Skye McAlpine says it’s a great choice for beginners.
There’s a long custom of making Christmas cakes months in advance of the big day. Veterans of the practice bake their blends of eggs, flour, butter, dried fruits and spices up to three months early and feed the cake with regular doses of rum, brandy or sherry.
But this year, when many firsttimers are dabbling in baking and feel ready for a festive challenge, should they worry there now isn’t enough time to make a decent cake?
The truth is it’s almost never too late. What’s more, though the ingredients are expensive, a fruit cake is hard to mess up.
“It’s the hardiest cake,” explains food writer Skye McAlpine, who makes about 20 of them as gifts to friends and family every year and includes her mother’s recipe in her recent book A Table for Friends.
“There’s a tradition of making them months in advance,” she tells i, “but I’ve made them the week before Christmas and given them to people three days later. It’s the best cake for beginners, as you can’t go wrong. I’ve even forgotten to put in the eggs and it was still OK.”
McAlpine clarifies she’s not recommending you forget the eggs, but Christmas cakes are surprisingly resilient. If you leave the fruit soaking for longer than the recipe states, no problem. If you have no time for a long soak, the result is less rich, but who’s judging?
McAlpine’s recipe gets round the issue of feeding a cake over time by including lots of brandy, 300ml. She advises soaking the fruit for 24 to 48 hours. “I don’t think you can put too much brandy in,” she says.
“Christmas cakes are a good entry bake for new bakers,” agrees David Atherton, winner of The Great British Bake Off 2019 and author of My First Cook Book. “You don’t have to worry about the cake collapsing from badly whisked egg whites, or getting the right consistency of a choux pastry batter. It is a robust cake that is very forgiving.”
Another Bake Off alumna, Chetna Makan, has adapted her festive cake to a fresher, lighter version her family prefers. “I usually make it just before Christmas with less fruit and a little spice, so you get a bit of sponge in there as well,” she says.
“For new bakers, don’t be scared. It’s like any other cake, and you don’t have to make it months in advance.”
Hannah Bingham, a 41-year-old fashion designer from Kent, is a novice baker inspired by McAlpine’s recipe and the candied fruits on sale at Macknade in Faversham. She’s making four and will send some as gifts - to Nana in Wales, her parents in Cambridge who’ve been isolating since the first lockdown, and her husband’s family in Chislehurst.
“I’m ashamed I haven’t made one since helping Nana out as a child,” she says. “She lives for jellied fruits, so this will be a welcome gift.”
Atherton isn’t making a cake this year as his mother has baked his. She’ll put it in the post for him to finish with a marzipan topping. “I like a heady rich dark fruit cake, but I also like a lighter cake with spices,” he says. “The most important part is a thick layer of marzipan and alcohol-soaked fruit.”
McAlpine’s cake is also topped in marzipan, then laden with nuts and crystallised fruit, which are expensive but she recommends buying baby pears, figs, peaches, apricots and orange slices from Country Products. “Christmas feels like the one time when extravagance is de rigueur,” she points out.
Skye McAlpine’s Christmas cake with marzipan and glacé fruits
Servings: 8-10 Hands-on time: 30 minutes Hands-off time: 24-48 hours soaking; 4.5 hours baking; 4 hours cooling
For the cake 100g glacé cherries, halved 100g mixed peel 225g currants 225g raisins 225g sultanas 300ml brandy 250g salted butter, plus extra for the tin 250g dark muscovado sugar 2 tbsp black treacle 5 eggs 1 tsp mixed spice 2 tsp ground nutmeg 250g self-raising flour A large pinch of fine sea salt For the decoration 200g marzipan 100g apricot jam 1 tbsp water A selection of glacé fruits and nuts
Put the glacé cherries, peel, currants, raisins and sultanas in a large bowl, pour over the brandy, cover and leave to steep for 24 to 48 hours. The longer you leave the fruit, the more flavour and moisture it will give to the cake.
When you are ready to make the cake, heat the oven to 140°C/fan 120°C/Gas 1. Butter and double-line a 23cm round cake tin, then cut a circle of greaseproof paper the same size as the base of the tin and set aside.
Beat together the butter and sugar until they become paler and fluffy, then add the treacle and beat until smooth. Crack each egg at a time into a small bowl, beat lightly with a fork, then add to the mixture, little by little, and beat until well combined. Now sift in the spices, flour and salt and mix with a wooden spoon until well combined. Finally, add the fruit and any remaining soaking liquid and mix well together.
Spoon the batter into the prepared tin and gently even out the top with the back of the spoon. Cover with the circle of greaseproof paper and set it on the bottom shelf of the oven to bake for 4.5 hours. The cake is cooked when a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to cool in its tin. You can make the cake up to this point months in advance if you like, and store wrapped in foil.
To decorate the cake, roll the marzipan out into a sheet roughly as thick as a £1 coin. Cut out a circle of marzipan the same diameter as the cake. Spoon the jam into a small saucepan, add the measured water and set over a medium heat until it begins to bubble lightly. Use a pastry brush to glaze the top of the cake, then carefully lay the circle of marzipan over.
Brush the glaze over the marzipan and, while it is still tacky, stick on glacé fruits and nuts, arranging them as you like. I usually do this in concentric circles, with nuts on the outside and a collection of cherries, whole orange slices and a couple of tiny sugared pears and a plum half or so at the centre. Finally, use what is left of the apricot jam to glaze the nuts and fruits, to give them a lovely shine. The cake will keep happily like this for two to three weeks.
Three to buy
M&S Collection perfectly matured rich fruit cake, £15, 1.55kg
The BBC Good Food team blindtested 150 products and recommends this one as “rich and treacly, with a perfect amount of spice”.
Waitrose No. 1 Rich Fruit Christmas Cake, £16, 1.3kg
Voted Olive magazine’s favourite this year, this spiced cake (right) made with French brandy has matured for six months and is decorated with marzipan and icing layers, and hand-finished with sugar stars and icicles.
Cake or Death Christmas Selection Box, £19 for six
Still not sold on fruit cake? Here’s a vegan option and an easy way to send cakes as a gift. Cake or Death sends letterbox brownies and has just launched its festive box.