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.