Christmas cake

Christmas cake.
Christmas cake. Photo: Marina Oliphant

It was Timara, a young friend helping me, who said that her grandmother used cardboard instead of paper to stop Christmas cakes from scorching. We followed suit and for good measure added a dish of water to the oven shelf below the cake to help prevent it from drying out - success.

Ingredients

500g sultanas

300g currants

175g seedless raisins

150g dried cumquat slices or a cup

good-quality bitter marmalade

150g mixed peel

Grated zest of 2 oranges

120ml brandy

300g unbleached plain flour

1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1 tsp ground mixed spice

1 tsp salt

220g softened unsalted butter

200g soft light-brown sugar

4 large free-range eggs

100g blanched almonds*

Method

Put all the dried fruit and the orange zest into a large non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly, then pour in the brandy and mix again. Leave for 24 hours at room temperature, turning the mixture once or twice to distribute the brandy evenly.

Preheat the oven to 140C and grease a 24cm round cake tin. Flatten out a cardboard box and cut a round to fit the base of the cake tin, then cut strips to line the sides. Position these in the tin, then add a baking-paper lining, making sure the paper comes 10cm above the rim of the tin. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a large bowl.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until pale and thick and the sugar has dissolved. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl, then slowly mix a tablespoon at a time into the creamed mixture - do not hurry this process as the mixture curdles easily. When all the egg has been incorporated, fold in the spiced flour very gently, then fold in the dried fruit mixture.

Tip the batter into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top. Make a pattern over the surface of the cake with the blanched almonds and bake for 3 hours. (Standing a baking dish of water on the shelf below will help ensure the cooked cake is moist.) Insert a skewer into the middle of the cake - if it comes out clean, the cake is cooked. It may, however, need up to another 20 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 30 minutes before transferring it to a wire rack to cool completely. Wrap the cooled cake in a doubled layer of baking or greaseproof paper and then in a doubled layer of foil and store in an airtight tin.

*To blanch almonds, pour boiling water over the nuts and leave them for a few minutes for the skins to soften, then slip off the skins with your fingers.