Every year for as long as I can remember I have baked at least one Christmas cake. Given that no one in my family actually likes Christmas cake, this doubtless seems really odd. But making this special cake each year is one of those things that makes me feel like it’s actually Christmas.
In this tradition there’s a thread to all those Christmases past and a sense of belonging that anchors me to my tribe. In the rush and bustle of everyday life, threads like this, that provide a sense of connection, aren’t always easy to find.
My paternal grandmother Maude was famous for her Christmas cake, which she cooked on the old coal range. We didn’t like it for its dark, dense fruitiness, but for the threepence pieces and the odd sixpence she distributed through the mixture before it was baked (I guess “purged by fire” would have been her motto around the dubious hygiene of this practice).
We would be known to eat piece after piece of her Christmas cake, almost gagging on the taste, just in the hope of finding a coin. Maude’s recipe used a dozen eggs and she always used her hands to mix it together in a huge pot. One year she cracked the last egg into the fruity mixture, only to find it was rotten. We all hurtled out of the kitchen to get away from the most awful smell. The whole lot had to be ditched, which for my nan, who had come out of the Depression, was a waste beyond measure.
After that we all got the full drill of testing the eggs before they were cracked – they all went into a bowl of cold water, and any that floated were discarded. It’s a prudent measure I still use, especially with farm eggs.
Over the years I have played around with different recipes for Christmas cake to try to find one that my family and I actually like. Along the way, I have come across four favourites.
Miraculous Three-Ingredient Christmas Cake
I love the way people who are passionate about cooking are so generous with sharing their favourite recipes. A couple of years ago a lovely lady whose name I failed to write down (sorry – I wish I could remember so I could say a proper thank you!) called in while I was sharing recipes on the radio. “I’ve got this amazing fruit cake that uses only three ingredients,” she said. “It’s just so impossibly easy and it’s really, really good.”
Well “impossibly easy” and “really, really good” are two phrases that hit the spot in my busy life, so I could feel my ears prick up. I have to admit that when she told me the recipe I didn’t believe it could work. A great fruitcake that uses just three ingredients? I didn’t think so. But I was intrigued and so I went home and made it. All I can say is WOW. All everyone who tried it could say was OMG WOW.
All you do is put a kilo of mixed dried fruit in a bowl, cover it with milk and leave it to soak overnight. The next day you stir in some self-raising flour, pour it into a cake tin and bake it. Just over an hour later you have an incredible, moist, light and flavoursome fruitcake – it's a Christmas miracle!
Because I can’t help myself tweaking any recipe I try, I have since played around with adding a teaspoon of mixed spice, or a few brazil nuts, both of which were good optional extras. Brushing the top with about a tablespoon of sherry, rum or whisky when it comes out of the oven is also a nice idea. But actually, just as is, with those three ingredients – fruit, milk and flour – this is one hell of a fabulous cake. You can also make a vegan version by using almond milk instead of the milk and a gluten-free version by using gluten-free self-raising flour. For something a little bit special, I dust the top with icing sugar just before serving. You can lay a paper doily, piece of lace or cake decorating stencil over the top first to make festive patterns.
Something this good deserves to be shared, so it's available on my website here: Miracle Three-Ingredient Christmas Cake recipe>
Overnight Christmas Cake
The first comes from friend and famous gardener Bev McConnell. For someone who was (and still is) busy out in the garden all day, this recipe was a real find. When she sent me this recipe she told me: “I won this cake at the Cockle Bay School Gala over 30 years ago. I rang Patricia Lynd for the recipe and have made it ever since. I used to make at least 10 to give away, as the night cooking was so convenient. I make it in a 23cm (9 in) square tin, well lined with brown paper and then baking paper on the inside of the brown paper, as my mother taught me.”
What I love about this cake – apart from the fact that it has such a wonderful flavour, is that it goes into the oven to cook overnight. When you’re busy, as we all are at this time of year, finding a few hours to hang around waiting for a cake to cook can be a real drag. Click here for the free recipe: Overnight Christmas Cake recipe >
Annabel’s Christmas Cake
This next recipe is one I magpied from a Christmas cake I was given as a present a few years back. I couldn’t believe how moist and tender it was, and so I played around until I could get the closest approximation.
You don’t taste the dates but they are what make this cake such a standout. Get the recipe here: Annabel’s Christmas Cake recipe >
My third Christmas cake has the merest hint of batter – just enough to hold the jewel-like combination of fruit and nuts. Hence its name Cathedral Cake, because the colourful glace fruits look like the stained glass windows of a cathedral. Visit my website for the recipe: Cathedral Cake recipe >
Regardless of which mixture I'm preparing, I like to make little cakes (thoroughly cleaned tuna cans work well as cake tins) to give as presents to some of my older or single friends, who might not otherwise have a cake to celebrate Christmas.
My grandmother always said each cake you try means a happy month in the year ahead. And that’s the great thing about traditions like cake – they’re an easy way to create happy memories.
What’s your favourite Christmas cake recipe or memory? Come on over to my Facebook page to share!