The Aroma of October

October 23, 2011 § 1 Comment

Cakesnail comes to you this week from my sick bed. I am proud of my normally robust immune system and rarely ill, so I make for a poor patient, more of an impatient. On paper, three whole days of being at home, all commitments null and void, means catching up with the New Yorker pile, baking the Marrakesh date loaf that was the first cake in Dan Lepard’s new book to be graced with a “must bake!” yellow sticky note, sifting through the backlog of photos that need uploading. In reality, this cold has been brutal enough that a good morning is one where I manage to rise to get showered and dressed, and maybe sneeze my way through a couple of rows of knitting, before giving up all thoughts of productivity and collapsing in front of the Netflix back-catalogue of Oxbridge-based murder mysteries. Indeed, as soon as I’ve got you all going on the Christmas cake project, I’m sure there’s an elderly professor with a decades-old vendetta waiting for my attention.

If you want to make your own Christmas cake – and trust me, if you’ve never tried the homemade variety before you really do want to make your own Christmas cake – you have 1-3 weeks of a window to get it going: I calculate the Big Day to be 9 weeks away (cue anxiety attack!) and a good cake needs at least 6-8 weeks to mature. Critical are the two months of ritualistic ‘feeding’ the cake will undergo, which involves coaxing it to bursting point with brandy until you fear it might spontaneously combust at any moment. Then, and only then, is it ready to grace the festive table, ideally served at the perfect moment to distract squiffy uncles from quiz question disputes.

The end result of this cake is pretty special: plump with fruit without the dry crumbliness that is sometimes the scourge of the fruit cake, and almost sinfully alcoholic. Nonetheless, the real gift that you receive as the creator and keeper of the Christmas cake is the joy of the weekly feed. I’m not one for a protracted build-up to Christmas – one of my favourite things about Thanksgiving in the States is the way it acts as a holiday buffer, keeping all things elfin and tinsely to December. But we are somewhat bereft of true seasons here in San Francisco, and the careful weekly unwrapping of the cake comes to replace the crisp air and golden leaves that have always been a part of Octobers and Novembers past. We gently peel away the protective sheaths of tin foil and parchment paper to reveal the molasses-black cake nestled within their folds, and each layer removed allows that unique aroma of brandied fruits and nuts, spiked with spice and sugar, to spread that bit further, until it fills each corner of the kitchen as we spoon more liquor over the cake. It’s a fragrance of such joy and anticipation that it busts through even the most stuffed up nose or curmudgeonly attitude to the season. Do make it your October ritual too.

Christmas Cake
Adapted from Delia Smith’s Christmas

When talking homemade Christmas cake with anyone from the UK, there’s really only one recipe: Delia’s. Delia Smith is the queen of British Christmas cookery for more than just nostalgia: her cake (and Christmas pudding) is rich, dark and moist: all qualities you want in your fruit cake. I feel as though one day I should try another recipe, but I’d have to make it as well as, not instead of, this cake: it just isn’t Christmas without it.

Note that you will need to begin this recipe the night before you want to bake the cake

450g/1lb currants
175g/6oz sultanas (or golden raisins in the US)
175g/6oz raisins
50g/2oz glace cherries (rinsed, dried and finely chopped)
50g/2oz mixed candied peel (*see note below)
3 tbsp brandy
225g/8oz plain (all-purpose) flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
225g/8oz/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
225g/8oz soft brown sugar
4 large eggs
50g/2oz almonds, chopped (skins can be left on)
1 dessertspoonful black treacle/dark molasses
The grated zest of 1 lemon
The grated zest of 1 orange
110g/4oz whole blanched almonds (**see note below)

*it can be difficult, or expensive, to acquire candied peel in the US. I normally just candy my own – you can find instructions quite readily on the internet. This year I didn’t have time for this so I just left the peel out, adding a bit extra lemon and orange peel and a few extra chopped almonds.

**to blanch almonds, simply put the nuts still in their skins in a small bowl and pour boiling water over them just to cover. Let them sit for 5 minutes or so and then you will be able to pinch the skins right off the nuts.

The day before you want to bake the cake, weigh out the dried fruit and peel, place in a mixing bowl and mix in the brandy as evenly though the fruit as possible. Cover with a clean towel and leave to one side for the fruit to absorb the brandy overnight.

The next day, preheat your oven to 140C/275F and prepare a 8inch/20cm round tin by buttering it then lining with greaseproof paper both on the bottom and sides. Set to one side.

Sift the flour, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl, making sure they are well combined. In a separate large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until it is light, pale and fluffy. Beat the eggs in a separate small bowl and then add to the creamed mixture very gradually – a tablespoon at a time – keeping the whisk/beater running until all the egg is incorporated. This gradual method will help to prevent the mixture curdling (although if it does curdle don’t worry too much – it will come together with the flour). When all the egg has been added, gently fold the flour and spice mixture into the batter, taking care to try and keep the air in the batter. Now fold in the fruit, peel, chopped nuts and treacle and finally the grated zests.

Transfer the cake mix into the prepared pan, using the back of a spoon or a spatula to smooth the mixture evenly. You could leave the cake plain with a view to icing/decorating it, but if you plan to keep it plain (as we always do), arrange the blanched almonds in concentric circles over the cake. Cover the top of the cake with a double square of greaseproof paper with a 50p/quarter sized hole in the middle: the paper will protect the cake during the long cooking time. Bake in the coolest part of your oven (often the bottom shelf) for 4 1/2 to 4 3/4 hours. It might take a half hour or so longer than this but don’t even peek until 4 hours are up. The cake is ready when it feels springy and firm to touch.

Cool the cake for 30 minutes in the tin, then remove it to a wire rack to finish cooling. When the cake is cool, give it its first feed by poking holes all over it (I use a kebab skewer for the job) then spooning teaspoonfuls of brandy all over to permeate the cake. Wrap the cake in a double layer of greaseproof paper and then in a double layer of tin foil and keep somewhere cool and dry. Unwrap the cake at weekly intervals leading up to serving the cake and repeat the brandy feed. We serve the cake with brandy butter.


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