My family don’t have a Christmas cake recipe, or at least, not one I can get my hands on. My granny used to make one every year, sometimes Dundee-style, topped with nuts and sticky with glaze, and sometimes with bright white royal icing and tartan ribbon. But it died with her: one of those things that no one thought to ask about until it was too late. My mother wasn’t one for baking and I didn’t develop a palate for the rich, dark fruit cake until I was in mid-20s.
Happily, my fiancé’s family do an excellent line in fruit cakes – so much so that, until he went to university, he thought ‘birthday cake’ always meant fruit cake. He wasn’t aware that anyone had anything else (I try not to think about how many Colin the Caterpillar cakes he’s missed out on as a consequence).
Don’t listen to the scaremongers: there’s still time to make a cracking cake for this Christmas. Sure, when it comes to fruit cakes, longer is better: the earlier you start, the longer your cake will have to mature, the more booze it will be able to drink, the richer and deeper its flavour will become. But a month will do just fine. Make your cake this weekend, and, once or twice a week between now and Christmas, spear it with a kebab stick, and drizzle with 50ml of booze of your choice – whisky, brandy, sherry, even rum or amaretto work well.
You can adorn your cake however you wish. I like the Scottish way – with neat patterns of dried fruit and nuts, glazed with apricot jam. Or you can go for the classic marzipan and royal icing. You can even stick some candles in it and call it a birthday cake, if you like.
Makes: 8-inch fruit cake
Takes: 15 minutes
Bakes: 3 hours
340g plain flour
2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoon mixed spice
Half teaspoon salt
100g glace cherries
1kg mixed dried fruit
100g chopped blanched almonds
Grated zest of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons sherry or brandy
225g dark brown Muscavado sugar
1 tablespoon black treacle
1. First, line your tin. Because this is going to bake for so long, it needs more lining than most cakes: grease the base and sides of your tin, and line with two layers of baking paper, making sure the paper at the sides extends higher than the top of the pan. Wrap the outside of the cake tin with two layers of brown paper or paper parchment around the sides and tie with oven-proof string, again, making sure the paper extends up higher than the top of the tin (this YouTube video offers a handy demonstration, although bear in mind that covering the top of the cake is not strictly necessary).
2. Preheat the oven to 150°C.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar and treacle until the mixture has lightened in colour and texture.
4. In a separate bowl, sieve together all the dry ingredients.
5. Whisk together the eggs and alcohol in a jug.
6. Add the flour and egg mixtures to the creamed butter and sugar alternating, and stirring thoroughly each time.
7. Stir in all the dried fruit, apple, nuts and zest.
8. Bake for about three hours until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean; cover with tin foil if the top starts to look very brown – check for this after the two hour mark.