Like marmalade English fruit cakes are an acquired taste. Already the family are looking less than enthusiastic about my very traditional Christmas cake. “Nah – sorry – that’s not my favourite Mum,” I keep hearing. I’m not judging them. It took me years to love this cake. Dried fruits and armagnac was definitely not my thing. Instead, like most kids, I’d pick off the marzipan and icing from the sides of the cake and hand the dark brown stuff to Dad who was and still is a voracious consumer of fruit cake.
In many respects a traditional British Christmas cake is the ultimate in traditional cakes. Over 50% of this cake is made up of dried fruit with the added bonus of cinnamon, ginger, allspice and a good shot of alcohol. Marzipan which surrounds the cake is one of the oldest confectionaries dating back to the middle-ages. The pure white royal icing is a later Victorian addition and you can ditch it if you want – but that whiteness is a real beauty if you want to depict a white Christmas-like effect on the cake.
That all said today’s Christmas cake has its origin in centuries old Twelfth cakes eaten on the 6 January – the last day of Christmas festivities. The practice of hiding a bean, a pea or thimble in the cake and decreeing who ever found them become king and queen of the revelry lives on in France (where they eat delicious gallette cakes) but sadly not in Britain. Queen Victoria, who once gorged on Twelfth Cake banned the celebrations in 1870 and the centuries old tradition faded into memory. The cake, however, did not. It was switched to Christmas instead and the decorations became distinctly less frilly and a lot more Christmassy.
A traditional English Christmas cake is so full of rich, dried fruits the recipe should really be slotted under “Preserved Food” – it will last and last: all year if you can’t polish it off over the holiday period. I remember once seeing a passing look of shock on the faces of French acquaintances when I mentioned that Mum would sometimes begin her Christmas cake at the end of October. They assumed a cake made in October for Christmas was bound to be stale and rotten. Quite the reverse. The earlier you start making this cake the better – the flavours will just keep on developing and maturing.
As with all acquired tastes once acquired the tastes and flavours of a traditional Christmas cake retain a special place in one’s heart. It is a satiating, satisfying and wonderfully pleasing cake for a cold winter’s day especially if accompanied with a warm cup of tea or a shot of whiskey after a long, cold walk with the dog. So beloved was this cake in Britain they did not limit it to Christmas. Wedding cakes, Easter simnel cakes and birthday cakes were all once made following very similar recipes. Christmas pudding and mince-pies are packed with dried fruit as well. What good taste we once had in Britain – now it’s all ready-made isoglucose, syrupy gunk and Brexit silliness all the way.
The recipe below is suitable for a 24 cm spring-form tin and feeds 16.
… for the cake
350 gr butter
250 gr dark muscovado sugar
2 tbsp. date syrup[*]
200 gr dried apricots (chopped into small pieces)[†]
200 gr prunes (chopped into small pieces)
200 gr dried cherries
200 gr raisins
200 gr sultanas
200 gr currants (you can also choose dried cranberries or barberries)
5 large eggs
100 gr ground almonds
100 gr hazelnuts (ground or whole)
The zest and juice of one lemon
The zest and juice of one orange
1 tsps. cinnamon
1 tsps. all spice (or speculaas spice)
1 tsps. ginger
1 tsps. allspice
2 ladles of either whiskey, Armagnac or rum
…for the marzipan (also known as almond paste)
500 gr ground almonds
2 egg yokes (keep the whites if you want to make royal icing)
4 tbsp. honey
A dribble of either whiskey, Armagnac or rum. If there are children eating this cake then use a dribble of either orange or rose water or lemon juice.
… for the royal icing
500 gr icing sugar
2 egg whites
The juice of half a lemon
…for the cake
Place all of the dried fruit together in a bowl and ladle your chosen spirit over them. Leave to rest overnight or for at least one hour before you begin the cake. The longer the better of course!
Whip the butter together with the sugar until beautifully smooth.
Add the date syrup and mix together.
Add the eggs one by one and mix well together. The longer you beat the eggs with the butter-sugar the better.
Grate the lemon and the orange and squeeze the juices out of them before adding to the batter.
Next add all the dried fruit and the nuts.
Finally add the flour, the spices and bicarbonate of soda and fold them into the mix.
Line the spring-from tin with baking paper – including the sides and not just the base. This is a long slow bake – the sides of the cake need protecting otherwise they burn. Spoon the mixture into the tin and flatten the top.
Place the cake into the oven at 150 degrees centigrade. After 30 minutes take the cake out of the oven and cover the top with either some aluminium foil or some baking paper to stop the top from burning. Bake for another two and a half hours. The cake is done when a knife comes out clean.
When the cake has cooled down prick some holes with a skewer (or knitting needle) on the top and gently ladle some more of your chosen spirit over the cake. You can keep on doing this for one or two days whilst the cake rests in a tin and before you cover the cake in marzipan.
…for the marzipan
Very easy – place all the ingredients in a bowl and mix together until it forms a paste. If it is too sticky add some more ground almonds. If too dry add a bit more honey.
As an aside, every single recipe in my cook books and every single on-line recipe I found suggest using an equal amount of sugar to ground almonds but I can really recommend honey. It is not cloyingly sweet but compliments the wonderful aromas and scents found in ground almonds. It is excellent at binding the almonds alongside the egg yoke and dribble of liquid. I suspect the earliest known recipes for marzipan would have used honey since sugar was hard to come by in the middle-ages. Honey and almonds – yum. A marriage truly made in heaven.
Leave the paste in the fridge to cool.
When you are ready to cover the cake melt some jam in a pot and with a pastry brush cover the cake with the jam. This will help the marzipan stick to the cake.
Next, cut the marzipan paste in half. Role one half in the round to place over the top of the cake. Role the other half in a long rectangle so that it can loop around the sides of the cake.
You can now, if you want, decorate the cake with nuts and make some seasonal shapes out of the left over marzipan, brush the marzipan with egg yoke and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until it has browned. This will give the cake a very natural, more traditional feel.
Alternatively you can decide “Hey it’s Christmas – I’m going for the royal icing!”
… for the royal icing
Beat the egg whites until frothy – but not until stiff. Gently add the icing and mix together with the egg whites until it forms stiff peaks.
With a spatula cover the marzipan – you can do it either with peaks to resemble snow drifts or give the top a smooth surface. To get the surface as smooth as possible (this is home cooking not industrial cooking) dip the spatula in hot water.
Finally – allow your imagination and creative bent to run wild and decorate the top to you heart’s content! Happy Christmas!
[*] Date syrup can be found in most middle eastern shops and is a naturally sweet delight. If you can’t find date syrup choose treacle (molasses) instead.
[†] Most traditional recipes rely just on raisins, sultanas and currants but Nigel Slater recommends using dried fruits rather than just dried vine fruits to add moisture to the final cake.