There is nothing more evocative than the sweet scent of alcohol-steeped fruits mingled with spices, a heady combination indeed, and one which plunges me headlong into feeling festive. The making of the cake will always be a grand old Christmas tradition for me, and one which I associate with the unexpectedly prompt arrival of my first baby (a story I have already told).
I am still rolling out the same tried and tested Christmas cake recipe from How To Be A Domestic Goddess (if ever there was a book title which didn't have my name on it! One day I'll pen my own, probably called 'Slapdash Annie's Guide to Bungled Family Cooking'. Now that's definitely a book with my name on it). And still using marsala to soak the dried fruit. I stick with the my-mother-told-me-to-do-this-so-it-must-be-right technique for ensuring the sides of the cake don't cook too quickly, or, god forbid, burn - a wodge of newspaper sheets folded into a band to be tied around the exterior of the cake tin with string prior to baking.
That's good old King Cnut on the newspaper, looking important - he may not have been able to stop the tide coming in, but he definitely stopped the edges of my cake from burning.
This cake is nut-free, so good for my nut-allergic daughter (I just omit the almond essence). Here's the recipe, quantities to fit a 23cm diameter springform tin:
Soak 700g of sultanas, 225g of raisins, 110g each of currants, mixed peel and glace cherries in 120ml of marsala overnight. Then cream 225g of butter and 195g of soft dark brown sugar with a teaspoon each of orange and lemon zest. Beat in 4 large eggs, one at a time, adding a little of the flour if the mixture starts to curdle. Beat in 2 tbsp of marmalade. Sift your dry ingredients (350g of plain flour, 1 tsp of mixed spice, 1/4 tsp each of nutmeg and cinnamon and a pinch of salt) into the dried fruit and stir to coat. Then gradually add the dried fruit and flour to the cake batter and mix until thoroughly combined. Bake for 3 hrs at 150 degrees C, wrapping in foil after removing from the oven. After the cake has cooled, remove from the tin and wrap in foil again and store in a tin for several weeks to mature.
I've evolved the method a little . This makes me feel like a proper baker, the kind that makes pencilled-in notes in the margins of her cookbooks to tweak the recipe (even though I'll never actually do this because we do not write in books!). Casually ignoring Nigella's instructions, I introduce my lemon and orange zest at the creaming stage and not afterwards so that all that pounding of the butter and sugar will release all the oils (see, it almost sounds as if I know what I'm doing). I also, in a great-British-bake-offerly way, coat the dried fruit in the flour before introducing both to the cake batter together rather than each in turn. I'm sure I have read somewhere that doing this stops the fruit sinking to the bottom, although fat chance of that happening with this cake recipe, which is basically a heap of dried fruit glued together with a light coating of batter - if the fruit sinks through the fruit, I can't see too much of a problem arising.
The cake is now baked and waiting patiently in its tin, and I can relax, safe in the knowledge that prising off the lid to inhale that Christmassy aroma can cheer up the most dismal of days!
And look, there's well over 3/4 of a bottle of Christmas spirit left, which is a good job as this is usually Father Christmas's chosen tipple when he stops at our house on Christmas eve!