The Christmas Cake [Recipe]
“Don’t slam the door!” my mother would yell as I walked into the kitchen. The Christmas cake was in the oven and in the early eighties, when oven seals weren’t quite what they should be, slamming the door could create enough draft to cause the cake to sink in the middle. Or so the theory went.
My mam made the same Christmas cake every year for as long as I can remember. She had a recipe she’d neatly handwritten into her recipe book (an old diary), the source of which I can’t quite decipher. She used the same large earthenware bowl to mix the ingredients. She had a specific square tin that perfectly held the batter and that was saved exclusively for the Christmas cake. And she had a square Tupperware cake box that held the finished cake, complete with marzipan, royal icing and decorations. It was one of those upside-down boxes, where the cake sits on a flat surface and the lid comes down the sides of the cake. I’m sure it was expensive at the time, but she certainly got her value from it.
It was a ritual every year – the making of the Christmas cake. I’d love to say my mam made all the components from scratch – the citrus peel, glacé cherries and marzipan – but these were all shop-bought. The cake itself, though, was made with loving care and my mother’s trademark attention to detail. (A trait I appear to have inherited.) She would meticulously weigh the ingredients – not an ounce too much or too little. She would chop the cherries into uniform pieces and steep the fruit overnight in a glass of my father’s Jameson. She would painstakingly wrap the outside of the tin with brown baking paper so that it came way above the original height, ensuring the top and edges did not get overly brown. And then she would shoo is all out of the room for the duration of the baking time to ensure no sudden drafts would cause the cake to sink.
Last year I tried making her cake for the first time. It turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated because I could not find all the necessary ingredients. I also didn’t have her perfectly sized tin and Tupperware box. I made my own citrus peel, went without the glacé cherries and searched about 10 supermarkets before I found marzipan. (I don’t know why I didn’t just make the marzipan – I guess my memory was just framed around the little yellow blocks you buy.) I bought an upside-down cake box. It was round rather than square, but I measured it against the cake tin and thought it would fit. I had not, though, considered the extra space that would be required for the marzipan and icing. I realised my mistake just as I finished applying the marzipan layer. My solution was to cut the cake in half – the smaller cake would fit nicely. I wrapped the unused half in several layers of baking paper and foil (I didn’t have a box big enough to take it) and stored it away. I remembered that my grandmother used to save Christmas puddings from year to year and hoped my cake would keep until the following Christmas.
When I was back in Ireland in September I raided the kitchen presses and found the earthenware bowl, cake tin and Tupperware box that my mam used to use. I also found a box of cake decorations, including a tiny evergreen tree, deer and “Merry Christmas” sign that we always used. In mid-December I dug out last year’s cake and carefully unwrapped it, unsure what to expect. It looked fine, except that the marzipan had lost its colour. I peeled off the marzipan to check the cake underneath. It looked good – the fruit was still glistening with moisture and there was no sign of any mold. I applied a new layer of marzipan and then smoothed over a thick coating of royal icing, making a snow scene exactly as my mother used to do. I added the tree, deer and “Merry Christmas” sign and a good sprinkling of silver balls. Finally, I had my mam’s cake. I put it onto the base of the Tupperware box and allowed the icing to dry before sampling a slice. The combination of fruit, whiskey, marzipan and icing was intoxicating. The Christmas season had begun.
Mam’s Christmas Cake
I have tried to stay as close to the original recipe as possible, adding clarifications only where I think they are needed. I have also added metric measurements.
225 g | 8 oz butter
225 g | 8 oz castor sugar
200 g | oz self-raising flower (or 200 g | 7 oz plain flour and 1 tsp baking powder)
2 tsp mixed spice
225 g | 8 oz currants
225 g | 8 oz sultanas
170 g | 6 oz raisins
110 g | 4 oz sliced glacé cherries
85 g | 3 oz chopped mixed peel
85 g | 3 oz ground almonds
Grated rind of 1 lemon
50 mls | 1 US fl oz Irish whiskey
- Mix all ingredients except butter, sugar, flour and eggs in a basin (use large delph bowl) and leave to steep overnight.
- Next day, cream sugar & butter until white & creamy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, folding in a little flour after the first two eggs have been added.
- When all eggs have been added, fold in the remainder of the flour and mix in the prepared fruit.
- Put mixture into 8 x 3 inch lined tin* and bake at 310 ˚ (F) or Gas Mark 2 for about 3.5 to four hours (until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.)
*To line the tin:
- Cut a piece of greaseproof paper 1 inch larger all round than the base of the tin. Snip 1 inch into the paper at regular intervals all around the edge to allow the edge to “fold”.
- Cut strips of greaseproof paper to cover the (inside) sides of the tin.
- Grease the tine, then line the base and sides with the prepared paper.
- Pour the mixture into the tin.
- Cover the outsides (external sides, but not base) of the tin with greasproof paper, extending 3 inches over the top edge of the tin. (This protects the top from burning during the long cooking.)
- After 3 hours of cooking, put a “lid” of greaseproof paper on top of the cake (balanced on the paper wall rather than on the cake itself, again to protect against burning the outside.