T’was the week before Christmas and all through the house
The cook was a-stressing like a scared and trapped mouse
Right, so poetry might not be my forte but where my rhyming abilities fail me, I am supposed to be able to compensate by successfully fashioning near perfect culinary creations.
But I am increasingly starting to think I may have wronged a gypsy at some point over the last couple of years because it appears that my attempts to make Christmas cake are cursed.
For those that don’t know, a traditional Christmas cake is a dense, rich and heavy construction made from much dried fruit, butter, sugar, eggs and a little flour to bind it all together. It is flavoured, rather generously, with brandy or other tasty and strong spirit. It is almost the densest substance known to man and there is a theory that each one is a miniature black hole.
It is exactly the sort of dessert that you don’t want after eating an entire roast dinner, Christmas pudding, mince pies, stilton and far too much chocolate but if there is one thing us Brits do well it is traditions and this is one that will not be ignored. Even it often results in instant sleep and indigestion.
If you would be so kind as to accompany me on a journey back in time then I’d like to whisk you away, way back to Christmas 2006. This was the first time I attempted to make this most rich of cakes. And it was a total success. I followed Nigel Slater’s recipe from the superb book The Kitchen Diaries and everything went well. The resultant cake was moist, dark, tasty and so very good with cheese (honestly – fruit cake and cheese is a winning combo).
Fast forward to Christmas 2007. I was still residing in the family seat at this point (I use the expression metaphorically – we don’t own vast swathes of land or a country estate anywhere), living with my parents. ‘Seen as the cake was so good lat year, why don’t you make it again?’ Said my mother.
I couldn’t wait. I got to work chopping and mixing and stirring and making merry and festive in the kitchen. Once the thick dark mixture had been poured into a large cake tin I was advised to wrap it in dark paper to slow down the cooking process. Which I did. But I didn’t wrap it tightly enough and as I tried to lift it into the oven it all went a bit wrong.
‘Alex,’ said my dad in a calm voice, ‘why is the Christmas cake on the floor?’ The paper had remained in my oven-gloved hands, in a near perfect circle. The cake, however, had fallen to the floor and was rapidly leaking from its tin, spreading tide-like over the tiled floor.
Despite the mess, the mixture was (just about) salvageable and we managed to get it into the oven, relieved that nothing more had gone wrong.
My parents have an Aga at home, a wonderful and warming oven that is an absolute delight to cook on with a hot oven at the top and a cooler one at the bottom which makes slow cooking an effortless pleasure. We decided to cook the cake slowly, hoping that a good six hours would leave it moist and supremely tasty.
We were surprised, therefore, to find it the following day with a black layer on the top looking as if it had been put through a cremation oven. Eventually we found the culprit. ‘I didn’t think it was cooking,’ said my dad sheepishly. ‘I thought it would be ok for a few minutes in the hot oven.’ Not so.
After shaving the thick black layer off the cake like an overly enthusiastic archaeologist, we were left with a slightly smaller but satisfyingly tasty treat that served us well through the festive period.
And then we come to this year. I was optimistic: We had some good organic fruit, we had our own freshly laid eggs. We had a winning recipe and we had the right equipment – a brilliant Kenwood Chef machine from the 1970s that my grandmother donated to us when we moved in.
Things started well. Ingredients were measured out and weighed. The cake tin was prepared and the mixer was ready. And then it all went quite wrong and I had to make a rapid trip to the emergency surgery to get my finger checked out due to a slip with the Big Knife (it’s all OK, I shall be nail-less for some months but it’s fine).
A day later, and dosed up on super-strength painkillers, it was time to try again. I (slowly) chopped the rest of the dried fruit and gradually the mixture came together. Finally it was time to put it all into the oven to cook nice and slowly. Thinking we had plenty of time we went next door for a drink. And then had another. And another. And another.
By the time we wobbled back home, the cake (despite having been in no longer than it should, at a temperature lower than recommended) had taken on a rather black and dry appearance. I think it might, might, be shave-able but I am not holding my breath because it looks a lot worse than last year’s. Oh dear. I dread to think what misadventures Christmas Cake 2009 will bring. Perhaps some things are best left to the professionals…