It’s not too late to bake a Christmas cake
When it comes to Christmas, I’m a planner; but if you haven’t started your cake yet, don’t despair. There’s still time, so here’s a recipe for you. All you need at this late stage is to feed your mixture regularly over the next three weeks with a bit of alcohol. Some people prefer brandy – I’m a cognac man.
I do like to give my Christmas cake a bit of a lift by adding tangerines or mandarin oranges – and their zest. That, for me, is the authentic taste and smell of Christmas. This recipe might seem a bit overwhelming, so adjust it to what you like. The key thing is plenty of fruit.
The part of making a Christmas cake I really enjoy is the decorating. One favourite design of mine is to use the cake as a base. Imagine it is the mattress of a bed. To add taste and flavour, you can spread that base with some jam – apricot is traditional, but choose whatever variety you like. Then place on top of the mattress a marzipan layer, which becomes the bed’s undersheet. Next, out of sugar paste, make some small cones. These are the mice heads. Add ears and paint on their whiskers and noses, then lay them at one edge of the undersheet and cover their base with a duvet made of sugar paste.
One year, I painted the duvet in patterned squares, put a layer of chocolate around the cake’s edges and scored it to look like floor boards, then scattered it with presents and slippers, again made out of sugar paste. It wasn’t quick to make, I’ll admit. Over a week, I must have spent a couple of hours a day on it, but it was such good fun. I kept being tempted to add one more detail – build a fireplace with chocolate sticks as logs, for example – but had to remind myself of my Great British Bake Off rule about style getting the better of substance.
Some people, of course, complain that Christmas cake just sits around uneaten for weeks with no takers. As a flourless alternative, why not consider a Sachertorte – a dense chocolate cake – then fill it in the centre with crushed raspberries. Take care with the chocolate and cream mixture of the ganache; you’re after a highshine glaze. When you cut into it, the combination of the chocolate and raspberries hidden by the ganache is so delicious I guarantee it won’t sit around for more than a few days. And if by chance it does, I’ve kept one in the fridge for up to seven days.
I tend to start my mince pies on about December 15. Remember, it’s the pastry that’s important, Makes at least 16 slices Preparation: 1 hour, plus pre-soaking fruit Bake 3–3.5 hours This is a classic, richly fruited Christmas cake — deliciously moist and substantial. It tastes wonderful just as it is, but of course the addition of marzipan and snowy white icing make it much more festive and spectacular. You can either make your own marzipan, or use a goodquality bought one. The same goes for the icing. 450g sultanas 225g raisins 225g dried apricots, chopped 115g prunes, chopped 55g glacé pineapple 225g glacé cherries, chopped 225g chopped candied peel 115g blanched almonds, toasted and very roughly chopped Finely grated zest and juice of 1 orange 70ml brandy 225g unsalted butter, softened 200g light muscovado sugar 5 large eggs 280g plain flour To finish 2 tbsp apricot jam 500g ready-made marzipan Icing sugar for dusting 500g ready-to-roll royal icing
Combine all the dried and glacé fruit, candied peel and almonds in a large bowl. Add the orange zest and juice, and the brandy. Mix well, cover and leave for several hours or overnight.
Heat your oven to 150C. Line the base and sides of a 20cm round deep cake tin with a double thickness of baking parchment, cutting it so that it stands a good 5cm proud of the top of the tin.
In a very large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together for several minutes until pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a little of the flour with each to prevent the mixture from splitting. Stir in the fruit mixture. Sift the remaining flour over the mixture and fold in, using a large metal spoon. Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin and then level the surface.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 3 hours, then check by inserting a skewer into the centre — if it comes out clean, the cake is cooked. If not, give the cake a further 15–30 minutes.
Leave the cake to cool before removing it from the tin.
When your cake is completely cooled — and ideally after a couple of days — you can marzipan and ice it. Warmthe apricot jam gently in a saucepan with a splash of water to thin it down, sieve, then brush all over the cake.
Roll out 300g of the marzipan to a large circle about4mmthick. Using the cake tin as a guide, cut a round of marzipan to fit the top of the cake and position it. Roll out the other 200g marzipan with the trimmings and cut 2 long strips to fit around the side of the cake.
Position these, then smooth the marzipan and mould the edges together.
If you are using ready-toroll icing, roll it out on a surface lightly dusted with icing sugar to a thickness of about 5mm. Lift it over the marzipan, smooth down and trim off the excess at the base.
If you are using homemade royal icing, smooth it over the cake with a palette knife. You can leave it smooth or swirl it into peaks with the back of a spoon or your palette knife, as you choose. Leave for the icing to set.
Wrap a ribbon around the side of your Christmas cake and finish as you wish with festive decorations. not the mincemeat. You can buy decent mincemeat ready made, but you have to get the pastry right. It needs to be very short, sweet crust pastry. Work it so it just comes together, but no more: it is all too easy to overwork it.
Please don’t use one of those shallow baking trays with moulds that only leave room for a dribble of mincemeat. Try a Yorkshire pudding tray instead with good, deep pockets, so you can fit in a spoonful and a half of mincemeat before you reach three-quarters full.
When they are cooked, take the mince pies out of the oven and, just as they are going from hot to warm, serve them with a bit of cream. You should be able to drop your fork onto it and feel it fall through the pastry. No soggy bottoms, please. It’s one of the best Christmas tastes.
If you feel buying your mincemeat is cheating, you can salve your conscience by sprucing it up. That’s what I do. Add a little bit of good cognac. Then take a tart apple, cut it into small squares and fold it through the mincemeat. Next add the zest of a mandarin orange or tangerine. Then take its flesh, chop it up and fold that into the mixture. The fruit and booze will lend a distinctive tang.
Every home and family will have its food traditions at Christmas. Some you continue, some you refine, others you discard. I don’t remember us making a Christmas cake when we were children. My dad worked in a bakery, so he’d just bring one home. But one legacy of my upbringing is always to stick up for custard as against brandy butter or brandy sauce when it comes to what goes best with the Christmas pudding. Custard keeps it beautifully moist.
And – even though I know this will horrify the foodies – I often make my custard from tinned powder. That was the way my nan made it, after all, and we loved it. My brother Lee (now also a baker) liked it so much he’d just have the custard, not the pudding. Not that nan’s methods should always be the last word. She used to wrap up her sixpences in tin foil and put them in her Christmas pudding. You certainly knew when you bit into it. Your head would explode.
But by and large, I’m one who likes to stick to the way I’ve always done things at Christmas. I’m a bit of a stickler with Christmas crackers, too. I like a decent one, with a nice present, but the makeor-break factor for me is the noise it makes. The louder the bang the better, and my market research suggests this is not connected to how much it costs.
And talk of traditions makes me remember the day my mum told me that I’d turned 18, and was too old for a stocking. “You must joking,” I replied.
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry will be presenting a Christmas masterclass on BBC Two on December 17 at 8PM
Peak practice: you can still have a crack at Paul’s Christmas cake recipe