Start this recipe at least three to four weeks ahead to give the cakes time to mature. Makes six 10cm cakes.
I love Christmas and all the special food we prepare for this time of year. Even in the heat of an Australian summer some traditions endure - Christmas cake, mince tarts and pudding are treats we look forward to. And for me, a slice of fruitcake with a glass of tokay at the end of a meal is heaven.
This recipe was originally given to me by my friend Millie Sherman, a pioneer of handcrafted chocolates in her shop Otello in Sydney's Mosman. Millie's grandfather was a master baker in Germany, and this is his recipe. Over the years I've put my stamp on it, adding spices and different fruits to excite the palate. I find most fruitcakes boring, but this one offers something with every mouthful - it's lush and, as Millie says, it's easy to cut.
Quality ingredients are a must, but of course the line-up of fruit can be varied according to your taste; the end weight of the fruit should remain the same, though. The choice of alcohol is another easy change; I use rum, but whisky, for instance, would be fabulous.
I really enjoy making this cake - the beauty of all the colourful fruits laid out, the smell of the rum, the brown sugar and spices all cry out Christmas to me. With this in mind, I've made these lovely box-sized versions - gift-wrapped, they make wonderful presents that can still be enjoyed after the festive season.
This being fruitcake, the fruit is important. I like to use a colourful mix of dried fruit along with frozen sour cherries or cranberries to add moisture and an element of tartness; you can find these in the freezer section of David Jones food halls and select delicatessens and supermarkets. For the best results, plump up the apricots, figs and prunes by soaking them for two days or up to a month ahead. I start preparing the fruit for my Christmas cakes a couple of months ahead (this is more time than you'll have this year, but keep it in mind for next year's batch). I like to chop the fruit into large pieces so their individual flavours can be distinguished in the cake.
When you prepare the batter, the butter and eggs should be well chilled. Cold butter amalgamates better; otherwise it can split. Also, the colder the mix, the lighter the batter which in turn will give you a lighter cake.
First, I beat cold butter and the sugar just until the mixture is smooth, then I add the eggs one at a time, beating well to incorporate each between additions.
This allows the mixture to build to a fluffy consistency. For beating the butter, I use the paddle attachment of the mixer, then switch to the whisk to add the eggs. Next, I stir in the flour and spices on a slow speed. I do this in three batches so they're incorporated evenly. Be sure to sieve the dry ingredients to avoid lumps in the mix.
The next step is to mix together the fruit and nuts - I use almonds and pecans, but you could also use walnuts if you like - then gently fold them into the batter. I find doing this by hand is the most efficient way.
Line the tins with non-stick paper; for these small cakes you only need one layer, but for larger cakes, use two layers to prevent the sides browning too much. If you'd like larger cakes, this recipe will make two 15cm cakes, with a little batter left over; they'll take an hour to an hour and a half longer to cook than the small versions. I've never found it necessary to line my tins with brown paper as many recipes call for; I use non-stick silicon paper and I've never had a problem.
Once the mixture is in the tins, form a shallow well in the top of each, so the cakes rise to form flat tops, making a neat box shape; this is also a great trick if you plan to level off a cake because there's little waste.
Fruitcakes are best when they're cooked on a low heat for a long time; this prevents the base from burning. It also helps to place them in the centre of the oven so they cook evenly. They're ready when they feel firm when pressed in the middle. Let them cool completely in the tins before turning them out.
The final touch is to feed the cakes with your chosen alcohol as they mature. They're quite strong and spicy to begin with, but all the flavours mellow over time; I've tasted these cakes three months down the track and they just keep getting better. If possible, baste them every three or four days, and keep the cakes in a cool, dry place wrapped in foil.
In an ideal world you'd be baking these cakes at least three to four weeks before Christmas. They make great gifts, but be sure to keep a few for yourself for the holiday season.
- 120 gm each dried figs, dried apricots and pitted prunes
- 85 gm honey
- 85 ml rum or Pedro Ximénez sherry
- For greasing: canola spray
- 100 gm blanched almonds, plus extra to garnish
- 300 gm sultanas
- 200 gm raisins
- 150 gm each currants, pitted Medjool dates and glacé orange (see note)
- 125 gm young stem ginger in syrup, coarsely chopped (see note)
- 100 gm glacé citron or cedro, diced (see note)
- 100 gm glacé pineapple, diced (see note)
- 100 gm frozen cranberries or cherries (see note)
- 100 gm pecans, chopped
- 300 gm (2 cups) plain flour
- ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground mixed spice
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- ¼ tsp each finely ground star anise, ground cardamom, ground ginger and ground allspice
- 250 gm unsalted butter, chilled and brought out of fridge 5 minutes before using
- 300 gm brown sugar
- 4 eggs, chilled
- 100 ml golden rum
- 1½ tbsp caster sugar
- 1Cut figs, apricots and prunes into large pieces, then place in a small saucepan, cover with 500ml water, bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until softened but still intact (8-10 minutes). Drain and cool (20-30 minutes), then combine with honey and Sherry or rum in a saucepan and bring back to the boil, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool (30-40 minutes), then place in a sealed container and stand at room temperature to macerate for 2 days, or up to a month.
- 2Preheat oven to 150C. Spray six 10cm-square cake tins with canola spray and line the base and sides with non-stick paper, forming a collar 3cm above the top of the tin.
- 3Roast almonds on an oven tray until light golden (10 minutes). Cool briefly, then coarsely chop and reduce oven to 135C. Combine almonds with remaining fruits and pecans, and the macerated fruits.
- 4Sieve flour, bicarbonate of soda, spices and 1 tsp sea salt into a bowl.
- 5Combine butter and sugar in an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat until just smooth and creamy. Add eggs one by one, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of bowl, then add dry ingredients to butter mixture in 3 batches, mixing well after each addition.
- 6Transfer batter to a large bowl, add nuts and fruit and mix well with your hands.
- 7Place 520gm cake batter (or one-sixth) in each tin and tap tins on the bench to level the batter.
- 8Smooth batter with a small spatula and create a 2cm-3cm shallow hollow in the centre of each cake so they rise to form flat tops.
- 9Decorate around the hollows with almonds and bake in the centre of oven, turning tins once during baking, until cakes are dark golden brown and firm in the centre when pressed (2-2½ hours). Cool cakes completely in tins before turning out.
- 10Meanwhile, for soaking syrup, combine rum, sugar and 1½ tbsp water in a bowl and lightly brush syrup over cakes, then wrap cakes in foil and set aside in a cool, dry place to mature (for 3-4 weeks and up to 6 months; 2-3 months is ideal), brushing cakes with soaking syrup every 3-4 days and rewrapping in foil. Keep syrup in an airtight container in the fridge.
Note Glacé orange, cedro and pineapple, and frozen cranberries are available from select delicatessens such as The Essential Ingredient and David Jones food halls. Young stem ginger is available from select Asian grocers.