I don’t make a Christmas cake every year – it depends on where we will be spending Christmas. This year we will be having Christmas at our own home in Adelaide (‘though we fly home to NZ a few days later), so I have made a traditional Christmas cake. Traditional in my line of women, that is: the recipe is the one that my mother got from her mother. I think that Mum eventually got Nana to give her the recipe by sitting in the kitchen as Nana was making the cake one year, and writing down what she did. I don’t know where my nana got her recipe from, but it almost certainly wasn’t her mother, who died when Nana was just a girl. Every time I make this cake, I think of my nana.
There’s quite a ritual to making the cake. The first two steps need to be completed the night before you make the cake.
First, you need to prepare the dried fruit. You will need:
1/2 lb sultanas
1/2 lb currants
1/2 lb sticky raisins
4 oz glace cherries
2 oz glace citrus peel
a few dates
Chop the sticky raisins and the dates and the glace cherries into chunks that are about the same size as the sultanas (or a little larger). Put all the fruit into a large bowl, and add 1/4 cup brandy. (You can use gingerbeer instead, but that’s for wimps. Or sherry, but I prefer the taste of brandy.) Stir it all through, then cover the bowl (my nana would have used paper, or simply put a plate over the top of the bowl; I used cling wrap) and leave the mix to marinade overnight. You don’t need to put it in the fridge; on the bench will do.
Second, prepare the cake tin. I’ve used a 22cm round tin this year, giving me a very deep cake. The cake needs to be cooked long and slow, and because it is so dense, the outer edges may get too dry before the cake is cooked through. Also, you need to ensure that the temperature around the cake is as even as possible. So line the tin with several layers of tin foil, and put a wrapping of brown paper around the outside of the tin too. Nana called for three layers of tin foil, greased, inside the tin, and two layers of brown paper outside it. But, Nana was cooking in a coal range, where it was difficult to maintain an even temperature, especially the lower temperature that the cake requires. With modern tins and ovens, a couple of layers of foil inside the tin and one paper layer outside should be ample. You could probably use even less, depending on how reliable you think your oven is, but I have never quite dared to play too fast and loose with Nana’s rules. When you grease the foil, use a bit of butter smeared onto some paper, and grease every layer. This helps to smooth the tin foil out, so that you get a nice even surface for your cake. Here’s my lined cake tin. Ideally, the edges of the paper layer will go a little higher than the cake tin.
As you can see, preparing the cake tin takes time, which is why it’s worth doing it the previous night.
The next day, preheat the oven to about 140 degrees Celsius (275 Fahrenheit).
Soften and cream 1/2 lb butter, and 1/2 lb brown sugar.
While the butter and sugar are creaming, sift the dried ingredients – 1/2 lb flour, and spices. The type and amount of spices you use are optional. This year, I used about 1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, allspice and ginger, and some freshly grated nutmeg. You could also add ground cloves, and maybe even a tiny bit of chilli powder, to zing things along.
Once the butter and sugar are well creamed, add some essences – about 1/2 tsp each of vanilla, almond and lemon essence. Then, start adding eggs. Nana’s recipe calls for 4 to 5 eggs, added one at a time, and beaten in well. That’s a lot of eggs to beat into just 1/2 lb of butter, and if you add too many, you can end up with the mix curdling. So, just before you add each egg, mix in a spoonful (about 1 tablespoon) of the sifted flour and spices. Then beat each egg in well. After you’ve added 4 eggs, have a careful look at the mix. If it looks faintly streaky and grainy, then you are probably on the point of ‘turning it’, so don’t add any more. If however, the mix still looks smooth and glossy, then possibly you could add another egg. Nana was using eggs from her own chookies, which varied in size, so she may have added five small eggs. This year, I had large free range eggs on hand, so I only used four.
Once all the eggs are beaten in, add the remaining flour, and mix well.
Then, add some coffee. This is my mother’s tip, to help make a lovely dark cake. Before you start adding the eggs, get 1 tablespoon full of instant coffee, and dissolve it in a tablespoon full of hot water, then leave it to cool while you beat the eggs in. Alternatively, put 2 to 3 tablespoons of very fine fresh coffee grounds into a jug, and pour in a little hot water, enough to get the grounds to release their flavour and colour, and leave it to steep while adding the eggs. Then, when you have added the flour mix, strain the coffee, and add about 1 tablespoon to the cake mix, and stir through. This should darken the colour of the cake, and round out the flavour.
Next, add the fruit, and mix thoroughly. And if you like (I never have), you can also add a tablespoon of marmalade at this stage. Then put the cake batter into the tin and smooth it out.
The surface of the cake can dry out too much while it’s cooking, but there’s two things you can do to minimise that. First, wet your fingertips, and shake a little water over the surface of the cake. (Mutter a blessing while you do this, if you like.) Then, put a hat on top of the cake! That’s a square of folded baking paper, sitting on top of the paper wrapping, and covering the cake without touching the surface of the batter.
Put the cake into the oven, and WRITE DOWN THE TIME at which you put it in. Write a note to yourself about the time that you will test it, and the time that you expect to take it out. This is because it is all too easy to forget the details. Nana also recommended putting a baking slide sprinkled with salt under the cake, an inch or two lower, depending on the level of the racks in your oven, but I suspect that this was to do with the uneven temperature coming up from the bottom of her coal range. After many years, Mum and I managed to convince ourselves that we didn’t really need to do it, ‘though both of us felt faintly sacrilegious when we omitted it for the first time. But the world didn’t end, and the cakes we made were still good, so we’ve never done it since (put the salted baking tray in, that is).
Once the cake is in the oven, call your mother, or your daughter, or your sister or aunty or cousin or good friend, and let them know that you have put your Christmas cake in the oven, and that you are thinking of them, and of family and friends, and the love that binds you. This year, I called my mum, and a week or so later, she e-mailed (!) to let me know that her cake was in.
The cake needs to cook for a long time, four or five hours, or maybe even six hours, depending on how big and deep it is. Check the cake at around four hours, and take the hat off. If the cake is singing to you, then it’s in good condition. If it has stopped singing, then you have probably overcooked it.
Singing! Has she gone mad?
Well, no. You will hear a faint sound of popping and bubbling and hissing. That’s the cake singing to you. Test the cake for readiness by gently pressing the top, to see if it feels cooked. A cooked cake will feel quite firm. Most cakes will also feel a little springy, but this is a very rich and very dense cake, so it shouldn’t really feel as though it’s bouncing back at you. You could also use a skewer test.
Once you have taken the cake out, leave it in the tin until it has cooled completely. Then unwrap it, and carefully pour some brandy through it. Pour about 60mls into a small cup or shot glass, then using a teaspoon, dribble about 1/2 the brandy into the cake, and drink the rest yourself. Wrap the cake up in a couple of layers of greaseproof paper, and then put it into an airtight cake tin, or if you don’t have one big enough, cover it up with layers of plastic bags (supermarket bags work well for this). Store it at the top of your pantry. Every few weeks, take it down and unwrap it, and add more brandy (to the cake, and to yourself – you’ll be needing it in the pre-Christmas frenzy).
Ideally, you would make this cake two or three months ahead of Christmas. I have never in my life ever been so organised. This year, I managed to make it about six weeks ahead. Maybe next year…
Ordinarily, I would have given metric measurements for this cake, but that would seem to break faith with my grandmother. But for everyone who has been brought up in the new money, 1/2 lb, or 8oz, is about 225gms, or very roughly, 1/4 of a kilo (250gms). If you look at the measures, this is a one-measure cake – 1/2 lb or 1/4 lb of each ingredient. The only tricky bit is adding the right number of eggs, but if you stick to a rule of thumb of four to five eggs per 250gms (about 1/2 lb) of butter, you should be right. I have on occasion doubled this recipe, and cooked it in a 24cm square tin, and the cake was just fine. If you do double the recipe (or multiply it 1.5 times), then don’t add exactly double (or 1.5 times) the amount of spices and essences. The flavours can become too strong if you simply double up.
Just before Christmas, I will ice the cake, with one layer of almond icing, one of royal icing, and some decorative icing on top. I will try to blog it, but that may well depend on just how much brandy I have been pouring into the cake.