Cut, and come again: Boiled Fruit Cake

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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

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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.

  1. Preheat oven to 150C.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Leave to cool in the tin either completely or mostly and then finish on a wire rack.
  8. 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.

 

 

 

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Cucina di mia madrina: Eileen’s Lasagne

Choosing my favourite food is about as easy is growing money on the apple tree in my back garden. Who has the time to think about such things?

I eat everything pretty much.

But if there’s one meal that always gets me weeping with gratitude every time, it is lasagne. To me it sums up comfort food. The sight and sound of bubbling cheese. The rich savouriness and creaminess beneath the crispy top and velvety sheets of pasta (especially if it’s verdi)….it’s rare that I’ve had a bad one….maybe a ready meal but then they’re all shit if you ask me. Pardon my French.

And I don’t think I’ve ever met one person who doesn’t like it. There’s versions for vegetarians, versions for lactose-intolerant, low-fat, even low-carb and gluten free. Everyone can enjoy lasagne. Except perhaps Calgary Avansino or any of that lot. But if you’re on this blog you shouldn’t care for those delusional stick insects’ food fascism anyway.

I feel there’s no need to explain lasagne (though interestingly the American spelling ‘lasagna’ means single pasta sheet’ whilst the way us Brits spell it is the plural form) but it originated in Naples.

The northern Emilia-Romagna region (also famous for being the home of Ferrari,, Pagani, Maserati and Lamborghini)’s intensive farming economy resulted in plentiful dairy and meat products, and their commonality in regional cooking – more so than the olive oil found in southern regions of Italy. Pastas from Emilia-Romagna and its capital, Bologna, are almost always served with a ragù, (hence why it’s called a bolognese sauce) a thick sauce made from ingredients such as onions, carrots, finely ground pork and beef, celery, butter, and tomatoes.

I have numerous ways of approaching this simple baked pasta dish, from various sources – my way which is essentially similar to how my mother made it; I’ve also once made a chilli con carne lasagne (I had leftover chilli and was looking to extend it) in a surprisingly effective example of fusion food done good – the heat and earthy pungency of the chilli matched up pretty damn well to the rich bechamel sauce.  The Calabrian take, as published by Nigella Lawson is another regular on my repertoire, and it dispenses with the bechamel altogether and uses sliced ham and eggs between the layers along with finely cut mozzarella cheese.

So why am I sharing a recipe for something most people know? Simple, the amount of pre-made and heinous ‘lasagne dinner kits’ available now infuriate me and it’s frankly not a complicated dish to put together – never equate difficult with time-consuming. It was one of the first ‘proper dinners’ I made sure I knew how to cook before going to university as it ages well and can last a good 2-3 days so even if you live alone, you can still make it yourself.

The recipe I’m sharing here however, comes from my maternal aunt and godmother Eileen Maturi, and as I understand it, came via her father in law who was Italian. I will put up my own version in due course should anyone have a burning desire to make it.

I remember having this as a child numerous times whenever we visited hers, and it was literally a case of seeing ricotta, one of the ingredients,  on the supermarket shelf a few years back and being suddenly hit with a flashback to this and subsequently reaching out to my mother to contact my aunt (whom I since have on Facebook and will tag in this post) for her recipe to see if I could recreate it.

The ingredients as prepared. I am unashamed in the obvious austerity present - as Jack Monroe rightly says, the value-brand items are mere building blocks of a finished dish. it's how you put them together that counts.
The ingredients as prepared. I am unashamed in the obvious austerity present – as Jack Monroe rightly says, the value-brand items are mere building blocks of a finished dish. it’s how you put them together that counts.

I tend to make lasagne somewhat on the wet side just for fear of dryness but if you want it to come out in picture-perfect slabs, reduce the ragu for longer or use less liquid.  You will want enough there for the pasta sheets to absorb and cook in, so try not to make it too dry.  Another way, as shown in the abysmal third photo below, is to allow it to rest for 15 minutes-half an hour if you have stronger willpower than me, as this will make it a bit easier to cut clean and retain its characteristic layers.

A final note, if the mince you’re using is pretty fatty (especially on top of the fat from the bacon and the cooking oil for the vegetables) then pour off any excess, but because you’re twice-cooking the meat I recommend not bothering, as the fat will keep the mince moist as the lasagne bakes and it won’t make it greasy.

This is the order in which you build the layers - ragu, a blob of ricotta-egg mix in each corner and a scattering of chalkily stringy mozzarella. You don't need to drown it in béchamel either, just 1-2 serving spoonfuls trailed across will suffice.
This is the order in which you build the layers – ragu, a blob of ricotta-egg mix in each corner and a scattering of chalkily stringy mozzarella atop that before the white sauce. You don’t need to drown it in béchamel either, just 1-2 serving spoonfuls trailed across will suffice.
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Be sure to alternate the direction of the sheets – for example, for the following layer to this, place the vertical sheet on the right hand side as opposite to the left as shown here. Overlapping is desirable as it helps with the structure.
An appalling image of the served-up result. I was too hungry to wait. Ideally you want to allow a cooked lasagne to rest a while (like a roast joint it improves upon standing) as this makes it easier to cut clean if aesthetics are of importance. Patience is not a virtue I was blessed with unfortunately so initial serving was somewhat imperfect and wet. Once cooled for the following day it will slice like a dream for that better Instagram shot.
An appalling image of the served-up result. I was too hungry to wait. Ideally you want to allow a cooked lasagne to rest a while (like a roast joint it improves upon standing) as this makes it easier to cut clean if aesthetics are of importance.
Patience is not a virtue I was blessed with unfortunately so initial serving was somewhat imperfect and wet, because I dished up very soon after it left the oven so naturally the distinct layers were lost.. Once cooled for the following day, however,  it will slice like a dream and retain said layers better for that better Instagram shot.

Eileen’s Lasagne

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Serves: 4-6

For the ragu:
8oz /250g minced beef
3 large mushrooms (finely chopped) or around 200g regular size, sliced
1 regular onion, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
2 rashers streaky bacon, roughly diced, or 1 small pack pancetta cubes or lardons
1 large carrot, diced
Half a pint/280ml beef stock
3 tbsp tomato puree
Bay leaf
Dried basil, to taste
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
Red wine, to taste

For the béchamel:
4tbsp butter
4tbsp plain flour
500ml milk
Around 50g grated cheddar (optional)

For assembling lasagne:
1 x 250g tub of ricotta cheese
1 x 250g pack grated mozzarella cheese
Lasagne sheets

1. Sweat chopped onion, celery, carrot and bacon in 2tbsp oil until soft .

2. Add mince and cook until raw red colour disappears.

3. Pour in tinned tomatoes, basil and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Mix the tomato puree in with the stock and pour in, if necessary use this to swill out tomato tin. I recommend keeping a bit of the stock back in case you need to add more later. Bring to boil.

4. Simmer for about 20 minutes.

5. Add wine to taste and a little bit of sugar if needed if it’s a bit too acidic. Continue simmer and reduce for about 20 minutes more, but do not let it go too dry. If necessary slacken with any remaining stock or just add some water. Once it’s reduced sufficiently, remove from heat and set aside. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.

6. To make the béchamel, first, heat the milk in the microwave or on the stovetop (this will stop lumps forming in the sauce) and set aside. Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat and add the flour, whisking to make a roux.

7. Pour in milk and stir constantly with a whisk to stop lumps until sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season well with salt, pepper and nutmeg. You can add grated cheddar cheese if you want to.

8. Whisk egg into the ricotta cheese with a fork to make a smooth, droppable consistence, and then place an ovenproof dish on a baking sheet and get ready for the grand assembly.

9 .Place a bit of white sauce in the bottom of your dish, put Lasagne sheets on top. (don’t worry if there’s overlapping) .For the bottom layer add some (about 1-2 ladles) of meat sauce, put a little ricotta on ( I usually blob a bit in each corner)followed by a handful of the mozzarella, then pour a little white sauce over. Cover with more lasagne sheets.

10. Repeat (about 2 or 3 more times) until the ragu and ricotta are used up – which is why I haven’t given a specific weight for the lasagne as it depends on the size of your dish – be sure to leave some mozzarella for the top . It’s a good idea to alternate the direction of sheets to help it stay together.

11. Put a layer of sheets on top of the final ragu layer, pour the rest of white sauce over, and the remaining mozzarella cheese.

12. Bake for 45mins – or until golden and bubbling on the top and cooked through (easy way to test is stab the centre with a knife and if it slides down easy, all the pasta has cooked). Rest for a few minutes before cutting into fat slabs.

ENJOY
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Marion’s Malt Loaf/Harvo Loaf

Family recipes are something we should all treasure. They are a building block of our formative years and no off-the-shelf cookbook, no matter how good, will ever conjure up the same warmth and comfort than making food that’s as intrinsic to your own past as something your mom, aunt, or nan (or these days, could also be your dad, uncle or granddad) used to make.

And yet it will never taste the same as when they made it. But yet I somehow want to share with anyone who reads this, recipes from mostly my mother’s side of the family. This one, from my great-aunt Marion via my mother’s battered recipe journal, is a classic and will probably be familiar to some. It has been much made by me (indeed, it was partly the bass line for my Irish Porter Cake recipe) both rigidly to the original and with numerous variations.

So what is the recipe?

What was wrong with it (bob-a-job week) was that people like you were getting little lads to shift pianos and double-glaze the French windows…..in exchange for nine pence ha’penny and a slice of malt loaf.”  – Jean, dinnerladies episode ‘Catering’, by the late Victoria Wood.

Malt loaf.  That squidgy, fruited, malty brown cross between cake and bread so unique to Britain. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t love it, or ‘sticky bread’ as I first encountered it in Jon Carrie Nursery School (when I didn’t get sent home for severe homesickness-induced tantrums…). Malt loaf was also known as ‘Harvo loaf’ in Birmingham but I’ve never come across this pretender to Manchester-based Soreen’s crown (probably because Harvo went bust in 1973.)

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About the only photo I can find of the original ‘Harvo loaf’.

I still call this recipe Harvo loaf anyway owing to my Midland roots, and perhaps to lend it a false air of rose-tinted legacy.

This recipe, like the Porter Cake, doesn’t require scales, creaming of fats and sugar, folding, sieving or any of that nonsense. All you need is a mixing bowl, a 2lb loaf tin and a regular-sized 200-250ml tea mug (no dainty bone china or big Starbucks type mugs!) as your unit of measurement. You may have encountered this type of thing as ‘Weetabix cake’ or ‘All Bran cake’ as breakfast cereal is one of the ingredients. The recipe, as taken from Auntie Marion, calls for All-Bran, but I have also used Bran Flakes, Shreddies, Weetabix or Shredded Wheat in its place. You can get that squidgy Soreen flavour by adding malt extract and wrapping up and leaving for a day or so before diving in, but All-Bran or bran flakes will give the malt flavour already.  It contains no eggs and no butter, so fat free, yay. Unless you slather it thickly in good real butter, of course, which is not compulsory, but highly recommended.

Of course like many simple cakes, you can tweak the recipe to suit your own tastes. Use any mix of dried fruit you want, and the same with the type of sugar used. I cannot recommend classic dark brown soft enough, but again, feel free to do a mix of brown and white, light brown, dark muscovado, whatever you like or have on hand. Same with the milk – whatever you have as it’s just the wetting agent but obviously will push the fat content up or down. And if you’re catering for a vegan or dairy-intolerant crowd, simply use any alternative, or failing that, strong black tea.

If you can’t find malt extract, then a couple of spoonfuls of Horlicks powder would also be a good addition to boost the malty taste. The world’s your pickle, as Laura Vitale says.

However, be aware that you may have to bake the loaf for longer depending on the size of mug and tin you used. Just check to see when the tester comes out clean but in my experience it never takes longer than 1 hour 15 minutes. 1 hour 20 at a push.

It keeps well, up to a week, and is best served thickly sliced with a brew and with that optional butter.

The loaf shown in the photos was the last time I made this recipe and used Weetabix (or Waitrose’s rip-off imitation version). It was for work so never got around to taking photos of it sliced! However I find that for the true Soreen taste, All-Bran is the best bet.

As made the 'correct way', with All-Bran. Takes on a more Soreen-esque colour and taste.
As made the ‘correct way’, with All-Bran. Takes on a more Soreen-esque colour and taste.

 

Marion’s Malt Loaf / Harvo loaf

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1 x mug mixed dried fruit

3/4-1 x mug dark brown sugar

1 x mug All Bran cereal (the plain stick-shaped one beloved of the elderly please)/Bran flakes/Weetabix/Shreddies

1 x mug milk (any kind will do, depends how virtuous you’re feeling. Dairy-free milk will make this vegan but check your cereal box as well if you’re baking for vegans)

1 x mug self-raising flour

Optional:
1 tsp mixed spice
1-2 tbsp malt extract, plus extra for glazing
1 tbsp black treacle
Nib sugar, for sprinkling atop before baking

  1. Soak cereal of choice, fruit and sugar (and treacle/malt if using) in the milk for 6-8 hours or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to Gas Mark 4/160C fan/180C.
  3. Add the flour (and spice if using) and mix to combine.
  4. Pour this somewhat stiff mix into a greased and lined 2lb/900g loaf tin, sprinkle with nib sugar if using, and bake for 1 hour-1 hour 15 minutes (depends on size of mug used and tin – the mixture can vary in consistency too) until risen and a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.
  5. Cool in the tin for a little while and then remove and finish on a wire rack. If using malt extract to glaze, smear this over whilst still warm.
  6. Slice thickly and smother with proper butter if desired and enjoy with a brew.

Stir-Up Sunday: Traditional Christmas Cake.

In keeping with the seasonal theme to the blog, I am publishing my recipe for Christmas cake, that I’ve used every year since 2010. I inherited it from my mother.

Stir Up Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of November, the day you’d traditionally make your Christmas pudding or Christmas cake. Not everyone abides by this; some make their puds in January, some make their cakes in August – everyone’s got their own traditions. I make my Christmas cake on this day and have done every year thus far.

The Christmas cake is a curious thing. An extra-rich take on the traditional British fruit cake (a fruitcake, one word, is something quite different, an American ‘tradition’ and another recipe I intend on publishing!), it is heady in alcohol and often left to mature, to be ‘fed’ with booze weekly/monthly until Christmas. It is usually topped with marzipan and fondant icing to depict a snowy scene, or left minimalist, rather like a boutique hatbox. Some prefer to top it with chopped glacé fruits and nuts rather like a gemstone jigsaw (and it does look strikingly pretty as a centrepiece).

It’s had a bit of a bad rep – many people don’t like it (a bit like its gaudy American cousin) and indeed I wouldn;t touch any cake/bun with fruit in as a child. The negative stereotype of this cake is an inedible, dessicated slab, full of wrinkled currants and icing so hard it’d break your teeth (Nigella summed this up on her Christmas Kitchen series and I happen to agree 100%!) – think bad wedding cake. However a good Christmas cake is rich, moist, boozy and decadent. Some even like theirs with a sharp cheese.

Whatever your views, most homes shouldn’t be without one, even as a centrepiece – you may not have room on Christmas Day but in the following depressing weeks of January, it’s a reassuring warm treat with a brew and you don;’t have to cut a whacking great slice.

Be warned, this recipe makes a MONSTER of a cake. Last Christmas, after ending up chucking the leftovers in previous years when even I couldn’t face it anymore,  I halved it for our 4-person household and it was a perfect size. This is the one shown in the photos  – the recipe, halved. The time the blog went live, I hadn’t made this year’s yet! Plus, you could use it to make 2 smaller cakes or if you do entertain a crowd this festive season, feel free to make the full recipe.

I do recommend halving it for a smaller household but it’s entirely up to you!

Christmas Cake

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12oz plain flour

6 eggs, beaten with 1 tbsp milk

4oz ground almonds

1tsp mixed spice

grated nutmeg (to taste)

1tsp ground cinnamon

8oz chopped dates (for candied-peel phobes. Replace with peel if you like, or even prunes for extra moisture)

8oz sultanas

8oz raisins

4oz chopped glacé cherries

Brandy (3tbsp approx but again, to taste)

Sherry

8oz margarine (or butter if you wish, I prefer Stork in all my cakes)

8oz dark brown soft sugar

1tbsp black tracle

Grated zest 1 orange

  1. Soak fruit in brandy and sherry for 1 hour at least, overnight preferable.
  2. Prepare cake tin (s) – grease and line with parchment paper, on both the bottom and the sides – make sure your papers around the sides are about 2/3 the height of the tin over to stop cake burning.
  3. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.
  4. In one bowl, mix dry ingredients
  5. In another, cream margarine and sugar, and gradually beat in eggs. It may curdle – unlike a sponge, a fruit cake is dense so don’t worry too much.
  6. Add fruit, treacle and citrus zest. Make a wish.
  7. Pour batter into prepared cake tin and smooth top.
  8. Bake for 1 hour at 180. Afterwards, reduce to 150 and bake for 2-3 hours (all depends on size of tin and ovens do vary). Check periodically – cover top of cake with foil if browning too quick. Cake will be done when a tester comes out clean.
  9. Cool in tin(s) for 10-15 minutes before carefully removing and finishing on a wire rack. Or cool completely on rack in tin(s).
  10. When completely cool, pierce several times witha  skewer and pour over a few tablespoons of brandy/sherry/liquor of choice – ginger wine is another great option, as well as any spiced European liqueurs such as Becherovka if you have them; hell if you have Jagermeister, you could splash a little of that over. Let it soak in, and then wrap tightly in tinfoil and store in an airtight container. Unwrap and re-feed once a week/however often you feel like it until a few days before Christmas.
  11. Cover in marzipan (24 hours before icing preferable) and ice as you wish.  I now make my own marzipan and fondant icing to do this – will put up recipes for both in a few weeks. Or forego this and cover with fruit and nuts, stuck with apricot jam and glazed. Your cake, do what you want.

    Alternatively, if you miss Stir-Up Sunday and have left it until the last minute,then you could always make a boiled cake (sounds horrid but honestly, it just speeds up the long soaking process!). In which case, follow these steps:

  12. Place fruit, alcohol, margarine, sugar, treacle, spices and citrus zest into a saucepan big enough, and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes and then remove from the heat. Leave for half an hour.
  13. When  the half hour is up, mix together almonds and flour, and add mixture to these along with your beaten eggs, and proceed to bake in prepared tin (s) as you would for the normal recipe. It still has the long life you’d expect a fruit cake to have and feed as normal depending how much time you have!