Have you baked your Christmas cake yet?
As the world whizzes by, there's something very reassuring about traditions. Feeling part of the continuum anchors our collective experience and gives us a cheering sense of place and belonging.
Among the many rituals of Christmas, the making of a special fruit cake is very much at the forefront. What started out in the 1500s as a fruit-laden porridge consumed on Christmas Eve, gradually morphed into a Christmas pudding and, in the mid 19th century, to the cake we know today.
Unfortunately, Christmas cake is not always such a winner in the popularity stakes these days. Apart from me, no one in my family likes it.
For me, however, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without Christmas cake. Just making this traditional cake is the trigger that gets me into the Christmas spirit, and I love the dense, rich fruitiness, that age-old blend of spices, and sometimes even a fat double layer of icing, almond and royal. As soon as I start mixing great mountains of dried fruits, taking in the whiff of brandy and spice and then the sweet fragrant aromas that are produced as the cake cooks, it puts me in the Christmas zone.
It's best to make rich fruit cakes well ahead of the big day so they have time to mature. Mid-November is a good time. Wrap tightly in baking paper and then tinfoil, and every three or four weeks brush the top with a little brandy, whisky or sherry to keep it moist.
My grandmother always put wrapped-up sixpences in her Christmas cake, which was the only reason any of us kids ate it when we were growing up. Eventually we came to associate the cake with Christmas and then we had to have it - not for the sixpences but because the fact it was there gave us a sense of comfort. Some things never change.
That's how traditions work - through fair or foul we embed an idea and make it part of our shared histories, ready for the next generation to take forward.
So here's to a revival of the much-maligned Christmas cake. And, in an effort to spark that revival, here are three totally different Christmas cake recipes, each with their own particular virtues.
Overnight Christmas Cake
Ready in 12½ hrs. Makes 1 very large cake
2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp sherry or brandy, plus ½ cup sherry or brandy, to pour over cake
4½ cups flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
10 cups (1.5kg) mixed dried fruit, such as currants, sultanas, raisins and dates
1 cup mixed peel
1 cup glace cherries
2 cups mixed nuts, such as almonds and Brazil nuts
Preheat oven to 100C (do not use fanbake as it will dry out this cake). Grease a 28cm round or 25cm square cake tin and line the base and sides with three layers of baking paper. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, add eggs and the 2 Tbsp sherry or brandy and mix well. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together, then stir in dried fruit and nuts. Add to the butter mixture and use a large wooden spoon or clean hands to combine evenly. Transfer to prepared tin, pressing it in firmly. Cook until cake is set and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (10-12 hours, check after 10 hours). Remove from oven and immediately make holes across top of cake with a skewer and pour the ½ cup sherry or brandy over the top. Leave cake in tin until absolutely cold. Will keep for weeks if covered and stored in an airtight container in a cool place.
Annabel says: Christmas cakes celebrate the power of tradition - every family has its own version or variation, which travels from friend to friend and generation to generation. This cake makes a wonderful Christmas gift, and can be cooked as one huge cake, or baked in two smaller tins (reduce the cooking time accordingly - check after 8 hours).
Miraculous Three-Ingredient Christmas Cake
Ready in 1½ hrs + soaking. Makes 1 cake
1kg mixed dried fruit
2½ cups milk
2¾ cups self-raising flour
Icing sugar, to dust (optional)
Place dried fruit in a bowl, cover with milk and leave to soak overnight in the fridge. The next day, preheat oven to 160C fanbake and line a medium (23cm diameter) springform cake tin with baking paper.
Stir flour into fruit mixture until evenly combined and smooth into prepared tin. Bake until it is risen, set and golden and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (check after about 1¼ hours and return to oven for a little longer if needed). Cool in the tin before turning out. Stored in an airtight container, it will keep for 3-4 weeks. If desired, dust with icing sugar just before serving, using paper doily cut-outs or snowflake stencils to create festive patterns.
Annabel says: This cake is unbelievable - just three ingredients and you get a fruity, moist cake. It's not a connoisseur's cake but it more than does the job for almost zero effort and minimal expense, so it's perfect if you're away at the bach or on a shoestring budget. Of course you can add spices to vamp it up. For variations see my blog at annabel-langbein.com/annabel/blog/a-christmas-miracle-cake
Eliza's Fruit Cake
Ready in 2½ hours + soaking. Makes 1 cake
3 cups pitted prunes, halved and soaked overnight in 4 Tbsp brandy or whisky
1 cup sugar
2 cups plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2½ cups mixed dried fruit
2/3 cup finely chopped dried apricots
1 cup raisins or sultanas
¼ cup citrus peel, chopped
60 whole blanched almonds, to decorate
1½ cups ground almonds
½ cup caster sugar
1 beaten egg
Preheat oven to 150C fanbake. Grease a deep 21cm-diameter cake tin and line the base and sides with baking paper. Beat butter and sugar until light and creamy, then beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in flour and baking powder until smooth, then add dried fruit, apricots, raisins or sultanas, citrus peel and soaked prunes and mix until evenly combined. Transfer to prepared tin. Bake for 2 hours or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
While cake is baking, make almond paste by mixing all ingredients. Remove cooked cake from oven and cover with the paste while still in the tin. Decorate with almonds and return to oven until almonds are lightly browned (about 15 minutes).
Annabel says: This is my go-to Christmas cake recipe. The prunes deliver a wonderful, moist texture without overpowering the taste. You can vary the fruit and nuts you use - just make sure you use the same total volume.