So this is the first of a series of 12 posts which I’m calling –
12 tips for a gorgeous, no fuss, foodie Christmas
And here, to kick us off, is tip #1 –
Tip #1 – Christmas cake doesn’t need to mature for weeks to taste gorgeous.
You may remember that I told you about the catering business I ran with my lovely husband before we moved to Dubai. We created all sorts of goodies in our ‘at home’ kitchen, but our biggest volume of creations by a long, long, long, long way was our Christmas cakes – our ‘well fed’ Christmas cakes.
It’s another of my Nan’s recipes and this has to be our most treasured family classic. My Christmas cake journey began when I was a small child learning to bake with my Nan in her kitchen and 30 something years later it’s still my favourite Christmas cake.
And it was because it was everyone else’s favourite too that I started to make them to sell. I would bake the cakes during the summer months so that there was plenty of time to ‘feed’ them (the process of piercing the cake with a skewer before drizzling sherry over it) and decorate them to sell in the run up to the festive season. It was hard work … early mornings spent creaming and mixing, late nights preparing tins and weighing out ingredients for the next day – with much time in between spent organising the storage of the cakes and later decorating and wrapping them for sale. And all of this with the sun shining outside and not a festive bone in my body! It was a military operation, but a rewarding one when we would pile our stall high with our treasures and always go home ‘sold out’.
We would have little tasters for potential customers to try, and this proved to be one of the secrets to our success … So often we would hear the words, “Oh no, I don’t do Christmas cake” and yet, after a taste we almost always had a convert.
So what is special about this cake? What makes it different?
- it’s light, both in texture and flavour – no bitter, heavy cake here
- there is no list of ingredients as long as your arm
- it is ‘well fed’ with sherry. Most people use brandy. I think this tastes better.
- in recognition of the fact that so many people hate either marzipan or icing (or both), mine is topped with cherries and walnuts and an apricot glaze. Stylish.
- and no artistic ability or steady hand is required for decorating this cake.
- and even though your cake may not have matured for weeks, it will still keep beautifully for weeks – double wrap it in aluminium foil and pop it in an airtight container.
- and as a bonus it’s also no fuss to make.
Let me tell you more … We had been making our Christmas cakes, with our military operation for a couple of years and then in June 2006 our little bundle of girly joy, Hella was born. New babies and military operations are mutually exclusive, at least for a few weeks anyway, and so things in the world of baking slowed down a touch. But all that time spent feeding and changing nappies, clearly gave me too much time to think (or my sleep deprivation was messing with my sanity) and I decided that 2006 was the year to be entering our cake into the Great Taste Awards, the ‘Oscars’ of the food world and the ‘epicurean equivalent of the Booker prize’.
I soon realised that the closing date for entries was only a week away(!) but, undeterred, I decided to give it a go and see if I could throw tradition to the wind and make an award-winning cake with only days to mature, rather than weeks or even months. I had nothing to lose, so I got my skates on.
By the time the cake was ready, there was not enough time left to courier the cake to London before the closing date, so I packed Hella and the cake in the car and we drove down to Earl’s Court to deliver it ourselves. A few hours on the M4 and job done.
I have to say that once delivered, I didn’t think about the cake that much until the day that the letter arrived from the Great Taste Awards – yes, people used to sometimes send letters back then. And what a blinder – we had won Gold! The top, the best, the pinnacle of their awards. Our 5 day old cake had got the biggest thumbs up from the esteemed judges … and it doesn’t get any better than that.
From then on, we were ‘Cake Baking Central’. Our cake was featured in Good Housekeeping magazine and the Good Food magazine and we set up a website and began to do mail order. The first year of Hella’s life was spent with her ‘supervising’ the baking but she seemed to enjoy it as much as we did.
In fact, for our final Christmas season before we moved to Dubai we baked 2 metric tonnes of Christmas cake in our ‘at home’ kitchen. That’s quite a lot.
There really is no need for you to make anything like that quantity, but do try at least one cake. I’ve always made 3 sizes –
- large – perfect for a family – use a 20 x 20cm square tin – uses 1 quantity of the recipe below
- medium – suits a couple – use a 15 x 15cm square tin – uses ½ quantity of the recipe below
- small – ideal as a gift (popular present for teachers) – use a 10cm diameter round tin – uses ¼ of the recipe below.
A couple more thoughts … If I were you, I would make the whole quantity of this recipe. You can do 1 large or 2 medium, or 1 medium, 2 small or 4 small. Get the idea? Wrap them in cellophane and you have a stylish, tasty and thoughtful gift.
And there’s no need to stress out if you are perilously close to Christmas before you start baking this – it’ll still be perfect – the Great Taste Award Judges said so …
- 225g (8oz) soft butter
- 225g (8oz) light soft brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon golden syrup
- 4 tablespoons cold tea
- Rind of 1 lemon, finely grated
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 eggs
- ¼ teaspoon table salt
- 110g (4oz) SR flour
- 175g (6oz) plain flour
- 1 teaspoon mixed spice
- a pinch of ground cinnamon
- a pinch of ground nutmeg
- 110g (4oz) mixed peel
- 225g (8oz) glace cherries, halved + 150g (5oz) for decoration
- 200g (7oz) currants
- 200g (7oz) raisins
- 300g (11oz) sultanas
- 180ml (6floz) medium sherry
- 150g (5oz) walnut halves
- 370g (12oz approx) jar apricot jam
- You will need a 20cm square tin for a large cake, a 15cm square cake for a medium cake and a 10cm diameter round tin for a small cake.
- a cake testing skewer
- a small medicine cup
- a pastry brush
- a small saucepan
- Firstly, decide which size cake(s) you wish to make. This recipe will make 1 large or 2 medium or 4 small. Select your tin(s) accordingly and grease them well before lining them with baking parchment.
- Preheat the oven to 140°C, 275ºF (gas mark 1).
- Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
- Now beat in the golden syrup, tea, lemon rind and vanilla extract.
- Add the eggs to the mixture and add the salt, spices and flours on top. Beat well.
- Gently stir in the fruit and mixed peel being sure to reserve 150g of glace cherries for the decoration.
- Divide between your chosen tins, using scales to ensure that you are as accurate as possible.
- Bake in the oven for 3 hours for the large cake, 2 hours for the medium cake and 1½ hours for the small cake. The cakes should be golden brown and a cake testing skewer inserted should come out clean. Ovens do vary, so be sure to check that your cake is not ready sooner than these times. If the top is browning too quickly, cover with a loose layer of aluminium foil on the top.
- Allow to cool completely in the tin before carefully removing.
- When cold, you can start the process of 'feeding'. Cut a two pieces of aluminium foil for each cake - each large enough to thoroughly wrap it up.
- Lay the foil pieces in a cross shape and place the cake upside down in the centre.
- Now using a cake testing skewer, gently pierce lots of holes in the base of the cake.
- Then, using a small medicine cup (or similar) slowly and evenly drizzle sherry over the whole of the cake's base, being sure to go right up to the edges. For a large cake use 60ml, a medium cake use 30ml and for a small cake use 15ml. Now wrap the cake up securely in the double foil ensuring that the base of the cake stays upright.
- When you are ready to do your next 'feed', open up the foil and turn the cake over so it is the right way up. Now repeat steps 12 and 13 before re-wrapping the cake in foil - this time the cake should be the right side up.
- When you are ready for your final 'feed', repeat steps 12 and 13 again. This time you will be feeding the base of the cake for a second time. Re-wrap the cake in foil again - the base of the cake should be upright again.
- Leave the cake for at least 24 hours before starting the decoration ... Warm the jam in a small saucepan until it is very runny. If it contains pieces of apricot, you may need to sieve it at this stage.
- Using a pastry brush, gently brush the jam all over the top and sides of the cake.
- The jam will act like a 'glue' to stick your cherries and walnuts to the cake. Start in the centre of the cake with a row of cherries and then work outwards alternating with walnuts.
- Finish with an apricot glaze over the cherries and walnuts - you may need to gently reheat the jam if it has become difficult to work with.
- To store your cake, either wrap it in cellophane or wrap loosely in foil and store in an airtight container.