In all the considerable time I spend thinking about food and family and traditions I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas cakes epitomise so much of what makes those things special. Especially when – as has happened in my own family – the ritual evolves as the family does too. Even better is when you end up with a cake that’s as good as this one. Jam-packed with a wonderful medley of prunes, apricots, figs, candied peel, hazelnuts….
The day that the cake was made was a very big deal when I was little. Each of us took a turn to close our eyes, clutch the wooden spoon and solemnly make a wish whilst stirring the cake mix. It’s a tradition more usually associated with making Christmas Puddings but we didn’t make those so for us it was the cake instead. For the last few years I’ve been the one to make Christmas cakes for my mum, sister and in-laws, and each individual cake always gets a solemnly stirred personally-tailored wish from my husband and me.
I still absolutely love and look forward to the day when we make the cakes. The Christmas music is unleashed as we try to imbue them with as much love and hope as it’s possible to pack in amongst the fruits. They take on an extra specialness which probably explains why it was the recipe I turned to when my sister and I were making my wedding cake. I hope this becomes a cake you can make memories with too.
The recipe I use feels traditional but is actually modern – it’s Nigel Slater’s. (Who come to think of it is the creator of my Christmas Pud recipe too so all-in-all my family’s Christmas traditions owe quite a debt to the Slater’s.)
250g soft unsalted butter
125g light muscovado sugar
125g dark muscovado sugar
150g each of prunes, apricots & figs
100g each of candied peel & glacé cherries
3 large eggs
65g ground almonds
100g shelled whole hazelnuts
350g total of raisins, sultanas & dried cranberries
zest & juice of an orange
zest of a lemon
half a tsp baking powder
250g plain flour
20cm cake tin – a deep one ideally
1. Line the base and sides of the tin with baking paper. The paper needs to come up approx 10cm above the top of the tin. Preheat the oven to 160C.
2. Beat together the sugars and butter in a large bowl. Scissor into small pieces the prunes, apricots, figs (with stalks removed), candied peel and glace cherries. They should all go into a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, stirring after each one goes in and not worrying if it looks a bit curdly.
3. Stir in the ground almonds, hazelnuts, raisins, sultanas, cranberries, brandy, orange juice & zest and lemon zest. Gently fold in the flour and baking powder.
4. Now is your moment for a solemn wish and a stir. Take your time.
5. Scoop the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Level the top with a spoon and bang the tin down on the work-top to remove any air pockets. Bake for an hour and then turn the oven down to 150C for another hour and a half. It’s done when a skewer or knitting needle comes out with maybe a few crumbs but definitely no raw mixture.
6. Let the cake cool on a rack before turning out. Then wrap it tightly and store in an air-tight tin, remembering to feed it with a few tablespoons of brandy at least once a week. The knitting needle or skewer comes in handy again to create little holes that the brandy can seep through into the heart of the cake.
I get to the marzipanning 5 days before I want it to be finished and then ice it 1 or 2 days before.