‘Christmas cake’ is often used as a descriptor in tasting notes for whisky. Sherry cask ageing in particular can taste especially festive with all those dried fruit and spice nuances. Therefore you can make your actual Christmas cake up to six times more Christmassy with a hearty helping of whisky, firstly to soak the fruit before it goes in the mix, and then to feed the cake once baked.
First things first – plan ahead!
A bit like making whisky, there are a fair few stages involved in making a proper Christmas cake, and time also plays a big part. This is no Victoria Sponge, you can’t be putting aside time to bake on 21 December and expect to have your cake ready for Christmas, not if you want to give it a proper feed.
There’s a recipe below which I got from my mum. It turns out she got it from a chap at work years ago. I only discovered this when I asked her for the recipe just now. Having eaten this cake for most of my life, I’m shocked to hear this legacy and find out it’s not a third generation family hand-me-down.
When should you start preparing a Christmas cake?
You should start the final week of November or first week of December, so there are several weeks of ‘feeding time’ before you decorate and eat the thing, though Mary Berry’s classic recipe advises “up to three months”! Fruit cakes keep for a long time. With the addition of some strong spirit and proper wrapping, preservation is not a worry, and all the flavours are allowed to meld and mature in the process.
Things start off boozy right from the get go with the soaking of the fruit. Soak all your dried fruits in your spirit of choice – whisky or brandy would be the most traditional options, though other aged spirits like rum also work, and sweeter additions like sherry, Cointreau or amaretto will add their own character. This process makes the fruits plump, and soft, and improves the texture and flavour of the final cake. Ideally you should let them soak at least overnight and even for a few days.
Why should you feed a Christmas cake?
Once the cake is baked (see recipe below), pierce some holes in it with a skewer and pour portions of whisky (or other spirit) at roughly weekly intervals for your chosen length of time. The cake needs to be kept tightly wrapped in baking paper and foil, as one of the first benefits of this feeding frenzy is to impart, and preserve its moisture. Fruit cakes are extremely rich and dense, and often need baking for several hours, and you don’t want them ending up all dried out. The alcohol will also do its part in keeping the cake preserved for longer, and most importantly of all, it imparts flavour.
A couple of tablespoons is enough to remain subtle, while still working its magic in the background, marrying all those dense fruits and spices together in classic fashion. A more generous slosh and you just amp all that Christmas cake character even more. Don’t go overboard though, and be sure to leave around a week between feeds for all the spirit to soak in, you don’t want to end up drowning it into a saturated soggy mess.
Which kind of whisky should you use?
It’s all about your flavour preferences here, but when using whisky, there’s no need to use up your special top shelf stuff in the cake. Blends are a safe bet, or anything with bold, sweet, fruity character (see our guide to great whisky on a budget). What about one that already tastes like Christmas cake such as: Christmas Cake & Dark Chocolate & Medjool Dates & Cinnamon 8 Year Old Whisky?
If you’re a fan of peat, you could brave a dash of something smoky, but if not, be sure to avoid accidental peat. Mother Symons does not like peaty whisky in her Christmas cakes. We discovered this unexpectedly last year. Seeing as it was me who donated a box of mystery drams for the cake, I did feel guilty (though actually thought it tasted rather good).
Right here’s the recipe. Good luck and happy feeding!
Christmas cake recipe
Makes a large cake
Grease and line a nine inch square cake tin with greaseproof paper.
Preheat oven 140 c
340g (12oz) butter
110g (4oz) chopped nuts – almonds or hazelnuts
340g (12oz) demerara sugar
½ tsp mixed spice plus nutmeg/cinnamon/etc to taste (bet she’s got a secret festive spice combo that she’s not sharing with any of us)
2 tablespoons black treacle
450g (1lb) plain flour
1 small wine glass whisky
450g (1lb) sultanas
450g (1lb) currants
220g (8oz) raisins
110g (4oz) glace cherries
Ideally a few days before you intend to mix the cake, weigh out the dried fruit and mix with a good slosh of whisky to allow the fruit to soak up some liquid.
Cream the butter until soft then add sugar and continue creaming until sugar begins to melt.
Beat in the eggs one at a time (add a spoon of the flour as you go if begins to curdle)
Fold in the sifted flour salt and spices
Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well.
The mixture should be quite stiff.
Transfer to the greased tin
Tie strips of thick brown paper around the outside of the tin
Baking time varies – original recipe says 6 hours at the top of the oven at 140 degrees Celsius but I find 4 ½ in my fan oven works – test if cooked using a skewer which should come out clean. Cover the top of the cake with a piece of brown paper part way through if browning too much.
Once it’s done, take out and leave to cool. Then it’s icing time!
When it comes to decorating, you can apply your own design. Cover the cake in a layer of marzipan (which can be as thin or thick as your love or hate of marzipan) and then it’s time for icing. Show off your plastering skills and create snowy peaks with soft, spreadable royal icing, or roll out some fondant icing (the harder stuff, that you can also mould into shapes) if you prefer. You could create a sophisticated pattern of roasted nuts, but if you have any class at all, some traditional little plastic Santas, robins, and holly leaves will really make the scene.