Now the leaves are brown, the skies are grey, the nights have truly drawn in and there is a sharp chill in the air, we want food that’s familiar, comforting and warming. Think casseroles with dumplings. Curries. Lentil soups that stick to your ribs and hug from within.
But baking is a crucial part of autumn and winter for me. And nothing to me says Great British winter than a proper old-fashioned fruit cake. The kind your grandma would always have on hand, stashed in an ancient biscuit tin, ready at any given moment to be enjoyed with a cup of tea.
I used to loathe fruit cake (as I probably stated in my Christmas cake recipe and my malt loaf recipe), hot cross buns, anything baked with raisins in, but yet I’d eat them on cereal. Now as an adult, some of my favourite cakes are of the fruited variety. I love mince pies, Christmas pudding, tea cakes…you name it.
Speaking of the festive season, one of the things I most enjoy in the run-up, is making my Christmas cake. And it struck me. Why should I wait once a year to enjoy the dense, spicy, brown wedge of Britishness, loaded with plump fruits and making you feel like the world is a better place? Why can’t I make it whenever I want? I mean, mid-July perhaps no, but we won’t see a sniff of sun until March at least from now.
Boiled fruit cake, to those unfamiliar, I admit sounds gross and unappetising. But it is merely a fast way of getting extra moisture into something that if done badly, can be something desiccated with wrinkled currants in it that’s so inedible you may as well chew on loft insulation. The wonderful Candice Brown (take your hate elsewhere please) baked one during one of the showstopper challenges, and even more heartwarmingly, she used her grandmother’s recipe.
So boiled? Cake? Simple. Instead of creaming your butter and sugar, and soaking your fruit in tea or alcohol, all the ingredients except the eggs and flour are placed in one pan and simmered for about fifteen minutes, before said eggs and flour are added after it has had a chance to cool, and then baked in the normal way in the correctly-lined tin.
I was inspired by Candice a little here, as well as looking back in my own past. My great-grandma on mom’s side, whom I never met as she passed away before I was born, was keen on making a boiled fruit cake, but my late nan, to my knowledge, never made one. The recipe I am using does have good legacy, as it is my mother’s (and mine) Christmas cake recipe, already published here, halved for a smaller tin (in this case a 20cm springform, lined in the usual manner to insulate the cake).
The weights and measures are in ounces, because I find this simpler to scale up or down and I like to think it adds to the old traditonal feel of the recipe!
I just go for the pre-mixed bag of dried fruit for this, but you can use any combo of dried fruit that takes your fancy; cranberries would be great, dried cherries, dried blueberries, the sky’s the limit. I know candied peel is the marmite of the baking world and has many, many haters, I used to hate it until very recently, so feel free to avoid. I will say this though – the toffee sweetness of dates isn’t recommended as they just melt down in the heat and make your mixture too sticky. You’re probably also recoiling at the use of prunes but they do help with the squidgyness of the cake; however you can of course just sub them with more dried fruit of your choice, or even some chopped nuts. I always think there’s room for flexibility in cooking.
Alcohol brings that festive decadence to the proceedings as well as the all-important liquid element – I used brandy, mixed with a small amount of black-as-tar, raisiny Pedro Ximinez sherry that Nigella Lawson is a huge fan of (honestly, try it. It’s a good investment!), but again, use what you like. Ginger wine would be good, and obviously dark rum too. Becherovka as well, if you can find it…like the fruit, this is where you can make it your own.
If you don’t want to go the full on hard liquor route, then an absolutely dandy alternative would be stout, ale, or of course, porter, to make that Irish classic, porter cake.
You could of course, use black tea instead of the alcohol, and bump up the flour to 8 oz to save a bit of cash if you like.This is essentially a Christmas cake in all but name really, but if you can’t justify bunging a load of booze in, or you’re reading this when it’s not the festive season, just go for the aforementioned tea and leave out the almonds. Just make sure you have 8 fl oz of liquid.
This is a soft, squidgy cake that will banish any memories of granny’s aged and dry cake or bad shop-bought versions. And if you are using this as your festive cake, then it means you can make it at the last minute as the pan does months of steeping work in just 10-15 minutes.
Boiled Fruit Cake
6oz plain flour
2 oz ground almonds (or use 8 oz plain flour)
4 oz butter (I recommend salted)
4 oz dark brown soft sugar
1 tbsp black treacle
1 tbsp honey
2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp allspice
ground nutmeg to taste
9 oz mixed dried fruit
3 oz prunes, roughly halved or cut into three if they’re big
2 oz glace cherries, halved
8 fl oz brandy, or a mixture of brandy and Pedro Ximinez, or stout/ale/porter, or black tea
1 orange, zest and juice
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp almond extract
OPTIONAL: 1 tbsp each of orange flower and rose water.
- Preheat oven to 150C.
- Put butter, sugar, treacle, honey, spices, orange zest and juice, along with the fruit into a saucepan, before pouring over the alcohol/tea and flower waters if using. Essentially every ingredient bar the flour, almonds and eggs.
- Bring to the boil, stirring to prevent catching and to help melt down the butter. When it is boiling, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let stand for 30 minutes.
- Whilst the fruit mix is standing, use this time to line the tin. For those who don’t know, you grease the tin and place a disc of parchment in the bottom as for a regular sponge cake, but in addition, you need to cut a length of baking parchment long enough to fit the entire diameter of the tin, around the height of the tin doubled – this helps to insulate the cake when it cooks – and wrap this around the inside, snipping cuts in the bottom to help it sit around the edge easier. If it sounds like I’m talking rubbish, then just google!
- When the fruit mix has had its stand time, mix in the beaten eggs before finally adding the flour and almonds, stirring until combined but being careful not to over mix.
- Pour this treacly batter into the prepare tin and bake for 1 and a half hours, or until a tester comes out clean. Or you could follow Fanny Cradock’s advice and listen to it – if it’s singing at you, it’s not ready yet.
- Leave to cool in the tin either completely or mostly and then finish on a wire rack.
- Store in an airtight container and enjoy with a brew, or if this is your Christmas cake (which I realise this recipe sounds uncannily like), pierce and feed with alcohol, wrapping up and repeating this until ready to ice in your preferred manner.