Note This recipe was inspired by one in Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries. You'll need to begin it a day ahead. Alternatively, you could make the cakes a month ahead and, as Slater recommends, "feed" them with brandy once a week until Christmas. Simply pierce them with a skewer and spoon over a little brandy. The cakes can be iced three days ahead and stored in an airtight container until required. Fondant is available from the baking section of supermarkets.
Our oven mitts get a really good workout at this time of year:
shortbread, gingerbread, glazed hams and roast turkeys all take
turns in the oven. But the lovely spiced, fruit-laden Christmas
cakes, which can be made well in advance, are usually first up in
the festive kitchen.
The fruit cake is a British specialty once known as plum cake, writes Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food. It dates back to the 13th century, when dried fruits began to arrive in Britain from Portugal and the Mediterranean.
Today's fruit cakes vary from light and golden to dark and dense with fruit. A good fruit cake requires a long time in the oven - about four or five hours - but these little ones require far less, making them better suited to cooking during summer. They can also be made a good month ahead, provided they're stored in an airtight container and regularly moistened with brandy or similar.
The dried fruits we've used here aren't entirely traditional - we haven't, for instance, used sultanas or candied peel - but there are as many potential recipe variations as there are fruits, so let taste be your guide.
A fruit cake really becomes a Christmas cake with the addition of decorative snowy- white icing. To achieve a perfectly even cake, slice off the top with a serrated knife, then turn the cake over so the base becomes the top. Marzipan or almond paste is often applied between the cake and the icing to seal the cake so it lasts longer and to create a smooth surface for the icing, but it's not essential.
While royal icing is a popular option, shop-bought fondant gives a smoother finish. Go with your personal preference, says GT food director Emma Knowles, because "it's all about the nostalgia". Em's mum makes one cake per family member each Christmas, and she says, "They're so good, they're all demolished by New Year."