Tuesday November 11th 2008, 3:56 pm

It is time to bake the Christmas cake

It is time to think about baking the Christmas cake. I’d like to say that I have an old family recipe passed down through the generations, but I haven’t and as I don’t bake a cake every year either, I have generally forgotten which recipe I followed the previous time. Delia is always reliable, I’m sure I’ve made hers on several occasions.
Last year my neighbour, John, decided he’d make a cake for each of his two daughters and was given several recipes by various people. He ended up making three cakes following three different recipes, not knowing which recipe would be the best. We discovered that if you bake your cake in a square or rectangular tin, as opposed to a round tin, you can then sample the cakes by slicing off one of the sides, which would eventually be covered in almond paste and icing anyway. For several weeks we had cake tastings in the afternoon, comparing the different cakes, deciding whether we preferred a recipe which had treacle in it or another one that included cocoa. Of course the more tastings we had, the smaller the cakes became. ‘Shall I just cut another slice off the other side?’, he’d say, ‘ yes why not’, I’d reply.
What was so great about these cake tastings was that it became much easier to recognise what an ideal Christmas cake should contain when there were others to compare against. This isn’t something we often get the opportunity to do, unless we work in the Good Housekeeping Institute. I realised that I’m not so keen on treacle in the mix as I think it gives a bitter taste.
Now the time has come round again to think about baking this traditional cake, I’m faced with the usual question of what recipe to follow. Every week at least one new cookery book enters this house and I love it when a vintage find has handwritten recipes sandwiched between the pages. I’ve found a recipe for Christmas cake in one of my old books, handwritten in fountain pen on an old postcard along with a second card explaining how to make marzipan and royal icing, so I shall take pot luck and make that one. Perhaps it will be someone else’s special hand-me-down family recipe. I forgot to mention the downside of cake sampling, which is that by the time Christmas comes you’ve had quite enough cake to last you for at least another eleven months.

Friday November 30th 2007, 1:54 pm

The damson gin will be ready by Christmas.

I had my house for some years before coming to live here and last Christmas was my first residing here full-time. I discovered a bottle of sloe gin tucked at the back of a cupboard. The pricked sloes had been left to steep in gin 6 or 7 years before and not being a great drinker I had forgotten the bottle was there. After pouring it through a coffee filter and rebottling, the liquid positively glistened and the taste was sublime. So this year I made a special effort to make some more but using damsons instead of sloes. Getting round to these things might be difficult at the time but the pay off later is certainly worth it.

So now here we are with Christmas only weeks away, the damson gin is nearly ready and the Christmas cake, made a few weeks ago, is calling out to be plied with brandy. I’ve completely forgotten the stress of getting these jobs done and now only have the promise of the results to look forward too.

Plying the cake with brandy.

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Saturday November 10th 2007, 2:25 pm

I decided to get ahead this year and make a Christmas cake. This is good going for me as I don’t make this cake every year. The first thing to do of course is putting the dried fruit to soak in brandy. The next job is the ceremonious lining of the baking tin. I really love this part of the job, there aren’t many traditions that I embrace, but in this instance measuring and cutting the greaseproof paper, snipping along the bottom edges so they make 90 degree turns and pushing the bottom circle into place to neaten the whole thing off, is very satisfying. The very best part has to be wrapping the outside of the tin with brown parcel paper and tying it in place with string.
As I hadn’t made a cake last year and have moved house in the interim I had to find the right cake tin. Using the same tin is also an important part of the tradition so I had to rummage around in 2 cupboards and the shed to find the loose bottomed tin, totally backened from years of use and looking like something you wouldn’t dream of buying at a car boot sale because other peoples accumulated yuk is vile but when it is your own it is fine.
Whilst searching for THE tin I came across lots of other tins that I have collected over the years. Gathering them together has been rather shocking, like having to own up to alcoholism after being confronted with your stash of empties. Why is it that so often you don’t have the right tin for the job. That’s it, I’m not going to buy another baking tin ever (one day at a time).