A UK-Style Christmas Cake for Dummies...
and Hackers... and Students... and People...
Before embarking upon this epic adventure, a few comments are in order.
Firstly, this is not the 'definitive' Christmas cake. There is no such thing. Many fine cakes derived from superb, varying recipes have been produced over the years, often diversifying according to region. I do not promise to deliver the finest cake in existence. However, if you follow these instructions in a rough, approximate manner (more on this below), I can promise a cake that qualifies as being, at the very least, very bloody good, even approaching exceptional should fate and skill deem it so.
Secondly, depending on your confidence: Improvise at will!
These are guidelines, nothing more. When I said 'roughly' above, I meant it. Depart from the beaten path whenever you feel it is right. Many elements go in to producing the killer cake: It is the result of a balance determined by the ingredients (and proportions thereof), the environment (the oven in question, the baking tin used, the heat settings etc.) and other factors determined by nothing more than personal preference. 'Better' cakes can be achieved by accident as often as by design. If you are inexperienced with making cakes, or have difficulty gauging the consistency, don't worry; following these instructions exactly will reward you with some top-notch scran.
Thirdly, the recipe allows for different options (with regard to both ingredients and preparation) at certain points, but rigid obedience at others, depending upon the point from which you decide to start. These will be mentioned in the text, at the risk of taking the reader on elliptical tangents in the case of the options.
Fourthly, this is not a cute little recipe in a book with soft-focus images and terse, simplistic, beguiling text. If you need a tasty picture of Nigella Lawson to take your mind off the pain; here it is in advance. This a treatise on "how it's actually done". As a result, it's much longer than the average recipe; the hope being to pre-answer a lot of the "How the...?" and "Why...?" questions that the books often throw up, but mysteriously fail to answer. The secrets behind making a great Christmas cake are basic logistics (doing the right things in the right order) and effort.
Fifthly, the question of why to bother learning how to cook your own Christmas cake often arises (possibly even more so here, a site whose readership is mostly male). To begin with, sex doesn't come into it (actually, it does - see later - but that's a different area), so here are some reasons:
- i.) Cakes cooked at home are almost always better than those bought from a shop. They just are. Fact.
- ii.) Learning new skills is always beneficial.
If neither of those points have sold you, this one just might:
- iii.) Women love it. They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. I can testify that the converse is also true. Granted, when you're dealing with a cake packing enough calories and joules to provide the annual power supply of a small country, the women that tend to be impressed exhibit a certain bias toward the ... erm ... Rubenesque (shrivelled celery-gnawers don't dare touch this stuff). However; a.) not all exhibit this bias, and b.) if you've got issues with that, you'll have to seek professional help on your own: I'm a Christmas-cake ninja, not a doctor...
Lastly, you don't have to be Christian (I'm not), or have any particular love for Christmas to enjoy this fare. At a pragmatic level, it is outstanding power-food. If you've got a hard day of physical labour ahead of you, a slice of this stuff will keep the motor turning for hours.
Preparation Time: 1 to 2 hours
Cooking Time: 3 to 7 hours (depending upon technique)
Difficulty: Medium. Plenty of elbow grease required, and some patience, but the rewards and sense of satisfaction are worth it.
- An Oven.
- Measuring Scales.
- A Cake Tin - It should be somewhere in the 9-11 inch (22.8-27.9 centimetre) region, diameter-wise, to match the ingredient measurements below; if not, adjust accordingly. If at all possible, the tin must be a loose-based one, where the tin tapers slightly outwards as it increases in height, and the base can be completely removed by pushing upwards from underneath. If you don't have one of these, it is still possible to make the cake, but vastly more care should be taken when the cake is baking (to ensure it is not burning) and when removing it from the tin (see the note 'WTF am I doing this for?' at the end of the 'Paper Preparation' section below). In practice, it may well be easier to beg, steal, borrow or buy a loose-based tin, rather than deal with the resultant frustrations of trying to use something else.
- Mixing Bowls - Ideally one very large bowl, one large bowl and one medium-sized bowl. It is possible to make the cake with fewer, but you'll save yourself a lot of hassle if you can muster up these three containers from somewhere. All bowls except the 'very-large' one can be replaced with other containers (tupperware / large saucepans etc.) if necessary.
- A Small Measuring Jug - This can be replaced by one small bowl (cereal-bowl-sized is sufficient) or even a pint glass or beaker if necessary. A jug is better as it aids pouring, but is not compulsory.
- A Cheese-grater (with an area for 'fine' grating).
- Utensils - sharp knives, wooden spoons, a fork or whisk, a chopping board, scissors, string and a pencil.
- A Food Processor - Completely optional, and is not required at all if you buy your almonds (see ingredients) already having been ground.
- Brown Paper - A 'decent' amount: 1 metre x 1 metre probably won't suffice. 1 metre x 2 metres is better. You won't need any single piece wider than just over twice the height of the sides of the tin, so don't worry about exact measurements.
- Grease-proof Paper - Same amount as of brown paper.
- A long, thin Needle or Pin - The longer and thinner, the better.
- Some spare Butter or Margarine - This is not listed under 'Ingredients' as it is to be used for cake tin greasing, and not cooking.
As with any large project, it is useful to think of this enterprise as smaller stages which then come together to form the final whole. To avoid confusion, the ingredients are listed here in terms of their 'stages'. This should make them easier to keep track of when it comes to the 'making' itself.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In the interests of avoiding any mistakes of the Mars-Climate-Orbiter variety, the following measurements are predominantly in imperial, but the metric equivalents are also supplied. An idiosyncratic caveat is that the U.K. tablespoon measure is larger than the U.S. equivalent, but the opposite is true for the teaspoon measurement. Also: millilitre (ml) is exactly the same as cubic centimetre (cc). All measurements are represented in U.K. values, and the relative metric conversions have been derived from onlineconversion.com.
The 'Powder' Stage:
- 12 oz (340 g) Plain Flour.
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) Cinnamon - Use a 'heaped' teaspoon here if you'd like a slightly spicier cake - I tend to.
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) Ground Mixed Spice - If you cannot get this, it is essentially an equal blend of Cinnamon, Coriander, Clove, Nutmeg, Pimento and Ginger, all ground into a fine powder. Again; use a 'heaped' teaspoon to boost the spice factor.
- 0.5 teaspoon (2.5 ml) Salt - The finer the better. If you have a penchant for rock or sea salt, grind it up first.
The 'Fruit' Stage:
- 2 lbs (907 g) Dried Fruit - This is one of the places where you can go wild if you're feeling adventurous. Here, I would recommend: 1 lb (453 g) Currants; 8 oz (227 g) Raisins and 8 oz (227 g) Sultanas. This will give you an awesome cake, but dried apricots (chopped), pineapple (chopped), as well as anything you feel like using, are all viable alternatives. The only condition is that any alternatives you use must be pared down into units no larger than a medium-sized grape, and preferably much smaller (raisin-sized). If any of the cut-down individual masses is too sticky, roll them in a light dusting of flour to take the edge off, or rinse them under a cold tap for several minutes and leave them to dry in a warm (hygienic!) location. An additional (and very optional) embellishment is to weigh, prepare and mix together this dried fruit the night before cooking, and leave it to soak overnight in a large bowl (reasonably full) of your favourite cake-friendly alcoholic beverage. Recommendations for this include brandy and sherry.
- 4 oz (114 g) of Glacé Cherries.
- 4 oz (114 g) of Italian Mixed Peel, also known as Candied Peel.
- 4 oz (114 g) of Blanched Almonds. This is another area where experimentation is possible. If you're a creature of the 'easy life', get hold of a packet of Ground Almonds, as these are all you need, and will serve you admirably. The more adventurous can try preparing their own almonds in numerous ways. One recommendation is to bake or grill the almonds (optionally coating in a thin sugar glaze first) before grinding in a food processor: This will give them a toasty-roasty taste and texture. Whatever you do, aim to end up with ground almond pieces anywhere between a bread crumb and a small peanut in size (according to taste).
- 1 Lemon.
The 'Juice' Stage:
- 4 medium-sized Eggs.
- 5 tablespoons (93 ml) of 'Juice' - In this context, 'Juice' denotes 'your favourite hooch'. Classical 'Juice' is usually one of Sherry, Brandy, Port or Scotch, depending on your palette. Sherry and Port will result in a sweeter cake mix, whereas Brandy and Scotch will have a more refined, bitter edge. I'd steer away from using pure Scotch (much as I love the stuff) as this tends to result in a cake that edges just a shade too far towards the 'sour' end of the spectrum. The 'Juice' does not have to consist of just one type of drink. Good cake-oriented 'Juice' blends include 4-parts-brandy-to-one-part-scotch and four-parts-sherry-to-one-part-port, but it's your cake: go nuts! For serving Presidents, and others of restraint, Milk will serve
just almost as well.
The 'Gak' Stage:
- 8 oz (227 g) of Butter or Margarine.
- 8 oz (227 g) of Sugar - Granulated and Caster sugar will work wonderfully but, if you can, get your hands on some Demerara, as this gives the finest end result.
- 1 tablespoon (~20 ml) Dark Treacle AKA Molasses
There are a handful of (pretty damn tedious and aggravating) tasks which are easier to get out of the way before diving headlong into cookery.
This preparation relates to the loose-based cake tin mentioned earlier. Notes for other tin types and why these shenanigans are necessary are at the end of this section. This part can get pretty damn frustrating, so attempt to maintain a Zen-like calm or, better still, grab an extra pair of helping hands from somewhere. This is the trickiest aspect of the whole deal: If you nail this one, it's all downhill afterwards.
1.) Remove the base from the cake tin and place it face-down on the brown paper. Using the base as a template, draw around it with the pencil to make a perfect circle. Repeat this so that you have two non-overlapping circles. You can score these circles with scissors or an appropriate implement if the pencil-graphite worries you. Cut them out so that you have two circular shapes of brown paper the same size as the cake tin base.
2.) Roughly measure the height of the cake tin, add at least two inches (five makes life easier), and double it; so that if your tin is seven inches high, your final figure should be at least 18 inches, and ideally 24 inches. Now; cut an oblong of grease-proof paper with a height of the figure you just calculated, and long enough to stretch around the circumference of the tin with a bit of overlap. Fold this piece of cut paper in half lengthwise.
3.) Cut a rough square of grease-proof paper far larger than the base of the cake tin (which should not have been put back into the cake tin itself - if it has, take it out again). Place the two circles of brown paper that you cut previously on to the base of the tin, in place, and lay this new sheet of grease-proof paper over the top. Fold back the overlapping edges of this grease-proof sheet under the bottom of the circular base and force a folded ridge around the edges so that you have two layers of brown paper and a layer of grease-proof paper between the base's 'cooking face' and the outside world with the grease-proof paper wrapped around and folded back underneath.
4.) Using butter or margarine (not the stuff from the 'Ingredients' section) lightly grease the insides of the cake tin, but not the separated base. This grease is not there to help directly with cooking, but to help keep some grease-proof paper in place for the next tricky section. Now; take the folded oblong of grease-proof paper you just cut, and line the inside of the tin with it until it overlaps (this sounds far easier than it actually is). Hopefully, the grease should help it stick. Because the tin is slightly conical / tapered, this paper won't fit flushly and keep a perfect 'hoop'; the best you can manage is an off-centre fold-over whereby the extra width you calculated earlier still allows the whole of the tin's walls' inner sides to be double-lined. Now for the really tricky part...
5.) As soon as you have the above structure temporarily in place, take the prepared cake tin base (keeping its wrapper snare-skin tight) and place it back in the tin, disturbing your pre-arranged grease-proof wallpaper as little as possible. Once you get it even half-right, decide if "It'll do". If the jerry-built construction can be cut or resculpted in any way to make it fit, then contemplate doing so: We're after function here, not fashion.
IMPORTANT: The aim of this whole stupid endeavour is to end up with a fully reconstructed cake tin whereby the walls are completely doubled-lined with grease-proof paper and the base is completely triple-lined (two layers of brown paper and a top layer of grease-proof paper) thus heat-shielding every single part of the cake mixture from any contact with the metal of the cake-tin itself. This is the easiest way of doing it that I have found. If you have better luck with any other method; go for it. The catch-phrase of this section is "By any means necessary..."
6.) The difficulty of step 5 over, all that remains is more 'gift-wrapping'. Cut a rectangle of brown paper the same size and shape as the rectangle of grease-proof paper that you cut in step 2. Fold it in half along its length. Wrap this 'belt' around the outside of the cake tin and tie it in place using a length of the string. You're after genuine natural string and not nylon-based synthetics: Nylon melts...
If you are having problems tying the string tight enough, a good trick is to use the cake tin's taper to your advantage. Tie the string as tight as you can manage towards the bottom edge of the cake tin; you can then manipulate the string loop up towards half-way, and it will naturally tighten as the diameter of the tin increases. If there is any gratuitous excess paper above or below the line of cake tin, feel free to use the scissors to cut it away, but try to keep two extra inches of paper above the tin for shielding puposes. Just trim enough in order to get the tin to stand up properly. When all that is achieved, lightly (but thoroughly) grease the grease-proof-paper-covered walls and base of the inside of the tin with butter or margarine.
Alternative Method: Instead of trying to hoop-line the insides of the tin as described in Step 4, there is an easier way if grease-proof paper is present in abundance. Cut a very long strip of paper (sometimes more than 12 feet) and wrap it around the 'hoop' of the tin (like a tennis player replacing a 'grip'), both inside and out, all the way round until the whole thing is covered. The difference with this method is that you: have to cut this wrapping away after baking; have to make sure that every point is at least double-lined, and ensure that it is not wrapped so thickly as to make it impossible to get the base back in.
"WTF am I doing this for?"
Good question. The answer lies in the fact that sugar, butter, fruit and alcohol all burn incredibly easily, and this cake has much higher quantities and proportions of all of them than most others. The aim of this process is to shield the cake tin from the direct heat of the oven, whilst at the same time shielding the cake itself from the direct heat of the tin so that it bakes in a uniform manner. There are also benefits in terms of damage-to-the-tin, easy cake extraction, grease absorption, basic insulation and protection-for-humans. For these reasons, it is much harder to make this cake using other styles of tin. It is possible, but you have to engage in 'creative lining'. Recent tins have been designed with this in mind. Having not used one, I couldn't comment as to their efficacy. What is certain is that, if you use the lining outlined above, the baking process should go smoothly every time.
The remaining preparation simply involves getting the Glacé cherries and lemon into a usable state.
Preparing the cherries is a monotonous task. All that needs to be done is for each cherry to be chopped up. You can use the cherries whole if you like, but this will leave them sparsely scattered throughout the cake, and eating a complete cherry in one bite is a bit much for any 'eater'. They need to chopped into between 4 and 8 pieces each. 6 is a good compromise between size and distribution. I'd caution against using a food processor for this task: The size of the resultant pieces is hard to predict (If you think you can, go for your life).
The only part of the lemon we're interested in is the zest, or rind. Using the cheese grater on a fine setting (a carpenters 'rasp' can be creatively employed here instead), grate the rind of the lemon into a bowl. Stop when the surface is mostly white (i.e. you're taking the pith).
IN THE MIX
The time has come to switch into 'full cookery mode'. After the chicanery of preparing the cake tin, most of this is very simple. To make things easier, I will refer to the three mixing bowls mentioned in the 'Hardware' section above as follows: The 'very-large' bowl will be called the 'V bowl'; the large bowl will be the 'L bowl', and the medium bowl the 'M bowl' (let nobody claim this website is lacking in creative thought!).
The basic process involves mixing all the 'stages' into separate containers, and then blending these together.
1.) Powder: Sieve together the Powder Stage ingredients into the M bowl. If you think they've not mixed enough, mix them up some more in situ using a fork, whisk or wooden spoon. Don't worry too much about preserving the purity of their sieved state; we can sieve them more later if need be.
2.) Fruit: Wash your hands. Put the lemon zest, the chopped Glacé cherries and all the other members of the Fruit Stage into the L bowl. Using your spotless hands, mix them thoroughly until all the varying types of fruit and nuts are evenly distributed amongst each other. If your bowl is large enough, once you have them 'slightly' mixed-up, you can continue by using a wooden spoon.
3.) 'Juice': Break the four eggs into the small measuring jug. Whisk them together using your favourite utensil. Some may prefer a whisk, but a fork is often easier and quicker, especially if you are blessed with the svelte wrist-action of a connoisseur (i.e. the denizens of the Diary-Ghetto). You are not aiming for 'frothy', just 'blended'. Once the eggs are mixed, pour in your 'Juice'. A little excess is not to be worried about. Whisk the mixture until even.
4.) Gak: This section can require a significant amount of energy expenditure. From this point forth, all the extra physical effort you care to exert will reap dividends. If you think you can get something more even despite the fact you've been mixing non-stop for fifteen minutes, do so.
Place all the Gak Stage ingredients in the V bowl. Eventually, everything ends up in here, but don't do that yet.
Adding the treacle / molasses requires some patience as its tarry nature makes it pretty hard to measure accurately so there are two options.
One: When making the cake, either pour off one chunky tablespoonful and wait for Halley's Comet to return (it'll take that long for the stuff to completely drain into the bowl) or...
Two: Tip in the immediately-droppable part of one spoonful and then, without waiting, tip in another (you can rinse the spoon under a hot tap, or leave it to drain back into its tin / jar afterwards): This will result in approximately the same amount actually getting into the mix.
You should have a gloopy-looking mess consisting of the majority of a block of butter, a fistful of sugar, and some brown tar-like gunk. Using a combination of a fork and a wooden spoon begin to pound, mash and blend this mess until it slowly becomes an even, consistent, granular brown cream. This can take some time. Whatever you do, do not 'pop it in the microwave' to make the butter easier to blend: This can ruin both the taste and the consistency. Keep going until it's as well-blended and creamy as possible. This stage is much easier if you are using margarine, but doesn't end up tasting quite as nice.
5.) 'The Switch': Add fractions of both the Powder and Juice mixtures into the V bowl (containing the Gak mix) and thoroughly blend it together before adding each subsequent fraction. This can seem frustrating, but it is the best way to get a smooth, productive cake mix. I'd recommend doing it in four or five stages so that, in effect, you're adding a quarter of each mixture each time before blending. Patience pays off here. Keep going until all of the three mixtures are blended together in a smooth-ish, brown, rich cream. Stick a (clean) finger in and taste it. Sweeeeeet, huh? Good; we're in business...
6.) The only thing left is to mix in the fruit. Do it slowly, a bit at a time. The end product should have a consistency somewhat similar to partially-dried cement. If, using a normal wooden spoon, you can pick up a chunk about the size of a small grapefruit (the sticky texture holding it together) you're where you want to be. Using a wooden spoon, transfer the mixture into the pre-built cake-tin construction. When it's completely transferred, spread and smooth it down so that it properly fills the tin and has a fairly flat surface. Don't compact or flatten it too much., though.
There are a number of ways to bake this baby, depending upon your taste, time and oven. I'll outline three methods here: Fast, medium and slow. These methods should work well enough, but experiment to get it right. It's your oven; adjust accordingly. If you are using a fan oven, decrease the following temperatures appropriately; this recipe originates from a time before such devices existed.
Baking this cake is very much a 'play it by ear' scenario. There are no hard and fast rules. Check it periodically, to tell if it's done. If you've gone overboard with the 'liquid contents', it will need to be cooked for longer, and probably on a lower heat to stop it burning.
The definition of 'done' here is contingent upon your taste. At the very least, the cake should be firm, well-baked, a dark golden-brown, and spring back with healthy resistance when the top is gently depressed. Stick a thin knife into the centre: If any cake-mix residue is visible on the blade after pulling it back out, it needs a bit longer (currant / raisin juice / residue is ok - there will always be some of this, unless you bake it to charcoal). The cake works well whether gently or heavily cooked. Some people like a rich, burned ochre-ish taste, in which case you leave it for a bit longer.
WARNING: If you have a gas (naked-flame) oven, be sure to keep the tin a fair distance from the blue flame itself; both brown paper and string are rather partial to combustion under the right conditions.
Fast Method (3 to 4 hours)
- Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F).
- Bake at this temperature for one and a half hours.
- Turn the oven down to 135°C (275°F) and bake for a further one and a half to two and a half hours, checking occasionally.
Medium Method (3.5 to 5 hours)
- Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F).
- Bake at this temperature for one and a half hours.
- Turn the oven down to 120°C (250°F) and bake for a further two to three and a half hours, checking occasionally.
Slow Method (4.5 to 7 hours)
- Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F).
- Bake at this temperature for 45 minutes.
- Turn the oven right down to 90-100°C (195-212°F) and bake for as long as it takes. This will usually be in the 5 to 6.5 hour region, sometimes longer.
When the cake is cooked, remove from the oven and leave to stand for two or three hours. When moderately cool, gently bash the base of the tin from underneath until the cake starts to emerge. Unwrap any paper that may have come with it; carefully peel off the base and leave on a wire-mesh cake-rack (if you have one - a plate will do otherwise) to air and cool completely.
So you have your cake; what now?
In the traditional scenario, this cake is baked three weeks prior to when it is to be eaten (Seriously: Don't worry about this - it tastes awesome the next day). In this (or a similar) circumstance, wrap the cake in tin foil and, optionally, store it in a cake tin. If your tastes tend towards the ... erm ... boozy, pierce the top of the cake (not the foil) 10 to 20 times with the long pin and pour a dram of your favourite libation evenly over the top, allowing it to sink in. Repack in foil and store. Add a dram in this manner every three or four days until the cake is to be eaten.
Many people like icing and marzipan on their cakes. Information on how to do this can be found at various places online.
Optionally, you can forget about all that stuff and just eat it.