I have been hesitating about this post for three weeks. The cake was the first ‘near-fails’ I have had for a while, and I had high hopes for Delia Smith’s famous Christmas cake recipe, unchanged since 1978.
But, this is why I started a blog – to record ideas and trials, both successes and failures.
Besides, I gave the cake Twilight themed decoration, and how often do you see (badly lit) photos of a Twilight themed Christmas cake?
The reason for the near-miss was the baking time. Delia’s instructions were clear: don’t even look at the cake until at least four hours have passed. When someone with Delia’s motherly authority says that, one obeys the instructions. To the tee.
Three hours later, I began to smell ripe fruit cake.
But I had Delia metaphorically looking into my eyes and repeating, don’t even think about looking at it.
Four hours later, I opened the oven. My first thought was ‘borderline burnt‘. My second thought…was more suitable for an Aussie pub than US television.
I managed to save the cake from disaster: by dousing it in a mixture of strong tea and rum every few days, cutting away the darkest bits around the edges, leaving only the square, least-overcooked part in the middle.
After nearly three weeks, the cake softened and became much more moist. The sultanas, raisins and citrus peel asserted themselves. Even the slightly charred smell mellowed and served to accentuate the complex flavours of the alcohol-laden fruit cake. Phew!
In the end, the cake tasted good in that heavy, spicy, darkly dramatic way. When nibbling on a slice, we could almost close our eyes and imagine snow outside, almost – except for the summer sun shining through the windows.
On further research, I found comments from a number of bakers who had similar experiences with this recipe. One explanation is Delia wrote this recipe when (British) ovens were less efficient, and such a dense cake needed four to five hour cooking time. With a modern oven, the baker probably needs to reduce the cooking time (by about one hour), or lower the oven temperature (by up to 50°C). And double line the baking pan.
For me, the moral of the story is trust your nose and check on that cake, even if Delia Smith is looking over your shoulder.
So what about the Twilight themed cake decorations, you ask?
A friend is fanatical about the Twilight books and movies (yes, we like her despite this aberration in taste). She is also fanatical about a proper Christmas – real fir trees, hand written invitations, family, friends, and turkey.
What better gift than a cake that combines both of these passions?
I covered the royal icing layer in silver glitter so it sparkled (like the vampires who glowed like diamonds in sunlight). Then, I cooked sugar syrup until it was dark, added a tiny drop of red food colouring, and spun it over the white icing (kind of like blood). While the spun/dribbled sugar was still warm, I sprinkled gold glitter over the sugar strands (more festive glittering vampire goodness).
She was very happy with her non-traditional Twilight-in-a-cake.
Very dark Christmas cake
Adapted from Delia Smith Online, my notes in brackets
1 lb (450 g) currants
6 oz (175 g) sultanas
6 oz (175 g) raisins
2 oz (50 g) glacé cherries, finely chopped
2 oz (50 g) mixed candied peel, finely chopped
3 tablespoons brandy, plus extra for ‘feeding’ (note, I gave the fruit much more liberal slugs of brandy, probably close to half a cup. I noticed some reviews in online forums agreed the dried fruits need much more brandy; remember you need enough to flavour and moisten more than half a kilo of dried fruit)
8 oz (225 g) plain flour
½ level teaspoon salt
¼ level teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ level teaspoon ground mixed spice
8 oz (225 g) unsalted butter
8 oz (225 g) soft brow n sugar
4 large eggs
2 oz (50 g) almonds, chopped (the skins can be left on)
1 level dessertspoon black treacle
grated zest 1 lemon
grated zest 1 orange
Decoration or icing
4 oz (110 g) w hole blanched almonds, if you don’t intend to ice the cake, or
Marzipan and either fondant or royal icing, plus cake decoration as needed. There are a few variations online, including pecan marzipan and brandy butter.
1. The night before: weigh out the dried fruit and mixed peel, place it in a mixing bowl and mix in the brandy. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave aside for 12 hours or overnight.
2. Next day: pre-heat the oven to 275°F / 140°C (note, a couple of people commented in various forums that they turned the temperature down to 100°C, and successfully baked the cake for four hours). Take a 8 inch / 20 cm round cake tin or a 7 inch / 18 cm square tin, grease and line with baking paper. Tie a band of brown paper around the outside of the tin.
3. Measure out remaining ingredients. Sift the flour, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl, lifting the sieve up high to give the flour a good airing. Next, in a separate large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and sugar together until it’s light, pale and fluffy. Now beat the eggs in a separate bowl and add them to the creamed mixture slowly and whisk until incorporated. The mixture may curdle at this point, but it will be ok once you add the flour.
4. Fold in the flour and spices, using gentle, folding movements. Fold in the fruit, peel, chopped nuts and treacle and the grated lemon and orange zests. Transfer the cake mixture into the prepared tin, spread it out evenly with the back of a spoon.
5. If you don’t intend to ice the cake, lightly drop the whole blanched almonds in circles or squares all over the surface. Finally cover the top of the cake with a double layer of silicone paper with a small (1cm) hole in the centre.
6. Bake the cake on the lowest shelf of the oven for 3-4 hours, checking regularly after 3 hours. (Delia’s original ask you to bake for at least 4½-4¾ hours, and in any case don’t look till at least 4 hours have passed. Given the differences between ovens, I think it is important to start checking from 3 hours).
7. Cool the cake for 30 minutes in the tin, then remove it to a wire rack to finish cooling. When it’s cold ‘feed’ it – make holes in the cake with a skewer, then spoon over a few teaspoons (or a few good glugs)of brandy. If you are intending to store the cake, wrap it in two layers of baking paper, and either wrap again in foil or store in an airtight container. Feed it at odd intervals until you are going to ice or eat it.
8. Icing and decorating the cake: I found several very good video and written instructions online, such as this one on BBC Good Food. I used edible glitter and spun sugar on my cake. Edible glitter is available from specialist cake decoration stores, including online stores.