In search of: night before Christmas cake

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

…except for the cook in the kitchen, who had not yet made a cake, and not even soaked the dried fruit. And only the Coles bakery is still ‘open’.

Cue Valli Little’s night before Christmas cake, with some nifty shortcuts. The resulting cake is like that girl who looks at the clock, shrugs, does something with her hair, and suddenly stands before you looking effortlessly boho-chic for the big event.

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There is no soaking, or even searching for various types of dried fruit in supermarket aisles. The recipe uses fruit mince and fresh lemon and orange zest instead and produces a much softer and lighter batter. It is also out of the oven in just over an hour: a bonus in the middle of summer.

In place of marzipan and white icing, the cake has a ‘florentine’ topping of syrupy nuts, glace cherries and an ultra simple lemon glaze. Compared to the Hot Toddy cake, this cake seems airy with wings.

I’ve made the cake twice so far, once with only the lemon glaze and once with the florentine topping.

Without the florentine topping, this cake is a real dark horse. On day one, unlike the dark sumptuous Hot Toddy Fruitcake, this cake was mild mannered and sat on the plate quietly.

20121021175701-409But on day two, the cake container was full of a sweet, vanilla-y aroma. The cake had firmed up (and still moist), and the lemon glaze gave the tastebuds a tingle (‘hello’). On day three, the cake was still moist. The lemon glaze cracked artistically under the knife, and our teeth sank through the slightly sugary-crunchy glaze into the soft cake, streaked with fruit mince and tiny spots of zest. Their flavours lingered and seemed just right.

I made it again a week later for a picnic, this time with the florentine topping. The dark horse really came into its own. The cake stopped conversation and drew everyone’s eyes. There was no doubt this cake was here to celebrate in style.

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The nuts and cherries acquired a golden sheen from the syrup, with puddles of lemon glaze in between. The fresh lemon glaze was just a little bit fancy on its own, but here, sitting among golden syrup-roasted nuts and fruit, it balanced these stronger flavours and lifted the taste into the realm of demi-sublime.  A bit of the syrup sank into the top of the cake and added to its moist, tender texture – especially when the cake was warm from the oven.

A few people said this was their favourite of the first three cakes. Many of them came back for second or third helpings. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Stage 3: the Night Before Christmas cake

Published in the December 2004 edition of ABC Delicious, and is available on Taste.com.au.

For the cake

175g unsalted butter, softened

225g brown sugar

275g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

175ml buttermilk

2 eggs

Grated rind of 1 lemon

Grated rind of 1 orange

225g fruit mince

2 tbs brandy

Florentine topping

50g hazelnuts

50g blanched almonds

85g brazil nuts

140g red glace cherries

100g golden syrup

Icing

2/3 cup (100g) icing sugar

2 tsp lemon juice

Method

Preheat oven to 160°C. Grease and line base of a 20cm springform cake pan. Beat butter and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy, sift flour and baking powder and stir into butter mixture with buttermilk and eggs. Stir in rinds with fruit mince and brandy. Spoon into pan and bake for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, for florentine topping, place nuts, cherries and golden syrup in a saucepan and warm over a medium heat. When cake has cooked for 1 hour, remove from oven and spread topping over. Return for a further 15-30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

For the icing, mix together sugar and lemon juice, place in a piping bag with a small nozzle and drizzle over cake. Decorate with ribbon, if desired.

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