Traditional British Christmas Cake

Given that we’re now at the beginning of February, It’s hard to imagine that this recipe could be any more redundant. I’ve just been super busy lately, and this post has been lingering in limbo since mid November. So, I’m not entirely sure how useful this is going to be for anyone else right now, but it’s certainly one of the cakes I’ve most enjoyed making recently. And that’s largely due to the recent acquisition of a much coveted cake decorating book called ‘The Lambeth Method’.

I’ve been eyeing this particular book on Ebay for literally months, waiting to get one at a reasonable price. I’ve seen first editions sell for about £300, so I was absolutely thrilled when I managed to pick up a second edition for just £35, which was less than half of what I expected to have to pay. Despite being written in the 1930’s, The Lambeth Method is still considered the gold standard for piped decoration, and in particular, piped borders. Just look at this:

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It’s hard to tell from this photo, but the piping is multi-layered, and actually stands out significantly from the cake, sometimes feeling more like a sculpture than decoration. I’m not going to attempt anything quite this complicated with this cake, but it’s certainly an aspiration for the future!

But before any of that, we’re going to need a cake…

The traditional British Christmas cake is not a recipe that you would typically make at any other time of year. For the uninitiated, it’s very much a seasonal treat, that contains lots of ingredients that would have been very expensive back in the day; bursting with dried fruits and nuts, and seasoned with exotic spices, this cake is about extravagance.

And with that in mind, I think it’s nice to get as much variety and colour in your cake as possible.

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The recipe that I created this year is ultimately an adaptation of the classic Delia Smith cake that will be familiar to most Brits. Whilst that recipe is perfectly delicious, it’s rather heavily loaded with currants and sultanas, and with the glut of dried fruits readily available these days, I think there’s no excuse for not having a bit more variety.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing to mention, is that I highly recommend buying (or making!) the longer strips of candied peel, and cutting them into chunky pieces – the ready made mixed peel that you can buy is a little too fine for my taste, and tends to blend into the background.

Simply soak all your dried fruits in some brandy, and leave to steep overnight. This will not only allow the dried fruits to become plump and soft, they’ll also take on the flavour of the brandy, which certainly screams ‘Christmas’ to me 🙂

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The rest of the cake method is unremarkable, so if you’ve ever made a cake before you’re not going to struggle. Mostly, you just chuck everything into the mixing bowl and give it a good stir, so enlisting the help of the children is highly advisable. Whilst it is traditional to make wishes while stirring the Christmas pudding, I don’t think it hurts to double up you efforts 😉

Take note that you will need to line you cake tin well, and construct some protection to stop the fruit on top of the cake burning. My mother always did this with a high collar of brown paper, and it always served her well.

If you want to ensure that the top of the cake stays flat, you could also tie some wet newspaper around the outside of the cake tin, but I tend not to bother; My Christmas cakes inevitably include a snow scene on top, so I’m not averse to a slightly pillowy look.

This cake will need to be baked low and slow.

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Once the cake is safely out of the oven, you would be well advised to feed it some brandy. It’s also a good excuse to put a couple of slugs in your coffee to congratulate yourself for all your hard work 😀

Use a skewer to make holes all over the surface, and then encourage some brandy down into the cake. This will not only improve the flavour, but also keep your cake deliciously moist. Some people mature their Christmas cakes for literally months in this fashion, but I think a few weeks is more than sufficient; you should aim to douse your cake in brandy about once a week.

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Once you are ready to decorate your cake, the real fun can begin! Make sure that you have not fed your cake brandy for at least a few days beforehand, so that you’re not contending with excess moisture making everything more difficult.

Firstly, you will need something sticky to attach the marzipan to the cake. It is traditional to use some melted down apricot jam that has been thinned out with a splash of water. Try to go for a ‘no-bits’ jam if possible, as this will ensure a good glueing with no lumps.

Simply roll out some marzipan to the size of the top of your cake, then invert your cake onto it, and squash it down. This helps to hide some of the lumps and bumps, From there you can flip it over onto your cake board and move onto the sides. You simply cannot stretch marzipan over a cake in one piece like you would do with fondant – there’s no elasticity in it, so it just rips and makes you angry!

Ideally you should cover the sides of the cake in one long strip of marzipan, but I think that it’s totally ok to do this in a patchwork style if your rolling skills are letting you down. You’re going to cover the whole thing in royal icing anyway, so it’s not a disaster if it’s a bit of a mess at this point. To help seal the joins, simply rub them with your fingertip, and the heat from the friction should be enough to help them fuse together.

You can ice your cake immediately if you want, but I usually leave it out overnight so that the surface of the marzipan is nice and firm when you start slathering on your royal icing. If you have one of those netting food protectors that your grandmother used to have, those are particularly useful.

As to the royal icing, this is traditionally made with a raw egg white, but with all the health concerns that people have, I probably wouldn’t risk this; Either you can buy some meringue powder and mix it with the icing sugar, or you can simply buy royal icing that is ready to mix with water. Or if you’re even lazier than that, you can buy royal icing in tubs that was already been made up! None of these methods are cheating 🙂

Firstly I want to get a nice smooth surface on the cake. This is a lot easier said than done, as royal icing is a lot more difficult to work with than buttercream. I find that running a metal scraper under hot water before smoothing the cake enables you to get a much cleaner finish. As I’m covering a lot of the cake in piped decoration anyway, I don’t worry too much about this. I mainly try to focus on getting the bottom half of the cake neat, as I know that’s all that people will see in the final product.

So now on to all that fancy piping! All I’m really doing is layering a series of swags and scrolls over each other to create this look. I took inspiration from a couple of the designs from The Lambeth Method, but if you plan out your design on a flat surface first, you’ll see how easy it is to create a really complex look on your own, just overlaying simple shapes.

It definitely helps to measure and mark out your cake first, making holes with cocktail sticks, or using a food safe pen. It’s definitely worth taking the time to plan out of the  design first; Even wobbly piping can look pretty effective if your sections are even! My top tip is to cover up ugly spots and joins with little dots, and to fill any gaps (like on the corners) with a fleur-de-lis, or similar shape.

I was thoroughly delighted with how this one turned out in the end. Although it wasn’t my finest piping, given the amount of rum I’d had to drink on Christmas Eve, I’m amazed that I turned out something this good 😀

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Dan’s Traditional British Christmas Cake

400g currants
250g raisins
100g dried cranberries
100g glace cherries, quartered
75g candied lemon peel, coarsely chopped
75g candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
100mls brandy

250g plain flour
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves

250g unsalted butter, softened
250g soft light brown sugar
4 large eggs
finely grated zest of an orange
finely grated zest of a lemon
1 tbsp black treacle
100g sliced almonds
50g pistachio kernels, roughly chopped

The night before you want to make the cake, put all the fruits and candied peel in a large bowl, and stir through the brandy.
Cover with some clingfilm, and leave overnight for the fruit to absorb the liquid.

The next day, preheat the oven to 140c, and grease and line a deep 18cm (7-inch) square cake tin.

Sift the dry ingredients together, and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add the citrus zest and black treacle, stirring again to incorporate.

Add the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.
Add the dried fruit mixture and the nuts, and fold through until well distributed.

Transfer the batter to the cake tin, and smooth over as much as possible.
Wrap the outside of the cake tin in brown paper or newspaper, and tie with string.

Bake for 2 hours, or until a skewer comes out clean.
Cool completely in the tin on a wire wrack.

When cool, remove from the tin, and use a skewer to make holes all over the cake, right to the bottom.
Spoon a couple of tablespoons of brandy over the cake, encouraging it into the holes as much as possible.

The cake can be stored for at least 6 weeks like this, being fed with more brandy once a week. Do not feed the cake brandy for the week before decorating.

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Ah, Christmas cake! And for the authentically British version, you need a snow scene on top, adorned with some cheap plastic decorations. Perfection!

One of the great things about this cake is that it lasts really well. I was still enjoying it well into the new year, mostly sat by the fire, with a big mug of tea, reading the new baking books that I got for Christmas 🙂

Apologies for the incredibly lax updates of late, hopefully this post will be useful to somebody in about 9 months time, at least!

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