Tuesday 2 January 2018

Christmas Fruit Cake

Fruitcakes were a running joke in the comic strips of my American youth. They were portrayed as the unwanted gift, the oddly imperishable foodstuff that unpopular relatives offered when they came to visit. Once received, it would go deep to the back of the cupboard where the strange, dense block would remain buried until the following year, when the recipient could gift it upon some new enemy

It looks like a ceiling fixture as I forgot to flip it before uploading. Blogger hasn't updated its app, so this process is taking a bit longer these days.

My family, being of Australian origin, took some offence at these portrayals of this sacred celebratory food. My grandmother was proud of her fruitcake, making it for special occasions such as birthdays and weddings, decorating it with skill I could never possess (largely because the piping bag is my nemesis, and also because life is too short to draw lace onto a cake.) No slice was wasted; in fact, she once baked a birthday cake for her daughter-in-law's mother, but only if my mother would promise that a large portion of the cake would be taken back to America for her own son to eat. This was not requested as a favour, but instead given as an instruction not to be questioned, so after the party, under the critical eye of her family my mother dutifully wrapped the remaining cake in foil and clingfilm, packing the parcel in her bags to travel back across the Pacific Ocean where the cake was scoffed down in a matter of seconds. 

Now I live in the UK, where Christmas Cake usually means fruitcake, and traditional wedding cakes are studded with currants. Times are changing; most families prefer a chocolate yule log to a Christmas pudding, and a sponge to a fruitcake for their matrimonial vows. At our own wedding some 12 years ago, I made two separate cakes: a fruit cake for the Baby Boomers and beyond, a lemon sponge for the younger ones. While everyone still seems to enjoy a mince pie at Christmas, fewer insist on a slice of fruitcake, so it was mostly out of a sense of nostalgia that I decided to tackle one this year. 

According to tradition, one must begin the process in November at the latest, soaking your fruit in booze for days, weeks, even months before mixing it into your eggy batter. That just doesn't happen in my house. I don't really get in the mood to even being prepping things until mid-December, and by then it seems like a lost hope to attempt a cake according to these stern rules from years gone by.

But then recently I was speaking to a fellow baker who revealed her secret - she never makes her cake in advance! She may soak the fruit for a while, but overnight has served fine on many an occasion, and her cakes always go down a treat with guests and family alike. Right, I thought, this I can do.

So she passed me the recipe and I looked at the recipe versus what I had in my cupboards. I should add that it was New Year's Eve and I wasn't in the mood for going to the shops unnecessarily. So I made a few modifications: 

To soak
200g prunes apricots chopped
300g currants
100g glace cherries, chopped
150g dried figs dates, chopped
175ml stout the better part of a bottle of rank mass produced ale that someone brought over as a joke a couple months ago

For the cake
175g unsalted butter, softened
175g soft light brown sugar
4 large eggs
2 tbsp black treacle molasses

Zest of 1 orange
125g dark rye flour
50g plain flour  50g + 125g = 175g plain flour
2 tsp mixed spice pumpkin spice
1½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
75g blanched hazelnuts, finely chopped   Brazil nuts, chopped. Kind of. 
So yes, I changed about half of the ingredients. But the spirit of the recipe was still the same, surely?
Boozy fruit. I had to remove a dinosaur egg from this vessel before use. It's ok, the dinosaur has hatched.
After assembling the fruit and soaking it overnight, it was time to start the great mix-up. Butter is never "room temperature" at our place, as our flat is rarely warm enough to bring anything to a soft temperature. I could have played a dangerous dance with the microwave, but instead decided to attack the brown sugar and butter with the pastry blender, then the wooden spoon.

After than, in went 4 eggs. There are always lots of warnings about how to prevent your mixture curdling at this point, but I never find them even remotely successful. I just let it curdle, knowing it will be just fine, as Mary Berry looks at me with disappointment and disapproval

One of my favourite "hacks" is greasing a spoon before putting in a sticky syrup like molasses or treacle. You just pour in a spoonful of oil into the spoon, then pour it back into the oil, then use the spoon for your choice of tar-like substance. Look how it just plops out of the spoon into the batter! Very satisfying, I tell you.

Then went in some zest, some dry ingredients, mix-y mix-y, choppy nutsy.

Then, the finale: the boozy fruit.

Dear God, sweet Jesus that is a lot of fruit.
At this point you lovingly gather your family round, making sure each family member takes the spoon and gives one stir to the mixture before pouring it into the tin.

Well, you think of it, but then you realise the children are being awfully quiet and good with their electronic babysitters, so you just ignore that step and bash it all together yourself. The tin for this, unlike most of my other tins, is silver rather than black in colour so as to conduct less heat, and this cake is treated to a double lining in an attempt to prevent any scorching. Why? Because this baby goes in the oven for no less than three and a half hours at a low heat, that's why. This ain't no rush job. I literally climbed up a mountain and returned back while this was in the oven and had time to spare.

It was a small mountain.

Now, halfway through, I did take it out of the oven and cover the top to prevent burning, but it seems that the fan in my oven decided to be particularly vicious, and my protective foil was ripped off and tossed around the oven. Naturally I didn't discover this until the damage had been done.

It didn't look too bad at first, but then it continued to cook outside the oven and I decided further measures needed to be taken.

If you look carefully, you'll see a knife slicing the top off the cake on the right. The thing was, even the scorched bit didn't actually taste burnt, AND I got to sample the cake pre-decoration. A win-win. So yes, always a good idea to trim cakes.

I then carefully whipped up a batch of marzipan.
Trust me, I made it once myself and it was not worth it in the slightest.

Then it was a simple matter of heating apricot jam, eating the heated jam, then heating more apricot jam and spreading it on the cake to help the marzipan stick.

Then it was time to roll out marzipan and pretend I knew how to decorate a cake

Just doing the ironing.

It's a ghost!!

I then sort of tried trimming it and decorating it

And this was the end result. I don't see any point in fondant or royal icing - they taste of nothing but sugar, so in the words of Prue Leith they simply aren't worth the calories.

My children keep looking at it, confused. "Why is there dough on the outside?" "When are you going to bake it?" "What IS that?" 

Obviously another great success. 

Ruby Tandoh’s easy fig and ale Christmas cake (yes, I know)

This is a last-minute affair compared with many Christmas cakes – but you should still soak the fruit overnight or at least for a few hours. It is still moist, dark and rich, and made in a fraction of the time it might usually take.

To soak
200g prunes, chopped
300g currants
100g glace cherries, chopped
150g dried figs, chopped
175ml stout
For the cake
175g unsalted butter, softened
175g soft light brown sugar
4 large eggs
2 tbsp black treacle
Zest of 1 orange
125g dark rye flour
50g plain flour
2 tsp mixed spice
1½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
75g blanched hazelnuts, finely chopped
1 The day before you make the cake, combine the fruit in a bowl and douse with the stout (a good porter or, at a push, brown ale will suffice, but the mellow, chocolatey depth of stout is best). Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave overnight – or at least for a good few hours – until the fruit has absorbed most of the liquid.
2 The next day, when you’re ready to make the cake batter, preheat the oven to 150C/300F/gas mark 2, line a deep, 20cm round cake tin with baking parchment and wrap the outside in a couple of layers of foil to prevent the cake’s edge from drying during the long baking time.
3 Cream the butter and sugar together until completely smooth then, one by one, add the eggs. The mixture is likely to curdle a little at this point, but don’t panic: just add 2 tbsp or so of plain flour to smooth the mix. Stir in the treacle and zest. In a separate bowl, combine the flours, mixed spice, baking powder and salt. Add these dry ingredients to the wet mixture and stir until roughly combined.
4 Add the hazelnuts to the batter along with the soaked fruit mixture (including any stout left unabsorbed). Combine thoroughly. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 3½-4 hours, or until a small knife inserted into the centre of the cake emerges clean. If the top of the cake begins to darken too deeply during the baking time, just cover with foil.
5 Once baked, let the cake cool completely in its tin before decorating. It could take overnight to cool, but it’s crucial to wait until it’s stone cold before slicing. It will continue to firm, set and mellow as it approaches room temperature. Decorate it (or not) however you please.

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