Since moving to the US I generally don’t allow myself to get excited about Christmas until after Thanksgiving (although I’ll admit I did experience a certain childish thrill when I realized Starbucks had started using their Christmas-themed cups, even though it was still October!). There is one very necessary exception however, because now is the perfect time to make a traditional English Christmas cake. So this weekend all rules were broken, the brandy came out, and Sinatra’s holiday tunes were blasted unashamedly around the house!
Those not familiar with English Christmas cakes may think it unusual that I am baking one over in a month in advance of the big event. But these rich fruit-laden cakes need time to mature. To be lovingly fed with brandy each week and then wrapped up tight again for the fruit to absorb the liquor and for the flavors of the cake to develop. Preserving sweet treats in alcohol is something that we English have done well for centuries. Be it Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, or the sweet mincemeat for mince pies – to me, these are the quintessential flavors of the holiday season.
It’s come to my attention that many Americans, my partner included, hold a vague suspicion of fruit cakes – and particularly any baked good that you have to leave for a good few weeks before eating. But I must emphasize that this cake doesn’t end up resembling a hard crumbling brick that would be better suited to self defense. By the time Christmas comes around these cakes are incredibly moist and have a pleasing brandy perfume. Served in thin slices, it’s wonderful on its own but also makes a particularly delicious accompaniment to a good cave-aged cheddar (Union Market in Park Slope sells a very good English one).
This is a fourth generation family recipe. It differs from others I’ve seen as it doesn’t include treacle and uses self-raising flour, meaning it makes a slightly lighter cake on eating. Also we never ice our cake, which is definitely unusual as most cake-makers take the opportunity to drape with marzipan and royal icing, and then adorn with little plastic trees and reindeers to recreate little snow scenes. You can certainly do this here if that is your preference.
Nuts and candied peel are also omitted mainly due to the fact that the children in the family (including myself a few years ago) viewed such things as essentially evil. Similarly, candied cherries were added because everyone loves them to this day. You can’t tell me that you wouldn’t be secretly hoping to receive a slice with a cherry in it!
You need to start this recipe the night before by soaking the fruit in brandy overnight and then, the next day, the cake needs about four hours in the oven. So this is the perfect activity for a cold, lazy November weekend when you can look forward to the smells of Christmas wafting throughout the house. And what a wonderful excuse for sneaking a pre-Christmas tipple from the brandy bottle!
TYT’s Traditional English Christmas Cake
Makes one 8-inch round cake or one 7-inch square cake (better for slicing in my opinion).
The night before you plan to bake the cake, place 8 oz currants, 8 oz raisins, 8 oz golden raisins, and 4 oz candied cherries in a large bowl. Add 4 tbsp brandy and mix well so all the fruit is glistening. Cover with plastic wrap and leave overnight for the fruit to become plump.
When you are ready to make the cake, preheat the oven to 275F/140C/Gas Mark 1.
Grease and line your tin with baking parchment. The paper should stand up about 2 inches higher than the side of the tin. You will also need to a cover the top of the cake with a double layer of parchment. Cut out the right size shape and then cut a hole in the middle about the size of a quarter to allow the steam to escape. Finally, wrap the outside of the tin with brown paper and secure with string. This again should stand about 2 inches above the height of the tin. All of this work will help prevent the cake from scorching during the long hours in the oven.
Cream 8 oz butter and 8 oz soft brown sugar together in a bowl. When pale and fluffy add all the soaked fruit and mix well.
In another bowl, mix 8 oz all-purpose flour, 3 tsp baking powder, a pinch of salt (all this makes self-raising flour), 4 oz ground almonds, 1 tsp nutmeg, and 1 tsp of pumpkin spice (or mixed spice, if you can get it).
In a jug, beat 4 eggs with 1 tsp almond essence and 3 tbsp brandy.
Add the egg mixture and the flour mixture alternately to the butter and sugar mixture and mix between each addition. This will ensure the mixture doesn’t curdle. The cake mixture does get quite stiff towards the end and so if you are not using a stand mixer you might find it easier to just use your hands.
Spoon the mixture into your prepared cake tin and smooth the surface using the back of the spoon.
Place the double thickness of baking parchment on top of the cake and make sure all other paper is secure.
Place on the bottom shelf of the oven for 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Do not open the oven until 3 1/2 hours have passed. To check if it is done, pierce with a skewer. If it comes out clean then the cake is done.
Leave the cake to cool in the tin for 20 mins and then turn out onto a wire rack. Don’t worry if it looks a little well done around the edges despite your best cake-wrapping efforts – I can tell you from experience that these will soften up with the subsequent additions of brandy.
When the cake is completely cool, wrap well in a double layer of greaseproof paper and store in an airtight cake tin. I really don’t think you can wrap the cake too well at this point, so I often follow the greaseproof paper with a layer of aluminum foil and then place the cake in a plastic bag secured with elastic bands.
Approximately once a week until Christmas, unwrap the cake and pierce all over with a darning needle. Trickle teaspoons of brandy into the cake (no hard and fast rules here on how much), then wrap the cake back up again very tightly.
When ready to eat, slice into thin wedges (if you baked a round cake) or slices (if square) and serve with a tipple of brandy or dry sherry, and slivers of a very mature, cave-aged cheddar. Christmas bliss!