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Making Christmas cakes at the end of October

Homemade Christmas cakes keep so well that I find the best time to make them has always been half term, at the end of October or the start of November. There’s a bit of a breather then from the usual schedule of activities which is good as the cake making process is surprisingly time consuming.

I have combined two recipes, the ancient one that I found in a newspaper years ago and my mother’s ‘rich fruit cake’. This is so we finish with a cake that cuts into slices that are reasonably firm. The flavour of the cakes made from the ‘ancient’ recipe was delicious but, without the addition of features of my mother’s recipe, the slices fell into a mound of loose crumbs – not really a problem but better to be able to cut pieces that people can eat easily.  

After finding the list of ingredients I review the store cupboard to see whether I have enough dried fruit, eggs, flour, spices etc. I always have to buy brandy as I don’t keep a traditional ‘cooking’ bottle of brandy (with ‘medicinal’ uses on the side). By the end of the previous festive season all the brandy has been used up in Christmas cakes (cooking and adding spoonfuls to soak in during storage), brandy butter, upgrading shop bought mincemeat for mince pies and, if there is any left then Patrick has a glass or so, to save it from ‘going flat’! 

Cooking Christmas cakes has been a tradition of mine for over 40 years and I remember there was a time when I set aside £10 from the family budget to cover the cost of ingredients. Now the cost is higher – but still very reasonable given the finished cakes – rich and fruity with enough booze to ‘make you hesitate about driving after eating a slice’ as a son once said.

So shopping for ingredients complete, the next stage is to skin and chop almonds, weigh out all the fruit, flour and spices, butter and sugar and check the number of eggs needed. I usually make a huge quantity of cake mix, enough for several cakes. The photo below shows three bowls of ingredients and also the tins that I greased, lined and wrapped in brown paper (to ensure that, during the long slow cooking stage the cakes did not burn at the edges). This year I prepared all this the day before I planned to bake the cakes.

So on day two I beat the 12 eggs for the four cakes I was making. Then I went on to beat together the sugar and butter – you can see that in the photo below, with the beaten eggs in the bowl nearest the egg rack.

The quantities were so huge that I needed a very large bowl to stir them all together. So I scrubbed out the washing up bowl and used that as you can see below. First to go into the washing up bowl was the fruit with flour etc stirred in to avoid the fruit sinking. In fact for Christmas cakes it is a case of ‘cake mixture sticking loads of fruit together’ rather than ‘some fruit in a cake mixture’.  The wet ingredients went in second and then it was a case of mixing it all together.

Patrick helped out this year. You can see he is stirring away gallantly so the mixture is fully combined and ready for the last stage, adding brandy.

I forgot to take any pictures of adding the brandy, then filling the tins, but in the photo below the cakes are safely in the oven. Even though cooking takes place at a fairly low temperature, there is still a risk that the top of each cake will dry out and become too dark so this year I covered each one with a sheet of greaseproof paper with a hole in the middle.

During the baking stage I checked the cakes a few times and after several hours they were ready – a skewer came out clean when I stuck it into the centre of each cake. And here they are, below, straight out of the oven.

Once the cakes had cooled slightly I took them out of their tins and unwrapped the greaseproof paper. They were then ready to cool on the wire racks where they sat for a couple of hours to reach room temperature.

I will probably feed the cakes with more brandy over the next 4 or 5 weeks. Then I will cover them with marzipan and icing in December. For the moment they are well wrapped up and stored in airtight tins.

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