...(or rather was)
Christmas Cake Night.
My mother's old Christmas Cake recipe - one of those handed-down things, tweaked slightly over the years and with odd marginal notes - makes the best rich fruit cake I know. If I ever get married, that's my wedding cake recipe. If I ever have a child, or get asked to be a godmother, it's my christening cake recipe. It's basically masses and masses of fruit stuck together with a wee bit of cake and then fed spoonfuls of brandy for a couple of weeks. Is your mouth watering yet? It should be.
It is also pretty easy to make. Almost everything comes in batches of 6 ounces. 6oz sultanas, 6oz raisins, 6oz cherries, 6 oz chopped peel or dried cranberries, 6oz butter, 6oz sugar. 7oz plain flour. 3 eggs. 2 oz whole almonds. 1 teaspoonful mixed spice. That's it.
Last night, a bit late this year, was Christmas Cake Baking Night.
First you prepare the cake tin. Mine is Victorian, a family heirloom; deep and solid and made of blackened wrought iron, it looks more like a piece of steam engine, but it's a cake tin to dream of. Grease it, very lightly. Line it with trimmed baking parchment or greaseproof paper and tie a thick layer of folded newspaper around the outside. Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 3 or the equivalent.
Next, prepare the ingredients. Get the butter and eggs out of the refrigerator. Sort all the dried fruit (checking the raisins and sultanas for stalky bits, chopping the glacé cherries, unsticking anything that is stuck together in lumps). Then blanch and halve the almonds and add them to the dried fruit. Next, weigh the flour, mix in the mixed spice, and sieve them both together. Then, cream together the butter and molasses sugar, mix in the eggs one by one, then add fruit-and-nuts and flour in alternating spoonfuls, stirring with a knife.
As you stir, make a wish. Call the other members of the household to stir the cake and make a wish. Then dollop the mixture into the cake tin, level off and hollow the middle slightly, and pop it in the oven, on the bottom shelf. Turn the oven down a scrap, straight away. After an hour, turn it down another scrap, to about Gas Mark 2.
It takes anything from three and a half to four and a half hours in total. Slowly the house fills with the glorious mixed smells of spices, fruit and hot newspaper. It's a classic smell that evokes childhood and the anticipation of Christmas as little else can do. On the occasions when it takes 4 1/2 hours (like last night) one is practically blotto with tiredness by the time the cake comes out. Then you have to wait another half an hour before it can be safely turned out of the tin. Do not be tempted to turn it out immediately! - it will sag unbecomingly about the midriff, or worse, come apart altogether. I've already got one saggy midriff, i don't need another.
Leave it to cool overnight, and in the morning, wrap in greaseproof paper and stick down with sellotape (or better still masking tape, which will undo and restick several times without tearing the paper). A couple of days later, unstick the tape, unfold the paper, prick the top surface of the cake gently with a fine-tined fork, and drizzle a dessertspoonful of brandy into the top, very slowly. Do this another two or three times at intervals of three or four days.
Take the cake out of the paper. Coat it with warmed sieved jam. Cover it with marzipan. Leave it out overnight to dry. Ice with royal icing. Leave overnight to dry. Decorate, in whatever way you fancy (the year I was eight, it had a pink plastic ballerina on top; the following year, for equality's sake, a toy tank in a green and brown iced battlefield diorama...).
Bring forth, show off, cut in slices. And eat.
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