English Christmas Cake – Adaptable 6-stage Recipe

Southampton Old Lady’s Spicy Christmas Cake Recipe using chilli-powder 

Stage 6 - Icing
Stage 6 – Icing

– My Tradition and My Recipe

I always start preparations for the Christmas cake at the end of Summer.  I bake it on the first cold evening of Autumn so that it gives out wonderful smells and warms up the whole house while it bakes in a long slow oven.

I learned at school how to make Christmas cake at the age of 13. I have made one nearly every year since. I always kept the same basic recipe but often replaced some of the basics with the local ingredients according to the Country I was in. I have raised various types of poultry in my time and have used a variety of eggs.

In the past I have used Malaga raisins and almonds from the vineyard I once owned. (Those were the days). I get the whole family involved; cracking and chopping nuts and taking turns to stir the cake mixture. This helps makes it special. Other constituents that I have replaced traditional ingedients with at times were: dried pineapple, mango and ginger instead of candied peel and glace cherries, semolina in place of flour; pepper, Chinese 5-spice, Arab coffee spices or Indian Masala tea spices – all in place of mixed spice – and for the last 10 years I have gradually increased the amount of chilli powder (so warming). I also replace a spoonful or two of flour with sieved cocoa powder, which makes it very dark. I always use brandy. I have tried other liquors but have found none as good. If you do not want to use alcohol you can use undiluted orange squash or a syrup. My advice for fruit cake bakers is not to include anything that you or your household cannot abide, nor anything green (my daughter tried mint leaves once – it was like tough spinach) but whatever you use, always keep the weights and measures balanced perfectly.

British friends living abroad have asked me to email my Christmas cake recipe, so as I thought I would post it on my blog. It can be for any celebration, not just Christmas, but it takes a few months at least to mature. If you are an absolute beginner, I thoroughly recommend Delia Smith’s version (find her online). She is a queen of English food for beginners – explaining all the details so well that her recipes just always work!  I have stopped icing my cakes and just make decorations with marzipan, sprinkle it with icing sugar, then pop it under a hot grill for a few minutes. But if you love icing – you go ahead…

My gals
My gals

We begin eating our cake on the 1st of December. There are so many festivities in England throughout that month, that a thick slice makes good all-round sustinance for all that rushing around and ensures vital vitimins to ward off winter colds before the big day. Besides there is too much to eat over Christmas itself and who doesn’t get tired of Christmas cake in January? I buy reduced-priced dried fruits after Christmas, as those that have been left around for ages often turn out better! The cake itself, without marzipan and icing, will mature and last at least a year if kept well-wrapped and in an air-tight tin.

THE RECIPE in 6 Stages

Stage 1  Ingredients  For a deep 8” wide (20 cm) cake

1 lb 12oz (800g) mixed dried fruits (currants, sultanas and raisins are traditional but whatever you use, chop them all up to the size of a sultana.
2 oz (50g) homemade candied peel
(or use shop-bought or marmalade)                                   

2 oz (50g) candied ginger, chopped (traditionally glace cherries are used or you can use whole dried cranberries)

Grated rind of 1 x small orange and 1 x lemon
4 tbsp brandy
+ any extra for testing the quality!

Method: Mix all the ingredients above in a bowl, cover and leave for at least 12 hours – it is safe to leave them for about a week. Give them another stir if you happen to pass by and then again before the next stage.

Stage 2 Ingredients

Stage 2 - Mixing
Stage 2 – Mixing

8 oz (225g) butter
8 oz (225g) soft brown sugar 

8 oz (225g) plain flour (add 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the flour if butter is unsalted)

1 heaped teaspoonful of cocoa powder (optional).

1 level teaspoonful of ground mixed spices (traditionally grated nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger are used – here I include crushed cardomom and chilli powder in addition.
5 x medium sized hens’ eggs (or 3 duck eggs, 6 bantom eggs, or 12 quails eggs – yes I’ve used them all before).
2 oz (50g) chopped hazelnuts (or leave a handful whole for a lovely shape when cake is sliced – or other mixed unsalted nuts – traditionally ground and chopped almonds are used)

1 tablespoonful of Treacle or Molasses

Method: Pass the flour, spices, (+ cocoa powder and salt if using) into through a sieve into a medium-sized bowl and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together using a the back of a large wooden spoon. This is the most important part of the cake making as it gets air into the cake and will stop any fruit sinking to the bottom. I do this while watching television and find it therapeutic (use an electric mixer if you find this bit boring). The final mixture should resemble coffee ice cream.

In a separate small bowl or jug, break in the eggs discarding the shells. Mix them together thoroughly, adding them, a drizzle at a time, to the sweet butter-cream mixture. If the mix curdles slightly, mix in a teaspoon or two of the flour.

With a palette knife or large metal spoon, fold in (cutting and folding, not mixing) the dried fruit mix, nuts and treacle or molasses to the flour mix.

Cover and leave for up to one week or continue immediately to the next stage, for which you will need around 5 hours.

Stage 3 Materials

Stage 3 - Preparing the cake tin
Stage 3 – Preparing the cake tin

8” (20 cms) deep springform/loose bottomed round cake tin

Roll of grease proof/baking paper

Scissors, cake scraper, egg cup

2 sheets of clean newspaper

A piece of string to tie around the tin (cotton gardeners-type, not of man-made fabric).

Preheat the oven to gas mark 1, 275ºF or 140ºC with the baking shelf in the lower half of oven.

Stage 3 - Preparing the cake for the oven
Stage 3 – Preparing the cake for the oven

Method: Take time to line the cake tin with a double layer of the baking paper as follows: Cut 4 rounds from the baking paper the size of the bottom of the tin when loose. In 2 of these four of discs, cut holes in the centre the size of an egg cup, these will go on top of the mixture to prevent a crust. Cut a few strips more of the baking paper to fit 1” below and 1-2” above the height of the cake tin and enough to go around twice. Place the strips inside the tin with overlaps. Place the bottom of the tin in place and cover with two complete rounds.

Then cover the bottom and sides outside of the tin with a double layer of newspaper and tie it with the string (make double sure the string has no natural fibres or it they will melt). The newspaper should stand up to 2” above the line of the cake tin, snip off any corners. The baked newspaper smells good and stops the cake from burning or leaking out. There is no need to grease and flour the lining.

Stage 3
Stage 3 Make an even dip in the mixture before placing the last 2 baking discs on top.

This is where you could get your household to give the cake mixture a stir for good luck, then spoon the mixture carefully and evenly into the tin, using a cake scraper to get the last out of the bowl. Make an even dip in the mixture (this should level out once it has risen). Place the two discs of baking paper with holes on the top and place it on the baking shelf

Stage 4 - Wrap it in an air tight tin
Stage 4 – Wrap it in an air tight tin
Write the times down
Write the times down

Bake the cake for 4 1/2 hours, give or take 30 minutes. Do not open the over door for at least 4 hours! Write the time down and after 4 hours have gone, you can take the top discs off and test the cake with a skewer. If it comes away clean, it is ready, if not test again at 4 1/2 hours, then after 5 hours. Remove the cake from the heat and let it cool in its tin with all the papers on it until the morning.

Stage 4 - Feeding with brandy each week
Stage 4 – Feeding with brandy each week

Stage 4 – Feeding

Remove the cake from the tin, but still leave it in still in its baking paper, in foil or cling-film and leave in a cool place.  Pierce the underside of the cake with a metal skewer several times, then spoon over a little brandy. It will soon disappear into the cake. Wrap it up and set it aside. Turn and feed it each week until you are ready to put marzipan on it. Go to the next stage nearer to the time it will be displayed or eaten.

marzipan on cakeStage 5 – Marzipan

400g packet of Marzipan (2x if covering the sides)

1 x small jar of apricot jam (use any sharp clear jam – apricot is traditional)

Method: Scrape off the top of the cake to level it with a bread knife. Using a pallete knife or a pastry brush, spread the top (and sides if you are icing these too) with a thin layer of warm jam.  Roll out the marzipan, scoop it up with the rolling pin to lay it over the cake. (I use a Christmas or a star-shaped cutter and remove 3 shapes from the rolled marzipan before hand). Press the marzipan down on the sides of the cake until you are satisfied that it is all covered. I place the cut shapes on other parts of the cake, sprinkle with icing sugar then place this under a hot grill for a few minutes. But go to the next stage and make the icing if you prefer.

Stage 6 – Icing (Double the quantity if you also wish to cover the sides).

2 egg whites
500g unrefined icing sugar
a little lemon juice, rosewater or orange blossom water

Whisk or fork the egg whites lightly, just enough to break them up and give a faint head of bubbles. Sift in the icing sugar and mix to a smooth paste thick enough to spread. It will seem too thick at first, but keep going. Add a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice or flower water. Scoop the icing out over the almond paste, smooth it out and decorate as you wish.

Greetings from Southampton
Greetings from Southampton

Haiku in a Hampshire Garden

This is my first attempt at Haiku. I spent time taking photos in a beautiful English garden in Hampshire. These are my results:

The scent of roses draws insects to petals. I want your softness
The scent of roses
draws insects to petals.
I want your softness
Tender bleeding hearts pollenated by bees. Tread careful, my love
Tender bleeding hearts
pollenated by bees.
Tread careful, my love
Lavender and vine Stretched along the red brick wall. Sleep, drink and be mine
Lavender and vine
Stretched along the red brick wall.
Sleep, drink and be mine
Autumn comes early to some lives in the garden. My Summer is over
Autumn comes early
to some life in the garden.
My Summer is out
I rest by the wall. Mistletoe orbs on tree tops. Kiss me at Christmas
I rest by the wall.
Mistletoe orbs on tree tops.
Kiss me at Christmas

All photos and words © southampton old lady

(permission usually given to reproduce with credit, when requested)

Something about May Hill

Walking the wide, grassy ride that inclines so disconcertingly slowly up May Hill,

Mushrooms tightened their plate-sized parasols against the mist.

Fruits in abundance hardened themselves on to branches:

Leafless crab-apples, damsons, red rowans, black bramble-berries

And uncultivated chestnuts which spike out green armour.

Under the tall fir-copsed brow lay a docile herd of Belted Galloways,

Their marbled meat spread about in a Turkish bath of a fog.

Coal-black, their fluffy white belts resemble steam-room towels.

Water pearls weave their way through laced spiderless webs

No view today of any one of the twelve counties.

Still and silent.

Straining, I can hear echoes of bird twitters chorused by traffic.

And see dried, feathered grasses twitching nervously.

Everything seems to wait, wait.

Wait for what?

Something, is in the air.

Something, is about to change.

Southampton Old Lady wrote this on September 3rd,  2014