One year when I attempted a traditional Christmas cake, I did as required, at least to start off with. The requisite months before, I bought dried fruit, chopped and stirred and steeped the mixture in alcohol. When the time came to make the cake, I was so exhausted with seasonal demands I didn't have the energy left actually to make it. So now I have evolved an easier, process-leaner method. Well, when I say I have evolved it, this is no more than my take on an old boiled fruit cake.
I just throw everything into a pan, let the heat from the stove send buttery rum and citrus juices permeating into the currants, sultanas and raisins, add flour and eggs, a can of chestnut puree to give grainy, Christmassy depth, bung the lot into a cake pan and let this stand in a low oven to produce a cake that is as dense, aromatic and fruity as you could hope for. The input from you is minimal. Even a complete klutz can manage to stick a few nuts and candied fruits on the top, and what you end up with is a gorgeous creation that makes you feel that you've produced something of worth and beauty - and you have. Culinary self-esteem - and Christmas spirit - never came at so low an emotional cost. But then, I always make someone else do the wrapping with brown paper. I know my limits. We all know how it is: from happy in one's work to complete nervous wreck is a terrifyingly short step.
1. Preheat the oven to 300°F (though you might prefer to do this after the fruits and so forth have started bubbling in their pan). Line the sides and bottom of a deep 8-inch round cake pan with a double layer of wax paper. The wax paper should be higher than the sides of the pan. Wrap a double layer of brown paper (the kind used for parcels) around the outside of the pan, tying it with string. The paper should be double the height of the pan, and this gives an extra layer of insulation for the cake so that it cooks slowly. If you don't have any brown paper, it is not absolutely necessary, but it will keep the cake from becoming too dark around the sides and top.
2. Put the dried fruit, butter, sugar, chestnut puree or spread, rum and orange juice and zests into a large wide saucepan and bring to the boil gently, stirring as the butter melts. Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes, and then take it off the heat and leave to stand for 30 minutes, by which time the fruits will have been soused and the mixture cooled slightly. Now, add the beaten eggs, flour, baking powder and spices and stir to combine.
3. Pour the fruit cake mixture very carefully into the prepared cake pan.
Place in the oven and bake for 1-3/4 to 2 hours, by which time the top of the cake should be firm and dry and will have cracked a little. If you insert a cake tester into the middle of the cake it will still come out a little sticky.
4. Put the cake on a cooling rack and take off the brown paper from around the outside of the pan. It will hold its heat and take a long while to cool, but once it has cooled completely, unmold it from the pan and wrap the cake well in a layer of wax paper and then aluminum foil until you want to decorate it.
Spoon the apricot jam into a saucepan and add a tablespoon of water. Heat gently, stirring to make a sticky glaze and then take off the heat to cool.
5. Paint the top of the cake with the apricot glaze, and then decorate with the fruits and nuts of your choice. I find it easier to cut the glace fruits into pieces and then fit everything together like a jigsaw puzzle.
When the top is completely covered in the glacé fruits and nuts, paint a second coat of apricot glaze over the top to give a glossy finish. The cake will keep for a couple of months well wrapped and in a cool dark place.
6. If you want a more boozy offering you can feed the cake with 3 tablespoons more rum as soon as it gets out of the oven. That's to say, pierce the top of the cake several times with a fine skewer, spoon over the rum and let it sink in.
You can also play with the fruits and taste of the cake; for instance, substitute apricot jam for the chestnut puree and halve the mixed dried fruit, making up the weight with chopped dried apricots, replace the rum with apricot brandy, add a drop of almond extract to the cake mixture and cover with slivered almonds as you bake. Obviously, it will not need icing or any fruit topping. Or you can reduce the fruit mixture, throw in many natural colored glacé cherries, quartered to make up the weight and replace the rum with cherry brandy and when the cake's cool, glaze with sieved cherry jam and cover just with pecan halves and natural, dark, glacé cherries. Over to you.
From Feast by Nigella Lawson (Hyperion, 2004). © 2004 by Nigella Lawson.