With a mix of Irish and Italian heritage, baker Odette Martini has the best of both worlds at Christmas. With two chefs in the family (her sister is Karen Martini), a Martini family Christmas is synonymous with feasting - and a traditional Christmas cake and Christmas pudding is always part of the celebrations.
A baker since 2002, Martini did her formal training in restaurants, working with Philippa Sibley and Greg Malouf, among many others. But it was while working at Baker D. Chirico that she met her husband Tony Dench and she has been involved with Dench Bakers' business ever since.
Martini has taken the Dench Christmas cake recipe and given it a tweak. While Christmas cakes can vary from light to dense and dark, Martini's recipe is rich with fruit, spices and alcohol and only gets better with age.
Christmas cakes can be made many months before Christmas and provided they're properly stored, can last for up to two years. The alcohol and sugar preserve the cake without any need for additives.
This year Martini and her family will eat a two-year-old cake. Traditionally served to visiting priests who would come to bless the home on the 12th night, Martini has a more low-key serving preference. "A small slice with a cup of tea is just perfect," she says.
Tips and troubleshooting
Martini says the cake mix is really there to hold together the star of the cake, the dried fruit, so making sure your fruit is of the highest quality is essential. Martini uses the plumpest Australian dried fruit.
Fruit that's not plump will absorb extra moisture from the cake mix, so if you're concerned the fruit mix is not moist enough she suggests adding a little extra water to the soaking mixture.
Dench Bakers uses a special spice mix created for them by spice master Peter Watson, but Martini says you can either buy a pre-mixed spice or make your own by experimenting with your favourite spices.
It's important to monitor your cake while it's in the oven to make sure it's not browning too fast and to turn the tin to control colour, depending on your oven.
Use a fine skewer to test whether your cake is done. Martini says it is fine to take the cake out of the oven when the skewer is still a little tacky.
Martini suggests slicing off any scorched pieces of cake and adding more brandy to make up for any dryness. Another option is to crumble the parts of the cake that are still salvageable and turn them into rum balls, or to fold the crumbs into ice-cream for a Christmassy dessert.
Dench Bakers likes to make its cakes quite alcoholic, quickly dipping each cake in a bowl of brandy several times in the lead-up to Christmas. Martini says once you've brushed or soaked your cake in alcohol for the last time, leave it for a week to let the alcohol mellow before serving.
When to bake
Christmas cakes can be made at any time. Some people like to make them on Stir-Up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent (falling this year on November 23). The stirring usually refers to stirring the Christmas pudding mix, but many families also consider it the best time to make a Christmas cake, too.
Martini makes the Christmas cakes for Dench three months before Christmas, but says you can make them as early as six months in advance, or right before December 25. She suggests making two cakes, one for this year and the other for next.
Martini falls into the no-icing camp. "I don't really enjoy eating it. It's the layer I peel off so I can eat the cake," she says. Instead of the traditional layer of marzipan and royal icing, she recommends an apricot jam glaze made with jam warmed with a little water and brushed on the cake before serving. This can be added to a plain cake or one decorated with nuts and cherries (see recipe).
Recipe: Dench Bakers' Christmas cake
35g mixed peel
Zest of one lemon
150g dark brown sugar
200g plain flour
1.5 tsp mixed spice (buy a spice mix or make your own using a combination of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger)
70g glace cherries
40g toasted almond slivers
Whole almonds, pecans and/or glace cherries for decorating (optional)
Extra brandy for soaking
Combine sultanas, raisins, currants, mixed peel, lemon zest and brandy in a bowl. Cover and leave to stand overnight.
The next day, pre-heat your oven to 150C. Line an 18cm round cake tin with baking paper and set aside.
Whip butter, sugar, treacle and spices in a bench mixer with a paddle attachment on medium, then high, until creamed.
Reduce the speed and add the eggs one at a time, whipping after each egg until fully incorporated. Reduce speed on mixer to low.
Sift flour and add to creamed butter and beat until smooth. This should only take about 30 seconds.
Add glace cherries and almond to the pre-soaked fruit mix. Remove the mixing bowl from the mixer and stir the soaked fruit and nuts into the cake batter until evenly combined. The mix will be thick and heavy.
Pour the mix into the prepared cake tin and smooth the surface. If you wish to decorate your cake with nuts and/or glace cherries, arrange them on the top of the cake mix before putting your cake in the oven.
Bake in the oven for 90 minutes, turning regularly and checking for colour. If the cake is becoming too dark, cover with foil. Bake for another 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Remove the cake from the oven and immediately release from the tin. While the cake is still hot, use a pastry brush to brush on a layer of brandy, then wrap in foil.
The next day remove the foil and brush again with brandy. Wrap in foil again then follow with a layer of plastic wrap. Store in a cool dark location such as a pantry until required.
You can also add more layers of brandy up to one week before eating, if desired.
Dench Bakers' Christmas range can be found at Dench Cafe, 109 Scotchmer Street, Fitzroy North, 9403 5333, at Bread & Jam for Frances, rear 701 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, 9819 2122, and at selected produce stores, farmers' markets and cafes. Christmas cakes start from $25.50 for a 520g cake. denchbakers.com.au