Christmas cake and cordial
There is nothing like the scent of mixed peel or the wafting aromas of a just-baked Christmas cake to bring memories flooding back.
There is simply nothing like the scent of mixed peel or the wafting aromas of a just-baked Christmas cake to bring memories flooding back. As I immerse myself in the magical world of Christmas baking each year, I often recall one of my first Christmases when my sister and I arrived downstairs early on Christmas morning. We were met with a scene resembling a nativity re-enactment – in the kitchen, my mother was sitting beside the Aga feeding our infant sister, and on an old blanket on the floor just in front of the range, there was a small premature calf, born on my father’s farm in the middle of the night.
As the calf gazed up at us, my sister and I locked eyes. For an instant, the same thought had crossed both our minds – that Santa had brought us a calf. Our fears were quickly dispelled as my mother pointed to the presents beneath the tree in the adjoining room. From our brimful stockings, I remember the hurried excavation of mandarin oranges and glorious bumper boxes of Smarties. These memories amuse me now as I help my own children write their Santa letters, where they duly direct him to various websites and attach serial numbers of the latest gadget they are asking for.
Ever-changing as they may be, there is a warm glow surrounding Christmas memories and they are reignited each year at the very moment the mixing of the Christmas pudding begins. For me, advance preparations start at the end of October when I gather the fruit for the puddings and cakes, the pudding bowls, cake boards and bottles for mulled wine syrup.
This investment of time and careful planning is perhaps what makes the Christmas baking campaign so special. Conversely, it might also be the reason that many people are intimidated by the notion of making their own mince pies and puddings. If the latter is the case and if, for instance, you have never baked your own Christmas cake, I would urge you to make your first – it is one of the easiest and most rewarding things you will ever do. It takes about 30 minutes to mix and make, and a few hours to bake.
Good fruit and all the other ingredients you’ll need are readily available in your local supermarket (I counted five different types of raisins on one shelf last week). Buy fresh spices each year as they lose their pungency – buy small amounts and often. If you want something a little more out of the ordinary, try specialist food stores or health-food shops.
This is our family’s Christmas cake recipe. I have used this recipe more than 100 times with 100 per cent success. I have also made this cake using gluten-free flour and it has turned out perfectly.
750g total weight of dried fruit – your choice of a mix of raisins, sultanas and currants
150g mixed peel
75g prunes, chopped
75g chopped dates
½ apple, grated
30g dark chocolate, grated
75g chopped almonds
75g chopped walnuts
½ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp of mixed spice
Grated rind of ½ a lemon
225g butter, at room temperature
225g brown sugar
¼ tsp bread soda mixed with I tsp of sour milk or butter milk
Soak the fruit in the brandy over night in a bowl covered with a clean tea towel. Stir it occasionally if you are sleepwalking. Line a 23cm round or square tin with two layers of greaseproof paper, extending the paper above the top of the tin.
The next day, mix the grated chocolate, spice, nuts and lemon rind into the soaked fruit.
Cream the butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy. Break in an egg and beat the mixture until it thickens, mix in a little flour, and continue in this way until all the eggs and flour have been added. Stir in the prepared fruit. Lastly, add the bread soda dissolved in the buttermilk and mix thoroughly.
Put the mixture into the prepared tin, and smooth the surface, leaving a slight hollow in the centre. Bake in a preheated oven at 140 degrees/gas mark 1 for the first 20 minutes, and at 130 degrees/gas mark ½ for the next three hours. Resist the temptation to open the oven door for the first three hours. Check after three hours to see if the cake is cooked. I do this by inserting a metal skewer. If the cake is ready, the skewer will come out clean; if not, leave it in the oven for a further 30 minutes, or until you are satisfied that it is baked.
Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 30 minutes, then turn it out on to a wire rack to cool fully. The following day, wrap the cake in greaseproof paper and put it away. I usually turn it upside down and put a heavy book on top to flatten the surface – this makes it easier to ice. Store for at least two to three weeks.
450g ground almonds
450g of caster sugar
A drop of almond essence
1 tbsp brandy
2 eggs, beaten with a fork
1 tbsp apricot jam to brush on the top of the cake
Brush the cake with some heated apricot jam. Mix the almonds and caster sugar together and add the other ingredients until a smooth paste is formed. Turn on to a sugared board, knead well and roll out on a board dusted with icing sugar. Roll it out large enough to cover the entire cake. Gently ease it around the cake and smooth it all over with the palms of your hands. Leave for two days before covering with royal icing.
3 egg whites
675g icing sugar, sifted
1½ tsp glycerine (available from chemists, this prevents the icing from becoming hard and brittle)
Place the egg whites in a spotlessly clean bowl. Whisk them for about two minutes until they are starting to foam. Add the icing sugar, a little at a time. Because of its powdery nature, if you add it all together it will fly all over you and your counter top.
Continue adding the icing sugar until the mixture is stiff and stands in soft peaks, suitable for coating a cake. Now whisk in the glycerine. If you want to pipe the icing, add a little more icing sugar as the icing should be slightly stiffer.
Using a palette knife, spread the icing on top of the cake and then start to cover the sides. For a peaked snow effect, spread the icing all over the cake and then create the peaks with the back of a spoon, pulling it into well-formed peaks. If you want to add decorations, do so at this stage. Leave for 24 hours to dry.
Traditionally, Christmas puddings are made on the Sunday before Advent, which this year falls on November 20th, and is known as Stir-up Sunday. Making your pudding or cake early means it really does benefit from time to mature. The flavour of the spices mellows and deepens, and the fruits plump up and soften.
This recipe was given to me by my auntie Joan. She has been making the pudding for 40 years. The recipe had been handed down by her mother before her, and her mother before that.
This recipe makes three 1.2 litre puddings, and for me this is the perfect size, anything larger takes so much longer to cook. We usually use two over Christmas and keep one for later in the year.
I have been using the Blackrock Irish Stout from Dungarvan Brewing Company for the past few years, with great results.
100g mixed peel
100g glacé cherries
50g ground almonds
150g chopped almonds
50g chopped walnuts
400g fresh breadcrumbs
100g self-raising flour, sieved
200g brown sugar
1 tsp each of ground cinnamon, mixed spice
Half a nutmeg, grated
200g melted butter
500ml bottle of stout.
4 tbsp brandy
1 cooking apple, peeled and grated
Juice and rind of an orange and a lemon
You will need 3 x 1.2litre (two pint) plastic pudding basins and lids, buttered. Also prepare three circles of buttered greaseproof paper, large enough to cover the top of each pudding, with a single pleat down the centre.
Soak the sultanas, raisins, currants and cherries in the brandy and stout overnight; give them a good stir now and then.
The next day or so, mix all the ingredients together until well combined. Divide the mixture between the two bowls and pack it in. Cover with the greaseproof paper, folded, with a pleat in the centre, as the puddings will expand slightly as they cook, then pop the lids on.
Christmas puddings are quite dense because of all the fruit and nuts they contain. Place the puddings in deep roasting tins. Pour boiling water into the tin – the water should come almost half way up the pudding bowl – and cook for three and a half hours in the oven at 100 degrees/gas mark ¼, or in a steamer on top of the cooker. Top up with boiling water as required.
When the cooking time is up, allow to cool and store in a cool dry place. When you want to eat the puddings, steam them for a further one and a half to two hours. Turn them out and flame with brandy.
Each pudding should serve at least six.
I find good quality mixed peel hard to come by so I have been making my own. The fresh, citrusy flavours give a lightness and freshness to cakes, mincemeat and puddings.
For years I made mixed peel using traditional methods, then I found a tiny little newspaper clipping in my late grandmother’s cookbook called Peel for Cooking. This is the simplest recipe ever.
Cut the fruit in half and juice them (keep the juice to make the citrus cordial recipe overleaf). Using a dessert spoon, remove the membrane from the fruit. Finely dice the peel and pack it into a large jar.
I use a one-litre Kilner jar. Pour golden syrup over the peel, until the jar is full. Leave for two weeks, at which stage the peel will have absorbed much of the syrup and released some lovely citrus flavours into it. After a few weeks, drain it well and it is delicious in cakes, puddings and mincemeat.
Don’t throw away the drained syrup, you can re-use it to make more peel, and it is also delicious on ice-cream.
This is a great way to use up the juice when you’ve made the mixed peel
1 litre water
2tsp citric acid (available from chemists)
Heat the sugar and water until all the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for a few minutes. Take off the heat. Add the juice of the four oranges and lemons and two teaspoons of citric acid. Allow to cool and store in the fridge. It should last for a few weeks in a normal house; it disappears in under two days in mine.
Eunice Power’s cakes and puddings are available from Country Store in Dungarvan and can be delivered nationwide, tel: 058-45594. See eunicepower.com