It seems to me that Christmas cake is one of those things that people continue to make or buy through sheer determination to follow festive traditions rather than an actual desire to eat it. It’s reputation has been corrupted by the all too common dry and tasteless hunk of carb, topped with thick and dusty white icing, and choked down with a cup of tea into an already festively full stomach. Allow me to mend your perception of this Yuletide treat with my own recipe, which is based on one from Mary Berry. It is, perplexingly, both traditional and un-traditional simultaneously; whilst the appearance of the cake is very much similar to one the Victorians might have enjoyed, the cake itself is light and moist and studded with succulent fruits. Perhaps most unusually, I’ve baked a disk of marzipan into the centre of the cake – much like a Simnel cake – which creates a thin but gooey, almost frangipane-like layer within, rather than having the raw marzipan sandwiched between cake and icing.
Whilst the cake isn’t the fastest thing to make – you’ll need to set aside an hour or two – I find it to be almost therapeutic and the process of baking it is a real saturnalia of festivity. Besides, it fills the kitchen with such Christmas-y aromas that it almost seems worth it purely for the scent.
Some of the spices used here are optional; you don’t have to use them, and by no means go and buy a jar of ground cinnamon, for instance, just to use half a teaspoon of the stuff in this recipe. Whilst mixed spice really is necessary for Christmas cheer, the others may be omitted if necessary; or just use whatever [appropriate] spices you already have to put your own stamp on the recipe. I use golden marzipan here, but that’s just because I love the colour; plain, white marzipan is, of course, fine. In terms of decoration, I like to use more almonds and glacé cherries along with some glacé pineapple. However, it can be a struggle to find glacé pineapple, so use any nuts and glacé fruits of your choice.
It really is important to dry the cherries and pineapple very carefully indeed – if they are too damp, the cake easily becomes mouldy.
Victorian Christmas Cake
Makes 1 x 8 IN (20cm) Cake
For the Cake:
- 12oz (350g) glacé cherries
- 1 x 8oz (227g) can pineapple in natural juice
- 12oz (350g) ready-to-eat dried apricots
- 4oz (100g) whole blanched almonds
- 12oz (350g) sultanas
- finely grated rind of 2 lemons
- 9oz (250g) self-raising flour
- 9oz (250g) caster sugar
- 9oz (250g) soft margarine
- 3oz (75g) ground almonds
- 5 large eggs
- 2tsp mixed spice
- 1 tsp ground ginger (optional)
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
- ½ tsp all spice (optional)
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg (optional)
- 200g marzipan
- blanched whole almonds
- glacé cherries
- glacé pineapple
- 1 tbsp of apricot jam
- Pre-heat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3. Grease an 8 in (20cm) deep round cake time and line the base and sides with a double layer of greaseproof paper.
- Prepare the fruit and nuts. Cut each cherry into quarters, rinse and drain well. Drain and roughly chop the pineapple, then dry both the cherries and pineapple very thoroughly on kitchen paper. Snip the apricots into pieces. Roughly chop the almonds. Place the prepared fruit and nuts in a bowl with the grated lemon rind and sultanas and gently mix together.
- Place the remaining ingredients in a very large bowl and beat well for 1 minute until smooth. Lightly fold in the fruit and nuts.
- Dust the work surface with a little icing sugar and roll out the marzipan into a circular disk the same size as the tin. Spoon half of the mixture into the tin, then place the circle of marzipan on top. Spoon the remaining mixture on top of the marzipan and level the surface.
- Decorate the top with almonds, halved glacé cherries and pieces of glacé pineapple (rinse and dry the cherries as before).
- Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 2¼ hours or until golden brown. A skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should come out without crumbs on it (although there may be some gooey marzipan on there). You may need to loosely cover the cake with a piece of foil after about an hour to prevent the top becoming too dark in colour. Leave to cool in the tin for about 30 minutes, then turn out, peel of the greaseproof paper and cool completely on a wire rack.
- Put the spoonful of jam in a small saucepan with a splash of water and heat until melted. Lightly brush the jam over the cake with a pastry brush to glaze.