It's time to fire up your festive baking skills. A rich fruit cake will keep for years and like wine, it often improves with age. Prepare traditional cakes at least one month before cutting. During this time, the flavours mellow and the texture improves making the cake easier to cut.
This year I experimented with two new (to me) cake pans. A friend made me a wooden cake box with sides but no base. You sit it on top of sheets of newspaper and baking paper, fill it with the cake mixture then cook it at a low temp. The wood protects the outside of the cake from burning. I remember my grandmother cooking her Christmas cake this way. Wooden cake boxes are available from some kitchenware stores.
I also tried a more modern approach. Many kitchenware stores are selling extra deep, heavy cake pans which have become popular with designer bakers. I lined the cake pan with baking paper to protect the sweet, dried fruits from burning on the outside. The deep sides of the cake provide an excellent canvas for artistic expression whether it be with icing, ribbons, raffia or stick-on decals.
All recipes use level metric measures.
CHOCOLATE CHRISTMAS CAKE
The pan I used was 9.5cm deep and 18cm in diameter. You could also cook the cake in a deep 21cm cake pan and bake for just 2 hours or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Start testing after 1 1/2 hours.
1kg quality mixed dried fruit
150g green glacé cherries, halved
1/2 cup brandy, sherry or orange juice
225g each: butter, dark cane sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
4 large eggs
175g quality dark chocolate, chopped
225g plain flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground mixed spice
1/2 teaspoon each: ground cinnamon, nutmeg, salt
Put the dried fruit in a bowl with the brandy. Cover and soak for several hours.
Preheat the oven to 150°C. Line the base and sides of a deep, heavy 18cm-round cake pan with 1 layer of baking paper.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter, dark cane sugar and vanilla essence, until light. Add the eggs one at a time. Mix well.
Melt the chocolate in a bowl over hot water or in the microwave in 30 second bursts. Stir well. Cool slightly. Add to the butter mixture.
Sift the flour, mixed spice, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt together. Stir into the butter mixture. Fold in the dried fruit. Mix well. Spoon into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
Bake for 3 hours, or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Cool on a wire rack. Can be brushed with brandy once a week before cutting. Wrap in foil and keep in a cool place.
WOODEN BOX FESTIVE FRUIT CAKE
You could also cook this cake in a heavy metal square cake pan.
175g butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1kg mixed dried fruit
1/4 cup port or sherry
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
Preheat the oven to 130°C or 150°C for a metal cake pan.
Butter a 20cm square wooden cake box well – especially in the corners. Place it on a baking tray covered with 4 layers of newspaper and 1 of baking paper. Or, grease and line the metal pan with two layers of baking paper.
Beat the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the fruit, port and eggs in a bowl. Sift in the flour and spice. Mix well.
Spread in the prepared cake pan. Bake for 3 hours for the wooden box or 2 hours for the metal pan. Cool before storing or icing.
CRANBERRY & ORANGE CHRISTMAS COOKIES
The dough can be frozen and the cookies baked when required.
125g butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
finely grated rind 1 orange
1 tablespoon orange juice
2 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup each: craisins, pistachio nuts,
Beat the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the egg, vanilla, orange rind and juice. Beat well. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Sift into the butter mixture. Beat well.
Coarsely chop the craisins and add.
Finely chop the pistachios in a small food processor. Place on a small tray.
Divide the dough in half. Roll each into a 20cm long log. Roll in the pistachios. Coat well. (At this stage the logs can be wrapped in plastic film and frozen.) Cut as many rounds as required then replace the remainder in the freezer.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line a baking tray with baking paper.
Cut the logs into 2cm thick rounds. Place on the tray about 2cm apart. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden.
Cool on the tray for 10 minutes then transfer to a wire rack. When cool, store in an airtight container. Makes about 26.