Half of us think a home-made Christmas cake is out of reach – and Rachel Allen is out to prove us wrong. Claire Spreadbury dons an apron and discovers just how easy a festive bake can be
MAKING a Christmas cake is a bit of an epic challenge, isn’t it? First comes the planning, then the mixing, then months of feeding it booze, then baking, making marzipan and spending an eternity icing it – only for half your Christmas party to turn their noses up and opt for the chocolate log. It’s a whole lot of festive faff I’ve never involved myself in.
The cake was something my mum always made and now she’s not around, I either don’t bother or make do with a ready-made Marks & Spencer affair. And it seems I’m not alone.
A whopping one in five of us apparently buy a Christmas cake and pass it off as our own, according to research by Currys PC World. And unsurprising, less than half of us make the effort to bake our own cake, because we just don’t think we’re capable. We might love a bit of Bake Off and attempt the odd batch of biscuits here and there, but a Christmas cake is serious business, right?
Wrong. And the lovely Rachel Allen is here to prove it.
Not only can her delicious cake be made on Christmas Eve but it’s so easy, she reckons everyone of us can bake it. I agree to meet her for a masterclass and put this to the test.
She arrives, relaxed and mumsy, popping on her pinny and getting stuck in. She’s passionate about her craft but insists this cake is easier than making a Victoria Sponge.
“I like to include lots of other dried fruit, rather than just raisins, sultanas and currants,” she declares, throwing in a multitude of bits and pieces. “But feel free to play around with that. I love the toffee flavour of dates and crystallised ginger with the sugar on.”
And as for feeding the cake with alcohol, as long as the fruit’s soaked for at least two hours, that’s more than enough, but if you do have time, you can leave it to get sozzled for a couple of days.
Now this isn’t your traditional Christmas cake. It’s iced with an almond paste, “which is a bit like marzipan” – but so much nicer.
Getting the paste to come together is a bit of an effort. You’ll feel like you want to add more water (or brandy) but keep at it and it will be fine. “Tip the last drop of egg in and that will probably do it,” she says.
It does fall apart a bit but you patch it up like pastry and once the icing’s on the cake, go to town on it with a flat-edge cake smoother or a palette knife. The smoothing part is actually enormously therapeutic.
Once you’re done – Allen recommends rolling a glass around the sides to ensure there are no gaps between the cake and the icing . And there you have it – the easiest Christmas cake you could make.
Rachel Allen's Christmas cake with toasted almonds
110g chopped dried cranberries
110g chopped candied peel
110g chopped dates
110g chopped dried apricots
50g chopped crystallized ginger
150ml brandy or whiskey
275g butter, softened
275g soft light brown sugar
1 orange rind grated finely
50g ground almonds
2tsp mixed spice
For the Almond Paste:
450g ground almonds
450g caster sugar
1 large or 2 small eggs
2tbsp brandy or whiskey
A few drops of almond essence
To brush on the cake:
1 small egg white, lightly beaten
2 egg yolks
Preheat the oven to 150C/135 fan/300F/gas mark 2.
Line the base of a 23-inch non-stick cake tin and butter the sides. You can also put parchment paper around the outside of the tin to stop the cake drying out in the oven.
Place the dried fruit etc in a bowl. Pour on the alcohol and allow to soak for at least two hours.
In a mixing bowl, cream the butter well. Add the sugar and beat well and then beat eggs one by one. Stir in the orange zest and almonds.
Sift in the flour and spices and fold in gently followed by the fruit and any alcohol left.
Transfer into a prepared tin and bake for 2.5 -3.25 hours. Pour another tablespoon or two of the alcohol over the cake, as soon as it out of the oven. Cover the cake with tin foil, this will keep it soft while cooling. Once the cake has cooled, remove from tin and cover it again in tin foil.
To make the almond paste:
Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. Mix the almonds and sugar. In another bowl, beat eggs, add brandy or whiskey and almond essence, then add to the dry ingredients and mix to a stiff paste.
Sprinkle the worktop with icing sugar, turn out the paste and work lightly until smooth.
Remove all foil and greaseproof paper from the cake. Take about half the almond paste and place it on a worktop, dusted with icing sugar. Roll until about 1cm thick.
Paint the top of the cake with the lightly-beaten egg white and put the cake, sticky side down onto the paste. Cut around the edge of the cake, then place it the right side up with the lid of paste on top.
Roll out two long strips of almond paste ( the length of the circumference of the cake) and trim it to the height of the cake with a palette knife. Press the strips against the sides of the cake and brush entire surface with egg yolk.
Bake the cake for 10-20 minutes.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved