Thursday, November 19, 2009

Melbourne Larder Christmas cake

When I started planning to make my Christmas cake, I didn't factor in the weather. I imagine that it would wonderfully comforting at this time of year in cold England to have an oven emitting warmth and a kitchen filled with spicy aromas as a fruit cake gently cooks in the oven, but it is definitely the wrong thing to be doing in a hot Australian kitchen when the temperature is already 30 degrees at 7am.

But the dried fruit had been macerating in Irish whisky for three days and I couldn't put off the baking any longer. It was time to whisk up the cake batter and turn on the air-conditioner and let my cake bake slowly for three hours.

Fruit cakes seem to have fallen out of favour over recent years. I know very few people who still bake a Christmas cake every year. Fruit cake is certainly not glamorous or showy like a chocolate or celebration cake but it does have a certain richness and comfort factor. A rich cake densely studded with plump fruit and nuts and laced with alcohol is a delicious afternoon treat with a cup of tea, especially in winter. And, although it is not ideally suited for a hot Australian summer, fruit cake has a Christmassy air about it to me. I confess that my favourite Christmas treat is now a slice of spicy, chocolatey panforte but I still have a soft spot for a good old-fashioned Christmas cake.

In Christmas 2007, after reading through my collection of fruit cake recipes, I came up with my own version, which was a hit with the family. Most fruit cakes are quite similar - it's a matter of choosing your preferred dried fruit and then working out the proportions of butter, sugar, eggs, flour and spices for the cake batter.

People often think they need to set aside a large portion of time to make a Christmas cake. However, the cake is actually very easy to make and just requires preparation and forward planning in order to allow time to macerate the fruit and then to bake the cake. Long, slow baking is the key that turns the thick batter into a rich, dense cake. The other secret is to line the cake tin with brown paper to help protect the cake from drying out through its long cooking time.

Melbourne Larder Christmas cake

250g sultanas
250g currants
250g raisins
60g prunes
100g dates
100g dried apricots
100g glace cherries
300g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
250g butter
250g brown sugar
4 eggs
150ml brandy (or sherry, port or whisky)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon golden syrup
zest of 1 lemon

Soak dried fruit in 100ml brandy overnight. (This year I soaked the fruit in 150ml Irish whisky for three days in the fridge and this gave a deeper, mellower flavour. If you have time, I recommend this; but the cake will still taste fine if you only macerate the fruit overnight.)

The next day, pre-heat the oven to 150 degrees and sift together the flour, baking powder and spices.

Cream the butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and flour mix alternately. Lastly mix in the vanilla extract, soaked fruit, golden syrup and lemon zest.

Turn into a lined 20cm square cake tin.* Scoop centre into a light hollow to allow for rising. Place whole blanched almonds in a pattern around the edges of the cake. I sometimes make a little flower pattern in the centre as well.

Bake for 2 to 3 hours (cover with foil if the top is browning too much). Remove from oven and drizzle over the extra 50ml brandy. Cool completely in the tin and then turn out. Wrap the cake in several layers of greaseproof paper and then in foil and store in an airtight tin in a cool place until Christmas.

* The base and sides of the cake tin are lined twice - with brown paper and greaseproof paper. Lay two sheets of brown paper onto the bench, making sure it is larger than the tin. Trace around the base of the tin and then cut diagonally in from the sides to the base-line. This will allow the paper to fold neatly into the tin with no cracks for the cake to leak through. Repeat with a sheet of greaseproof paper.


penny aka jeroxie said...

This is a beautiful cake. I cannot imagine baking in such heat. I may attempt to make my own this year if my kitchen is ready in time.

Melinda said...

Thank you Penny! It is annoying to have the oven on for so long in such heat but it is definitely worth it, especially when you take that first nibble of cake.