.
3. The next day, preheat your oven to 140C and double line an 8" round cake tin with parchment. Make sure your parchment is a good 4 inches tall as the cake is quite deep and can rise higher than your tin.
4. Seive the flour, baking powder and spices into the bowl of your mixer, then add all the remaining cake ingredients except the chopped nuts and beat thoroughly until smooth.
5. Fold in the fruit mixture and chopped nuts. At this stage you can add good luck by asking everyone in the house to give the mix a stir**.
6. Pour the mix into your prepared tin and smooth the top, making a dip in the middle so that it rises up evenly.
7. Bake the cake for 3 hours and check with a skewer to see if it's done. It may need 30-60 minutes more so keep checking every so often and cover the top with foil if it's browning too much on top.
8. Cool the cake in its tin for 10 minutes before turning out to cool completely.
9. Once cool, wrap the cake in baking parchment, then foil and keep somewhere cool until ready to ice. Feed the cake by skewering a few holes and drizzling over 1-2 tablespoons of Drambuie every few days.
**I remember the tradition of stirring the cake mix when my mum made our Christmas cake every year and I loved the chance to be involved from a really young age, when I had to stand on a chair to reach the bowl. We also did this at our primary school, and all 100 pupils plus all the teachers would line up in the Dining Hall at lunchtime to stir the giant mix in the bowl. I wonder if any schools still do that? I hope so.
UPDATE 8th December: I baked my cake today - it took nearly 4 hours in total and it's a lovely deep cake and smells beautiful, just like my mum's Christmas Cake. It's still cooling now, and I can't wait to eat it!