TOAST Magazine

The Making of a Christmas Cake | Claire Thomson

FOOD & DRINK

Chef and food writer Claire Thomson makes a Christmas cake for the very first time.

My mum always, always makes the Christmas cake. Just as her mum did before her, until she became too frail and had to pass on the baton. So it wasn’t surprising that on mentioning I wanted to bake the Christmas cake this year, “for a thing I’m writing”, my mum raised a solitary eyebrow. This isn’t, after all, how it works.

My mum is not in the least bit frail and what’s more she loves the ritual of this particular festive bake, it sets the mood for the month ahead, the cake and the way it is then nurtured along, or “fed”, as my mum puts it, with a thirsty slug of brandy every week, it’s a special countdown to Christmas.

It’s not as if I had to wrestle the recipe from my mum, she gave it willingly in the end, but the transaction was not without rigorous commands to put me in my place and make me aware of the gravity of the task in hand: “be sure to add ginger, but not too much, don’t scrimp on the cherries, buy good ones, and make sure you prepare the tin, preparation is key, you want the cake to last after all!” and so on. I’ve also noted her recipe here in grams, not cups and ounces, because, you know…

So, aged 40 and having forced the opportunity to bake my very first Christmas cake, I’m feeling more than a little excited at the proprietorial, somewhat magisterial, task ahead; it’s almost as if you are in charge of Christmas itself, kickstarting the festivities with heavenly scents of cinnamon, treacle and ginger. 

Smug can have disagreeable connotations, but in the context of baking a Christmas cake, I think it is entirely suitable. I baked this cake on a Sunday with the rain pelting against the kitchen window, strong coffee and the radio on. As the cake baked and the smell drifted out of the kitchen and up through the house, each of the children, my husband too, were bewitched and, like magic, arrived in the kitchen with a “what is THAT smell?”. “It’s Christmas,” I replied with glee.

Begrudgingly, I will pass back the baton to my mum next year; I won’t ask to bake the cake again. It’s her job, and she’s earnt it fair and square. 

Christmas Cake Ingredients

Makes one 23cm cake

425g dried fruit (mixture of raisins, sour dried cherries and dried figs)

120g butter, diced

1 tbsp black treacle

200ml water

200ml brandy

200g sugar

1tsp bicarbonate of soda

300g plain flour

½ tsp ground allspice

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

¼ tsp ground clove

¼ freshly grated whole nutmeg

Good pinch of salt

50g mixed peel

50g crystallised ginger, finely chopped

100g chopped nuts (hazelnuts, almonds and/or walnuts)

2 large eggs, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 175° / gas mark 3

2. Grease a 23cm cake tin and first line the tin with a layer of sturdy tinfoil and second add a layer of greased baking paper for the cake mix to sit in. You want the cake tin to be double lined like so for the coming month when you will be ‘feeding’ the cake with extra brandy.

3. Begin by adding the dried fruit, butter, black treacle, water, brandy, sugar and bicarbonate of soda and bring to a rapid boil in a large saucepan. Turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.

4. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool a little, about 10 minutes.

5. Into the same saucepan, add the flour, spices, mixed peel, crystallised ginger and the nuts. Stir to combine.

6. Lastly, add the eggs and stir to combine.

7. Pour the mix into the prepared tin and place in the hot oven, setting your timer for 1 hour. After an hour in the oven, place a square of tin foil over the cake tin to prevent the cake from catching and continue to cook for a further 30 minutes. The cake is ready when a skewer or knitting needle comes clean out of the cake. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

8. Stored well, wrapped in a double layer of greaseproof paper and a double layer of tin foil, the cake will keep well for up to a month or more. For optimum fudgy, Christmas cake fruitiness, ‘feed’ cake with a little extra brandy. Using a skewer or knitting needle, pierce the top of the cake and add 1 tbsp of brandy to the cake, once a week for a month is ideal. 

This is a boiled fruit cake, densely packed with dry fruit, nuts, candied peel and spices. I would absolutely recommend ‘feeding’ the cake with a little more brandy as suggested to make this cake the decedent Christmas cake it is intended to be.

I have a healthily stocked spice shelf at home and think it always best to replenish your spices little and often. You want the cake to taste of the spices you’ve used after all. Don’t be prudish with spicing, be bold. Freshly grated nutmeg is a must. The ground stuff just does not have the same allure.  

As for decoration, we’re at odds as a family with 1/2 loving marzipan and 1/2 not liking it one little bit. I say use marzipan, it can always be peeled off and passed onto to someone who likes it. We also like to slick a load of marmalade between cake and marzipan to act as beautiful glue. 

As for icing, again, we’re split on this issue as a family, with some licking their lips and some of us (me), peeling it off finding it just too bland and sickly.

And lastly, for the cake decoration proper, we always leave this to the children to do on Christmas Eve. And sure enough, as they’ve gotten older, the cakes have grown in splendour; there is much less comedy these days and certainly less tinsel. 

Words by Claire Thomson. Images by Kim Lightbody.

Claire wears the Seamless Chevron Yoke Sweater in olive/berry and the Needlecord Button Front Skirt in slate blue. Also shown, the Elina Linen Throw in caramel, the Pottery West Breakfast Bowl and the Pottery West Candle Holder in mustard, the Cara Guthrie Small Vase, the Linen Tea Towel in natural and Falcon Enamelware.

To celebrate the annual ritual of making a Christmas cake we would like to know about any inherited family recipes, special ingredients or decorating techniques that you use. Please share below in the comments, and as a thank you we will enter you into a prize draw to win a TOAST Christmas Hamper. The winner will be announced on the 19th December.

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