Saturday, December 7, 2013

An astonishing knowledge of fruit cakes

When it comes to Yule baking the lines between being eccentric and prepared are somewhat blurred.

On one hand it makes perfect sense to spend considerable time constructing multi layered origami collars with a fit so precise a Saville Row tailor would be proud. Then there are the days of massaging and anointing the hand selected fruit, the temperature being kept consistent by one of the cotton muslin wraps I used to wrap my babies in. I have even been known to wait for an elusive rainy day to optimise ambient moisture in the air.
“Dryness” being the nemesis of any fruit cake connoisseur, most of the fastidious little rituals are all about maximising plumpness and taking the manufacture of a once a year treat with due ceremony. Preparing the fruit marks the beginning of the festive season in much the same way as the last toothsome slice heralds the start of the business end of the year and end of holiday fun.

And there is the crux, this is a once a year gig. I like the rhythms and ritual of festive fare. It is the very antithesis of the quick and zesty mid week suppers we bang out night after night to our hungry brood.
You cannot hurry a Christmas cake, nor can you trick one into being something that it is not. Your labours should result in something bold dense and wonderful. All of the seeming phaffing about will (hopefully) result in a wonderful companion that accompanies many post Christmas piping hot cups of tea and good gossip sessions.

And whilst I love the making of the cake it is the subsequent eating that thrills me most. It is made to be shared and is an omnipresent guest at happy times. This is our family cake recipe, used for weddings, christenings and Christmas. I am yet to find one I enjoy more and it really is a pleasure to revisit it every year.

(Mum’s) Rich Fruit Cake

Step one – fruity goodness.

The first step is to get the fruit brewing along nicely. All fruits given here have a degree of flexibility, just obey the weight and tailor to suit your favourites.

3 cups (500g) sultanas

1 ½ cups (250g) raisins, chopped

2/3 cup (140g) red glace cherries, quartered

¾ cup (125g) dried currants

¾ cup (125g) mixed peel

2 tablespoons marmalade

½ cup (125ml) booze

More than 12 hours in advance (preferably up to a week) mix fruit, marmalade and booze in a large non reactive bowl. Give it a little stir every now and then and sniff it occasionally to fill your little heart with festive cheer. I tend to cover mine with glad wrap to lock in the moisture, then I drape a cloth over it to make it nice and dark and cool.
Purists opt for brandy, but we tend towards rum as a nod towards my Dads preference for a rum and coke after a hard day of bowling. Port is you budget option. Orange juice or tea for goody two shoes.

On that note....often I am asked about doing an alcohol free version for kids. I tend not to, as I think, without putting too finer point on things, that enough of Christmas revolves around the little darlings. I have no issue with saying to my kids; no you can’t have any cake- it’s for grownups.  This is my cake recipe – not theirs.

Step 2 – origami
Save this task for a day of robust disposition. The aim is to create a good protective sheath around your pride and joy as it cooks. Please don’t mock me when I confess to doing up to 8 layers. You can not do this step with noisy children about, or under the influence of any alcohol. It should be a zen like moment in the hurly burly haze of pre Christmas preparations- good luck with that....

I make mine every year in a 22 cm round pan. Square tins are notorious for dry corners and therefore terrify me.

Step 3 - the baking bit.

This bit is even more fun if you make a nice little montage of ingredients and pretend that you have your own cooking show.
Note the wildcard addition of freeze dried cherries this year - I await the ceremonial cutting on the 24Dec for Santa to let you know if this flippant substitution for mixed peel was a success.
You will need:

250g softened butter

1 teaspoon grated orange rind

1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

1 cup (200g) firmly packed brown sugar

4 eggs

2 cups (300g) plain flour

2 teaspoons mixed spice
Beat butter, rinds and sugar in a small bowl with electric mixer until just combined and then beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, until just combined between additions.

Fold the butter mixture into the fruit mixture then mix in the sifted flour and spice.  Spread mixture into the prepared cake pan using the precision of a surgeon; you don't want any gloppy bits on the paper sleeve.

Bake in a slow oven for 3 hours. (Refer to table below for cooking times and temperatures)  Whilst cooking you may wish to cover the cake with brown paper if top is browning too fast and for extra added insurance you may wish to use a cardboard collar cut from cereal boxes around the outer side of the cake tin.

When cooked, brush extra rum over top, (this is the highlight of my culinary year as the warm cake sizzles with the excitement of the extra booze and you can almost hear it sigh with gratitude.)

Step 4 – Nativity scene

The last part of the cooking process is a long slow wafty incubation of all of that festive goodness. Remember your cake has endured 3 hours of cooking, so the secret to making sure it if properly cooked is a long slow, moisture locking, cool down.
In the spirit of the season I opt for the newborn effect of multi layers of swaddling, and pity the fool that messes with my baby.

In a perfect world your cakes are made about 2 months before eating. That said I have made them only a week before and they have still been glorious.

Here are some notes from the years of running cooking classes on the topic. I am delighted to report that I have had  numerous people tell me that their cakes turned out fabulously using these tips:
A good deal of time and effort has gone into your cake. Here is how to keep it in good condition until Christmas.
      Wrap the cake in a double layer of greaseproof paper and then in double foil. Secure it all with an elastic band, then keep it in an airtight container till needed

For those that like it boozy….little 'feeding' of the cake at odd intervals (say, weekly) before Christmas will add an extra dimension to it. This is done by making small holes in the top and bottom of the cake with a darning needle, then spooning over teaspoonfuls of brandy to soak in through the holes and permeate the cake.


There is no definitive timing for cooking smaller cakes - Small cakes have to be watched carefully if they are not to be dry; a few minutes either way can be the difference. You can always juice a cake up a bit by force-feeding it with brandy through holes pierced in its underside, which can be a handy insurance policy!

Here is a table which through trail and error I have devised as a guide to cooking times for smaller cakes. I think I nabbed the original from a Delia Smith book, but I have scribbled and scrawled my own little numbers all over it so I think I can safely call it my own. It’s impossible to be exact on cooking times as the moisture of the fruit and personality of the oven are very dominant factors, however a soft oven and a keen eye can guarantee success.

Use 160 for first hour, 150 for second hour then 140 for all remaining time. Allow 25% leeway either side and remember the best test for “doneness” is a fine metal skewer inserted into the middle should come out clean.

DiameterCooking timeRemarks
Cupcake40Use 4 patty pan thickness
15 cm round1.5 hours 
18 cm round2 hours 
20 cm round2.5 hours 
22 cm round3 hoursUse a cardboard shield around outside for any cake larger than this
24 cm round3.5 hoursCover any cake larger than this with baking paper cut with a hole in the centre for last 2 hours of cooking
26 cm round4 hours 

Scaling up is more difficult with fruit cake recipes – they cannot simply be doubled or tripled. However, as a general rule, square tins hold about 25 per cent more than round tins of the same size (fastidious engineer husband has verified this by doing some tricky sums - he concurred it was more like 27% but we agree to disagree). The cooking temperature would be the same, but it might take longer to cook, and it’s a good idea to turn the cake tin round in the oven a few times because the corners tend to cook faster than the middle.

Sieved marmalade or apricot jam
2 x 500g packets almond flavoured cake paste
pure icing sugar
2 x 500g packets soft icing (fondant)
75cm ribbon

1 egg white
1 cup (160g) pure icing sugar
¼ teaspoon lemon

1. Trim the top of the fruit cake flat and turn upside down on the board. Fill the holes in the cake with small pieces of the almond cake paste.

2. Knead the cake paste until smooth on a surface dusted with sifted icing sugar. (If cake paste is too firm, remove the foil pop it in the micro for a jiff.) Roll the paste on a surface dusted with sifted icing sugar until large enough to cover the top and sides of the cake.

3. Brush the cake all over with the warmed jam or marmalade then gently lift the cake paste onto the cake with a rolling pin. Smooth the icing onto the cake with sugared hands.  Trim the excess paste from the base with a sharp knife. Stand the cake at room temperature for several hours or until firm to touch.

4. Knead the soft icing until smooth on a surface dusted with sifted icing sugar. Roll the icing as for the cake paste, brush the cake with warmed jam or marmalade and cover with the soft icing as before.

 Royal Icing: Beat the egg white in a small bowl with a fork until frothy; discard half of the egg white. Beat in the sifted icing sugar, about 2 teaspoons at a time, with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms very firm peaks; stir in the juice. Keep the surface of the icing covered with plastic wrap to prevent drying out.

 Attach the ribbon to the cake with a small amount of the Royal Icing at the join. Attach any additional adornments to the top of the cake with tiny amounts of icing. Stand until set.

Stay turned for the next chapter which is more detail of icing, decorating and running the gauntlet that is international customs, but if you need that info faster than my blogging allows hope you got the general gist....

to be continued...


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