I love making Christmas cake. I actually love making pretty much every kind of cake, but there's something very special about that luscious dark fruit cake virtually marinaded in brandy. The smells when it's cooking... the anticipation as you feed it a little more liquor each week to keep it moist... then the faff of marzipanning it a week before the big event and finally icing and decorating it all at the last minute - for me it's part of the whole ritual, and it starts every year around Halloween.
This year is a special one, as I'm not only making a cake for us, but ones to send over to Anne in Canada and a liquor-free version for my cousin Matt in Japan. (I have also somewhat rashly promised Christmas puddings to a couple of people, but am going to worry about that 8-hour steaming affair in November.)
The cake my Mum always made (which is obviously therefore traditional and best) is the recipe Delia Smith got from her mother, and if it's good enough for Saint Delia, then I'm pretty sure it's good enough for the rest of us.
So, to follow in the footsteps of culinary giants, you'll need:
The day before you want to make the cake, soak the dried fruit, glace cherries and peel in the brandy, in a large bowl. Cover with a cloth and leave overnight.
Here's the fruit for Anne's cake, soaking boozily away. For Matt's, to make sure the fruit is soft and juicy, I'll be leaving the dried fruit to soak in cold black tea (a tip from a Muslim friend of mine who likes really rich fruit cake, and it works great).
Preheat the oven to gas mark 1, and grease the cake tin, then line with greaseproof paper all the way around. Delia recommends at this point to put your treacle tin in the plate warming section of the oven so it behaves itself when you take it out to measure later - I don't have a section like that in my oven so just stuck the tin in the main bit for 10 mins, which worked fine.
Sift the flour, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl. In another, beat together the butter and sugar.
These need to be light and fluffy. To quote, "this is in fact the most important part of the cake, so don't cut any corners." Of course not! It helps having electric cake beaters for this part as it's a very long and tiring job completely by hand.
Now in another bowl, beat the eggs. Add them to the mixture a tablespoon at a time and beat well between each addition. If it looks like it might curdle, you can add in a little bit of the flour. Once this is done, chop the nuts...
Stir in all the fruit and peel at this point, and add in the nuts, treacle and orange and lemon rinds.
When it's all come together, spoon the mixture into the waiting tin. Cover the top of the cake with a double square of greaseproof paper, with a hole cut in the centre about the same size as a 50 p piece. I had some trouble with this last instruction as I don't keep twine around the house and I found getting the thing on top was a bit of a nightmare. I resorted to plastic-covered garden twine (fairly heavy duty) which seems to be doing the trick.
The finished cake now goes into the bottom shelf of the oven for between 4 1/4 and 4 3/4 hours, and you're not even meant to open the door until the 4 hour mark has passed. The cake is ready when you stick a skewer through the hole in the top, and it comes out clean.
So, Anne's cake has just come out of the oven, and looks like this:
I'll now double-wrap it in greaseproof paper and keep it in a tin, feeding it a little bit more brandy each week before posting it, marzipan, royal icing and cake decorations across to Gabriola :)