Today is the day where I begin making the Christmas cakes! I love this time of year: I love autumn and winter more than any other season, as we have warm, comforting dinners, long evenings and Halloween. I get so excited when August happens (as here in Ireland, autumn starts in August) and my excitement grows as the autumn months turn into winter months. I feel at my most creative and productive during this time of year...
And yes, I know it's September and that we shouldn't even be thinking of Christmas yet, but I'm all in favour of forward thinking, especially when cake is involved. But mainly, I'm starting on the Christmas cake now because it's the way it's done traditionally.
So let's get traditional up in this:
A Christmas cake should be a rich fruit cake, which is a cake that has a 50% weight of dried fruit, ie. once you make up your cake mixture you mix in the same weight of prepared dried fruit. Any less of percentage fruit is seen as light fruit cake which, due to its higher amount of cake versus fruit, can't be preserved as easily or for as long. This rich fruit cake is made months in advance using the dried and preserved summer and autumn fruits.
After the cake is baked slowly for a long time it can be fed, which is where the baker of the cake sprinkles it with an alcoholic spirit or fortified wine, such as sherry, once a week until it needs to be decorated. This was devised as a preservation technique, back when folk didn't have airtight containers or fridges, as the sugar an alcohol in the cake would make it inhospitable to mould and bacteria, allowing it to keep for longer. Using a fruit cake makes traditional decoration - with marzipan and royal icing - easier, as it won't go stale as you allow the marzipan and layers of royal icing to dry over a few days.
Making a rich fruit cake more preservable wasn't just for Christmas, but also for wedding cakes: back in the day, the small top tier of the couple's wedding cake would be kept until for the baptism of their first child, which back then would've usually been within a year of marriage. Of course, once upon a time, these kinds of cakes were just for the wealthy.
But nowadays we live in a different world. Access to butter and dried fruits and berries is easier (you can just nip down to Tesco), and the more traditional and natural methods of preservation are no longer necessary. In fact, if you freeze a rich fruit cake, after wrapping it in foil and greaseproof paper, it can be kept for up to three years, which is good news for nowadays couples who leave the babies until a few years after marriage, if at all. However, people still do it the traditional way just out of taste: people like booze.
Now, out of moral choice, I don't drink alcohol, and I also try to avoid desserts made with or including alcohol. As such, I don't feed the cake with alcohol over the months, but making it ahead of time allows the flavours in the cake to develop and mature, making for a way tastier cake when you cut it open on December twenty-fifth. As for preservation, I just keep it in an airtight box, and any left over is frozen.
So, how do I make the cake?
The way I make Christmas cake has been commented on as being 'bizarre' or 'unconventional', because I make a whole pile of fruit preparation in one go... in a bucket.
Yes, into a plastic bucket I throw a pound each (450 grammes) of currants and raisins, half a pound each (225 grammes) of prunes, glacé cherries and sultanas, and quarter pound each (115 grammes) of mixed peel and slivered almonds. This amounts to exactly 4 pounds (1.8 kilogrammes) of dried fruit, however when I do it there's probably more: if there's any little bits of leftovers in the packets, I just throw them in too... no point them languishing in the back of my cupboard forever. To the fruit I add 4 ounces (115 grammes) of brown sugar and 1 bottle (70 centilitres) of dry sherry and a miniature bottle (5 centilitres) of rum, and the alcohol will cook off during the cake's stint in the oven. This sits and soaks for a week, stirring daily.
This is a ridiculous quantity of fruit, I know, but I mass produce Christmas cakes because I give them away - fully decorated - as gifts for families. Last year I made six cakes, and all bar one got a home (as for the one that didn't, it was supposed to go to my boyfriend's family, but our relationship didn't make it to Christmas).
But enough theory, onto practise! This is how to make enough fruit preparation for 1 8 inch (20 centimetre) round cake.
☑ Soya (check for soya lecithin)
☒ Alcohol (use ingredients in italics for an alcohol-free version)
☒ Nuts (use ingredients in italics for a nut-free version)
Makes 1 8 inch (20 centimetre) round cake
For the fruit preserve:
- 4 ounces (115 grammes) dried currants
- 4 ounces (115 grammes) raisins
- 2 ounces (55 grammes) sultanas
- 2 ounces (55 grammes) glacé cherries
- 1 ounce (30 grammes) candied mixed citrus peel
- 1 ounce (30 grammes) slivered almonds
- For a nut free version, simply replace that ounce (30 grammes) of almonds with another fruit of some sort.
- 1 ounce (30 grammes) brown sugar
- 1¾ fluid ounces (50 millilitres) rum, spiced or plain
- 5 fluid ounces (150 millilitres) cheap sherry
- For an alcohol free version, just use 7 fluid ounces (200 millilitres) cold strong tea instead of the rum and sherry.
First mix all the fruit preserve ingredients together in a glass or ceramic bowl. Mix thoroughly, and leave somewhere cool (but not in the fridge) for a week before preparing the cake, stirring daily. For best results, the cake should be made at least a month before serving, so by extension the fruit mixture should be prepared about a month and a half in advance.
Stay tuned for part two next week where I assemble the cake, using cake mixture and this fruit preparation!