Traditional British Christmas Cake

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Ever since the Victorian era Christmas cake has been a big part of British holiday celebrations. We had our Christmas celebration with my husband’s family last Saturday and our nephew Ashley had made a traditional British Christmas cake from his paternal Great Grandmother’s recipe. We all knew her as ‘Nana’. She was a cook in a stately home and she had some fabulous traditional recipes including a fantastic Authentic Victorian Christmas Pudding.

Both Ashley and his twin brother Connor are great cooks (Connor made a wonderful pear trifle for our holiday celebrations). The thing was, I’ve eaten the cake made from Nana’s recipe many times before, but this time it was extra delicious. I asked Ashley what he had done to make it so exceptional. Turns out the original recipe only calls for a tablespoon of rum, but Ashley soaked the fruit overnight and used ‘about a quarter of a bottle’ (about ¾ cup). As a result the cake was much moister than I ever remember it being and not surprisingly, the rum gave it a wonderful boozy hit that really enhanced the flavour.

Technically Christmas cake should be made a few weeks before Christmas and ‘fed’ weekly by poking a few holes in it and sprinkling more alcohol over top, but Ashley’s pre-soaking of the fruit means you can probably get away with making it now.  I’m certainly going to give it a try! Next year, you can start earlier 🙂

You need a very deep 8 inch round cake pan for this recipe, and if you can find one that has a lose bottom it really is much easier to get the cake out.  Don’t be tempted to rush the cooking time – it’s the long, slow cooking that helps to give this traditional British Christmas cake its wonderful flavour.

If you are unfamiliar with them, sultanas are raisins made from seedless green grapes and currants are made from seedless black grapes. If you have trouble sourcing any of these particular varieties, you can substitute any raisin varieties you prefer in the same quantities. As with most traditional British recipes, this one is in ounces, but you can buy cooking scales very easily online now, and many good cooking stores (Williams Sonoma, Crate and Barrel among them) stock them as well.

1 pound currants
6 ounces sultanas
4 ounces raisins
4 ounces mixed peel
(also known as candied peel, this is widely available in the UK and Europe and available in the baking aisles of some North American grocery stores)
4 ounces glacé  cherries (not maraschino cherries), halved
¾ cup dark rum or sherry (original recipe calls for 1 tablespoon)
1 ounce almonds, chopped
1 ounce ground almonds (almond flour)
9 ounces plain (all purpose) flour
2 level teaspoons cocoa
1 level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon baking powder
2 level teaspoons mixed spice
9 ounces butter, softened
4 eggs, beaten
9 ounces soft brown sugar
finely grated rind of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon coffee essence (optional)

Grease the cake pan with melted butter, and then line it with baking parchment.

Mix the currants, sultanas, raisins, mixed peel and glacé cherries together and pour the rum over top. Cover and set aside for a few hours or overnight. If there is a large amount of alcohol in the bottom of the bowl or pan when you go to make the cake, drain a bit of it off, but if there are only a couple of tablespoons you can safely leave it.

Mix the soaked dried fruit with the chopped and ground almonds. Set aside.

Sift the flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder and mixed spice together..

In a separate bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar. Add the lemon rind. Add the beaten eggs a little at a time, beating after each addition. Fold in the flour mixture, the coffee essence and then the dried fruit and nuts.

Turn the mixture into the prepared cake pan and smooth over the surface, making a slight hollow in the centre so the cake will rise evenly. Bake at 325ºF (160ºC or 150ºC for a fan oven) for 90 minutes, and then reduce the temperature to 300ºF (150ºC or 140ºC for a fan oven) for a further two hours,  or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Cool the cake in the pan for at least a half an hour and then carefully remove it to cool on a wire rack. After the cake is completely cook you can wrap it in foil. If you are making it well ahead of time, you can  keep it in a cool dry place for a couple of weeks, feeding it once a week with a bit more rum.

A day or so before serving, we traditionally cover our Christmas cakes with marzipan and royal icing. However this cake has enough alcohol in it to start with that you can cover it a day or so after you make it if time is short. Store bought versions of both of these are perfectly fine, and do not normally contain raw eggs as Nana’s do, but here are Nana’s recipes if you want to be strictly traditional.

Almond Icing (marzipan)
8 ounces ground almonds (almond flour)
4 ounces caster (superfine) sugar
5 ounces sifted icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar)
2 ounces butter
2 egg yolks (reserve the whites for the Royal icing)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3 to 4 tablespoons sieved apricot jam (to make the almond icing stick)

Mix the ground almonds, sugar and icing sugar together. Rub or cut the butter into this mixture until it looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Mix the egg yolks and lemon juice and add them to this mixture. Work the paste to a stiff but pliable consistency, adding a bit more lemon juice if it seems dry.

Divide the almond paste in half. Using a light dusting of corn flour (corn starch) to prevent sticking, roll the first half into a circle that will cover the top of the cake. Brush the top and sides of the cake with the sieved apricot jam, and apply the circle to the top of the cake, pressing firmly. Using your hands, roll the second half of the almond paste into a long roll and then flatten it as evenly as you can with a rolling pin. This piece needs to be wide enough to cover the sides of the cake. Press the flattened roll along the sides of the cake, pressing firmly and sealing the joins between the top and sides with your fingers. Leave the cake in a cool airy place for several hours so the almond paste can dry out a bit.

Royal Icing

4 egg whites
1½ pounds sifted icing sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon glycerine (available from pharmacies & cake supply stores)

Beat the egg whites lightly. Add the lemon juice and glycerine. Beat in enough icing sugar to make a thick coating consistency that rolls easily off a wooden spoon, but leaves it coated.

Place the marzipan topped cake on a piece of greaseproof or waxed paper. Have a palette knife to hand to help guide the icing. Pour the icing bit by bit over the top of the cake, spreading it with the knife. Let it find its way down the sides, guiding it with the knife until the cake is completely covered. Leave the cake in a cool airy place overnight, or until the icing has set.

Small slices of this lovely cake are perfect with a cup of tea in the afternoon.

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Article by April Harris

April has written 1254 great articles for us.
April is a food, lifestyle and travel writer who lives in Berkshire, England. She shares inspiration, tips and trends for anyone who loves food, cooking, entertaining, fashion, travel and the finer things in life at her blog, AprilJHarris.com.
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