Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Christmas Fruit Cake

Fruitcakes were a running joke in the comic strips of my American youth. They were portrayed as the unwanted gift, the oddly imperishable foodstuff that unpopular relatives offered when they came to visit. Once received, it would go deep to the back of the cupboard where the strange, dense block would remain buried until the following year, when the recipient could gift it upon some new enemy

It looks like a ceiling fixture as I forgot to flip it before uploading. Blogger hasn't updated its app, so this process is taking a bit longer these days.

My family, being of Australian origin, took some offence at these portrayals of this sacred celebratory food. My grandmother was proud of her fruitcake, making it for special occasions such as birthdays and weddings, decorating it with skill I could never possess (largely because the piping bag is my nemesis, and also because life is too short to draw lace onto a cake.) No slice was wasted; in fact, she once baked a birthday cake for her daughter-in-law's mother, but only if my mother would promise that a large portion of the cake would be taken back to America for her own son to eat. This was not requested as a favour, but instead given as an instruction not to be questioned, so after the party, under the critical eye of her family my mother dutifully wrapped the remaining cake in foil and clingfilm, packing the parcel in her bags to travel back across the Pacific Ocean where the cake was scoffed down in a matter of seconds. 

Now I live in the UK, where Christmas Cake usually means fruitcake, and traditional wedding cakes are studded with currants. Times are changing; most families prefer a chocolate yule log to a Christmas pudding, and a sponge to a fruitcake for their matrimonial vows. At our own wedding some 12 years ago, I made two separate cakes: a fruit cake for the Baby Boomers and beyond, a lemon sponge for the younger ones. While everyone still seems to enjoy a mince pie at Christmas, fewer insist on a slice of fruitcake, so it was mostly out of a sense of nostalgia that I decided to tackle one this year. 

According to tradition, one must begin the process in November at the latest, soaking your fruit in booze for days, weeks, even months before mixing it into your eggy batter. That just doesn't happen in my house. I don't really get in the mood to even being prepping things until mid-December, and by then it seems like a lost hope to attempt a cake according to these stern rules from years gone by.

But then recently I was speaking to a fellow baker who revealed her secret - she never makes her cake in advance! She may soak the fruit for a while, but overnight has served fine on many an occasion, and her cakes always go down a treat with guests and family alike. Right, I thought, this I can do.

So she passed me the recipe and I looked at the recipe versus what I had in my cupboards. I should add that it was New Year's Eve and I wasn't in the mood for going to the shops unnecessarily. So I made a few modifications: 

To soak
200g prunes apricots chopped
300g currants
100g glace cherries, chopped
150g dried figs dates, chopped
175ml stout the better part of a bottle of rank mass produced ale that someone brought over as a joke a couple months ago

For the cake
175g unsalted butter, softened
175g soft light brown sugar
4 large eggs
2 tbsp black treacle molasses

Zest of 1 orange
125g dark rye flour
50g plain flour  50g + 125g = 175g plain flour
2 tsp mixed spice pumpkin spice
1½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
75g blanched hazelnuts, finely chopped   Brazil nuts, chopped. Kind of. 
So yes, I changed about half of the ingredients. But the spirit of the recipe was still the same, surely?
Boozy fruit. I had to remove a dinosaur egg from this vessel before use. It's ok, the dinosaur has hatched.
After assembling the fruit and soaking it overnight, it was time to start the great mix-up. Butter is never "room temperature" at our place, as our flat is rarely warm enough to bring anything to a soft temperature. I could have played a dangerous dance with the microwave, but instead decided to attack the brown sugar and butter with the pastry blender, then the wooden spoon.

After than, in went 4 eggs. There are always lots of warnings about how to prevent your mixture curdling at this point, but I never find them even remotely successful. I just let it curdle, knowing it will be just fine, as Mary Berry looks at me with disappointment and disapproval

One of my favourite "hacks" is greasing a spoon before putting in a sticky syrup like molasses or treacle. You just pour in a spoonful of oil into the spoon, then pour it back into the oil, then use the spoon for your choice of tar-like substance. Look how it just plops out of the spoon into the batter! Very satisfying, I tell you.

Then went in some zest, some dry ingredients, mix-y mix-y, choppy nutsy.

Then, the finale: the boozy fruit.

Dear God, sweet Jesus that is a lot of fruit.
At this point you lovingly gather your family round, making sure each family member takes the spoon and gives one stir to the mixture before pouring it into the tin.

Well, you think of it, but then you realise the children are being awfully quiet and good with their electronic babysitters, so you just ignore that step and bash it all together yourself. The tin for this, unlike most of my other tins, is silver rather than black in colour so as to conduct less heat, and this cake is treated to a double lining in an attempt to prevent any scorching. Why? Because this baby goes in the oven for no less than three and a half hours at a low heat, that's why. This ain't no rush job. I literally climbed up a mountain and returned back while this was in the oven and had time to spare.

It was a small mountain.

Now, halfway through, I did take it out of the oven and cover the top to prevent burning, but it seems that the fan in my oven decided to be particularly vicious, and my protective foil was ripped off and tossed around the oven. Naturally I didn't discover this until the damage had been done.

It didn't look too bad at first, but then it continued to cook outside the oven and I decided further measures needed to be taken.

If you look carefully, you'll see a knife slicing the top off the cake on the right. The thing was, even the scorched bit didn't actually taste burnt, AND I got to sample the cake pre-decoration. A win-win. So yes, always a good idea to trim cakes.

I then carefully whipped up a batch of marzipan.
Trust me, I made it once myself and it was not worth it in the slightest.

Then it was a simple matter of heating apricot jam, eating the heated jam, then heating more apricot jam and spreading it on the cake to help the marzipan stick.

Then it was time to roll out marzipan and pretend I knew how to decorate a cake

Just doing the ironing.

It's a ghost!!

I then sort of tried trimming it and decorating it

And this was the end result. I don't see any point in fondant or royal icing - they taste of nothing but sugar, so in the words of Prue Leith they simply aren't worth the calories.

My children keep looking at it, confused. "Why is there dough on the outside?" "When are you going to bake it?" "What IS that?" 

Obviously another great success. 

Ruby Tandoh’s easy fig and ale Christmas cake (yes, I know)

This is a last-minute affair compared with many Christmas cakes – but you should still soak the fruit overnight or at least for a few hours. It is still moist, dark and rich, and made in a fraction of the time it might usually take.

To soak
200g prunes, chopped
300g currants
100g glace cherries, chopped
150g dried figs, chopped
175ml stout
For the cake
175g unsalted butter, softened
175g soft light brown sugar
4 large eggs
2 tbsp black treacle
Zest of 1 orange
125g dark rye flour
50g plain flour
2 tsp mixed spice
1½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
75g blanched hazelnuts, finely chopped
1 The day before you make the cake, combine the fruit in a bowl and douse with the stout (a good porter or, at a push, brown ale will suffice, but the mellow, chocolatey depth of stout is best). Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave overnight – or at least for a good few hours – until the fruit has absorbed most of the liquid.
2 The next day, when you’re ready to make the cake batter, preheat the oven to 150C/300F/gas mark 2, line a deep, 20cm round cake tin with baking parchment and wrap the outside in a couple of layers of foil to prevent the cake’s edge from drying during the long baking time.
3 Cream the butter and sugar together until completely smooth then, one by one, add the eggs. The mixture is likely to curdle a little at this point, but don’t panic: just add 2 tbsp or so of plain flour to smooth the mix. Stir in the treacle and zest. In a separate bowl, combine the flours, mixed spice, baking powder and salt. Add these dry ingredients to the wet mixture and stir until roughly combined.
4 Add the hazelnuts to the batter along with the soaked fruit mixture (including any stout left unabsorbed). Combine thoroughly. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 3½-4 hours, or until a small knife inserted into the centre of the cake emerges clean. If the top of the cake begins to darken too deeply during the baking time, just cover with foil.
5 Once baked, let the cake cool completely in its tin before decorating. It could take overnight to cool, but it’s crucial to wait until it’s stone cold before slicing. It will continue to firm, set and mellow as it approaches room temperature. Decorate it (or not) however you please.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Mince Pies

This morning, our family were doing their best to appear holy by attending our local Catholic mass. The children wriggled, the hymns were quietly sung off key, and as we finished, the priest issued welcomes to all the prodigal children come home, instructing them to come to teas, coffees, and cake after the service so that he could chat to them. This was met by whispering and huge gesticulations.
"Oh," he said as his face fell. "No coffee and cake?" He paused, looking around, his eyes pleading to be told otherwise. "Well, that's ruined my Sunday." He blessed us and we shuffled out into the cold December air.

It does seem odd, with Christmas being such a food centred holiday, that such an opportunity to issue baked goods to the masses was missed. The organisers assumed that the congregation would want to rush off to purchase pigs in blankets, to wrap their last few presents, rather than enjoy a few moments with each other on this holy weekend. The out of town relatives gathered outside for a brief moment, murmuring their disappointment, then vanished around the corner into their respective vehicles, a few declaring they would try the nearby coffee shop that had opened recently.

As we watched them disappear, we sighed. We are having a quiet Christmas this year, so I am not rushing about. There is no bedding to organise, no extra guests to cater for, no car to pack up. Just the five of us trying not to kill each other.

I say no extra guests to cater for, but there is one exception: Father Christmas. As a child, I usually left out a cookie or two for Santa, with milk to wash it down, plus a carrot and perhaps some nuts and raisins for Rudolph. Here, it appears that Father Christmas has somewhat more sophisticated tastes, preferring mince pies to cookies, and whisky or sherry to milk. Rudolph likes carrots the world round, it seems.

The end result
In the past, I have always been content to buy the pies, having never tasted a bad supermarket one. I mean, Mr Kipling does make exceedingly good cakes. But on Friday, when I asked the kids what they wanted to do THAT WAS FREE this Christmas holiday, Christopher piped up that we wanted to do some cooking. Plus, having been in on a mums Christmas conversation recently with a couple mothers who do ALL the things, I had a few tips on what to do to make mince pies tasty, namely scooping mincemeat from a shop-bought jar and adding a couple extra ingredients to pimp up your pies. So I figured, why not? This year, we would make Santa's snack from scratch. Sort of.

Mincemeat taken to the next level

So Lidl provided the jar of Brandy-laced mincemeat, into which I grated a wrinkly apple and to which I added the last few pistachios out of a packet, the zest of a clementine, the zest of half a lemon, and a handful of tired looking sultanas. "That looks disgusting!" my daughter exclaimed. I can't say I disagreed with her. I mean, look at it.

I made the pastry, and rolled it out, trying to keep the kids' fingers off of it. You know how occasionally, just occasionally, you go through your cupboards to clear out things you don't really need? Well, recently I did just that and looked critically at a range of circle cutters that I hadn't taken out in at least a year. I kept them in the end, and now I can fully justify retaining them in my kitchen cupboards of doom, because they were officially used for something culinary in 2017! An official stay of execution for these beasts.

Ok, so I should have used the crinkly side for both the bottom and the tops of the pies. And not let these two anywhere near:

Catherine loves the camera on her phone that doesn't work as a phone in this country.

Their presence is why I don't have any photos of the filling of the pies. No, they couldn't have taken photos, be quiet.

The jar stretched to 12 pies, the pastry covered them all quite happily with some scraps left in the fridge to be found months from now after they have been slowly edged to the back by other, more recently used items.

Into a hot oven they went for 17 minutes, and when they came out they were easily extracted from the muffin pan to cool on a rack where Robert stared at them suspiciously.

This was only the second time I'd ever made mince pies, and the last time I used puff pastry. I prefer shortcrust pastry fo sho. 

It quickly became apparent that none of my children wanted to actually eat any mince pies. Christopher had made mixed berry muffins this morning (under my supervision from across the room) which they all preferred to re-attack rather than sample any of my pastries.

Well, someone had to try them, and Michael was asleep.

None of the china matches, as I am really good at breaking stuff. Expert level.

It was most satisfactory.

So if you need a pie to leave out for Father Christmas, drop me a line. I've got 10 to spare. 

Hope you all have a Happy Christmas!


1 recipe shortcrust pastry (I use Joy of Cooking's recipe, but you could just buy some)
1 jar mincemeat
1 small apple
zest from 1 clementine
zest from 1 lemon
handful of shelled pistachios
handful of sultanas or raisins
Any other exciting ingredients that work in a mince pie.
Caster sugar

Preheat oven to 220C Roll out pastry, cut with circle cutter big enough to fill the middle and sides of a muffin tin. Fill a dozen wells, then pop the muffin tray in the fridge while you work on the mincemeat. Empty the jar into a bowl, then peel and grate the apple into it, and add the rest of the ingredients, giving it a quick stir. Take the muffin tray out, then fill them with even amounts of the mixture. Cut out circles, stars, whatever for tops of the pies. Listen to your daughter complain that they aren't pretty enough and don't have a fancy design. Mutter to yourself as you sprinkle sugar over the pies, then put in the oven for 15-20 minutes, turning halfway through. Remove from tin and put onto cooling rack, then make some tea and eat one. Keep one aside for Santa, and dispose of the rest however you see fit.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Cheddar Scones

Sharing. It is one of the key components of being a parent, and it does not come easily to my when I am at my most gluttonous. But I have a secret weapon, and it is cheese.

Yes, cheese. Isn't it a miracle that curdled, rotten milk can be made into something so glorious? Christmas is coming, so cheddar, camembert, and stilton are everywhere, and that is a wonderful thing. Unless you are my eldest son, who, for reasons unbeknownst to me, has no appetite for the stuff. None. In fact, if he tastes cheese, he suffers a gag reflex, which is just great at parties, let me tell you. So while other families put cheese on and in food in order to entice their children to eat it, I must do the opposite. But you see, I can also flip it round: if I want something ALL TO MYSELF, I can just add cheese! Once his siblings see his reaction, they often follow suit in food refusal, meaning I get whatever it is all to myself, and I don't have to hide in the cupboard to eat it either.

And recently I have developed a slight addiction to cheese scones.

Whenever I can, I escape our flat to get some study time sans enfants, and the place I usual go is a hipster type farmshop plus cafe located 10 minutes walk from our place. And the best time to go is the first hour they are open in the morning. Why? Because that is when the scones come out of the oven. I don't even bother checking what kind are being offered anymore (they offer one sweet and one savoury kind each day, and there is no routine to them), so I just ask for a savoury one and wait patiently for the piece of art to appear. The scone arrives steaming on the table, hot to the touch, meaning the butter melts and soaks into every nook and cranny. Heaven, I tell you. And highly addictive.

So I thought I'd try and recreate some of the magic at home. I haven't quite moved up to the artisan level of their creations, but it was still pretty awesome, and NO ONE ELSE WANTED ANY!! Which meant I could eat one and freeze the other three for future self indulgence.

Ok, freeze two. They were really good.

Cheese on top and cheese within
My 4 babies

Butter makes it better

Here's the recipe I tried, with more milk than it says. Still needs tweaking, and I think I may add some seeds for crunch next time...

225g self raising flour 
Pinch salt 
Pinch cayenne pepper 
1 tsp baking powder 
55g butter 
100g cheddar cheese 
80­-90 ml milk, plus extra for glazing 
Extra cheese for topping the scones

Method Preheat oven with the baking tray inside to 200.C (slightly less for fan ovens). In a medium­large bowl sift together the flour, salt, cayenne pepper and baking powder. Sift again to make sure the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Cut the butter into cubes, place in the bowl and then mix with your fingertips to make breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the grated cheese into the breadcrumb mixture and rub in until the cheese is evenly distributed. Try not to mix too much as the heat from your hands may start to melt the cheese. Make a well in the centre of the mixture and pour in enough milk to give a fairly soft but firm dough. Do not pour in all the milk at once as you may not need it all to get the right consistency. Lightly flour a surface and roll out the dough to approximately 2cm thick. Cut out the scones with a medium cutter and then place on the hot oven tray. Glaze the tops with the extra milk and sprinkle a little cheese on the top of each scone before putting in the oven. Bake in the oven for 10­-15min

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Auntie Jennifen's Chocolate Cake

School holidays, that time of year when you slow down, relax, eat healthy, and accomplish great things.

HA! Just kidding.

You hire a cheap, duct taped car, drive a distance to go and see lots of family members (and some breathtaking scenery), then stuff your face every half hour all day, every day. You get nothing productive done, and then wonder why your clothes feel all tight and you are behind on your studies...

But it's worth it because you get to taste some pretty amazing chocolate cake - not too rich, just the right amount of chocolate, and, er, MOIST! And handily, your sister-in-law not only HAS the recipe, she is willing to share it.

Now, you don't just make this cake on any old kind of day. No, you wait for one of those days when you are running late to pick up your youngest child, after which you need to go and pick up your other two, and you head into the shops to make sure you have lunch and other bits and bobs needed and you get to the self scanning till and realise...you don't actually have your purse with you. You know exactly where it is, now that you think about it (note: never change bags, ever) but that isn't going to help you pay for the basket of shopping that you don't have time to come back and get later. One of those days where you also find out the school has planned the individual photo portraits for Hallowe'en, and that happens to be when your son's class will be skiing for half the day, and your daughter's class is having a costume party. One of those days when you work for a ghost tour company and things are going a bit mental. This is the perfect sort of day to make a chocolate cake.

So yes, after children were collected and fed (eventually) I gathered ingredients together and started throwing them into a bowl.

Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble...

And I began to mix.

Then I poured in boiling water and mixed some more.

Until I had this beautiful, runny batter in front of me.

Funnily enough, some people arrived to help me with it.

My daughter's top is great for hiding stains, I was relieved to discover

It was poured into two tins, in uneven quantities, naturally, and then they grew to unnatural sizes.

And, because I am such a skilled baker, they sank a bit.

I stuck them in the fridge to cool quickly, then moved onto the icing, beginning with butter, cocoa, and espresso powder, then getting ready to add icing sugar and milk until the final product was ready.

Then I had one of my special moments. You know, one of those special times when you have three people in the kitchen talking to you at once, and you just mean to bend down to dive under the mixer's wire extended across the not-so-greatly designed kitchen to get to the fridge for the milk, only you misjudge the distance and bash your head so hard on a corner that blood starts pouring down your face? And your husband asks you what's wrong with you as you sit crying on the floor with your three year old handing you tissues "for your drips"?

Does that happen to you, too?

Looks like I'll be Harry Potter for Hallowe'en. This is the cut cleaned up and swelling subsided:

Not to be deterred, I had my assistant hold the bowl while I applied pressure (and an ice pack) to the wound so I could keep mixing. What else was I to do? Give up on a cake? Pfft, I DON'T THINK SO!

If there was any time chocolate cake was needed, now was the moment.

My precious...

After my family had sampled it

The rest was sent along to the lovely folk at work who are keeping folk entertained this weekend as part of Hallowe'en celebrations. The cake was not given out of any real generosity on my part, you understand, but instead to prevent me from sobbing and eating all of it in one sitting.

If you find you are having the sort of day requiring this cake you can get a pretty and printable version of the recipe here, or you can settle for the usual copy & paste below.

  1. Preheat oven to 350ยบ F. Prepare two 9-inch cake pans by spraying with baking spray or buttering and lightly flouring.
  2. For the cake:
  3. Add flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt and espresso powder to a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk through to combine or, using your paddle attachment, stir through flour mixture until combined well.
  4. Add milk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla to flour mixture and mix together on medium speed until well combined. Reduce speed and carefully add boiling water to the cake batter. Beat on high speed for about 1 minute to add air to the batter.
  5. Distribute cake batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
  6. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes, remove from the pan and cool completely.
  7. Frost cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting.

  • 1½ cups butter (3 sticks), softened
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 5 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • ½ cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon espresso powder
  1. Add cocoa to a large bowl or bowl of stand mixer. Whisk through to remove any lumps.
  2. Cream together butter and cocoa powder until well-combined.
  3. Add sugar and milk to cocoa mixture by adding 1 cup of sugar followed by about a tablespoon of milk. After each addition has been combined, turn mixer onto a high speed for about a minute. Repeat until all sugar and milk have been added.
  4. Add vanilla extract and espresso powder and combine well.
  5. If frosting appears too dry, add more milk, a tablespoon at a time until it reaches the right consistency. If it appears to wet and does not hold its form, add more confectioner’s sugar, a tablespoon at a time until it reaches the right consistency.