Seeing all the lovely Christmas bakes at the Food&Wine Christmas Show and the (excellent) Food Hall at the National Crafts & Design Fair over the last couple of weekends has reminded me that there are loads of similar fairs going on all over the country at the moment, all laid out with tempting fare designed to get you to put your hand in your pocket and keep out of the kitchen. Which is great – up to a point….
But there’s a special satisfaction to be gained from making some things yourself and it needn’t take too much time out of a busy pre-Christmas schedule. The trick, if you want to make sure your easy-peasy baking tastes really special, is to invest in the very best ingredients.
If I had an award to give for the best food stand at the RDS Craft Fair, Country Choice (above) would win hands down for their mouth-watering display of all good things Christmassy – and not just their legendary hand-made puddings, mince pies, relishes and accompaniments that truly are the best of Irish, but also the outstanding ingredients they offer to home cooks. Coming up to Christmas you’ll find them at the Limerick Milk Market as well as the shop in Nenagh. Other speciality shops also sell top quality baking ingredients of course, so seek out and support the one nearest to you.
For a simple alternative to the usual rich fruit cake with almond paste and icing – ideal when the baking has been left a little too late to allow the time that rich cakes need to mature – this Quick Christmas Cake with Easy Topping is perfect. Although it keeps very well and cuts better if allowed a week or so before use, this attractive cake – which will be welcomed especially by anyone who dislikes royal icing – can be used almost immediately if necessary. It’s a variation on the Christmas cake in my vintage baking book, The Best of Irish Breads & Baking - since it was published Longueville Apple Brandy and Highbank Orchard Syrup have arrived on the scene, which makes it even better.
6 oz/175g butter, at room temperature
7 oz/200g soft dark brown sugar
8 oz/225g plain flour, sifted
Pinch of salt
l rounded teaspoon mixed spices – cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg
1/2 level teaspoon baking powder
4 oz/100g glacé cherries
4 oz/100g chopped mixed peel
1 1/4lb/550g mixed dried fruit – 8 oz/225g currants, 6 oz/175g each raisins and sultanas
Grated zest of l washed orange and/or l washed lemon
l tbsp black treacle
3 large eggs
2-3 oz/50-75g flaked almonds
2-3 oz/50-75g ground almonds
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
A few drops real almond essence
4 tbsp Longueville Apple Brandy, or whiskey
3-4 oz/75-100g cherries or other glacé fruit
3-4 oz/75-100g whole nuts, eg walnuts and brazil nuts
Highbank Orchard Syrup to glaze (or warmed sieved apricot jam, or apple jelly)
Butter and base-line a 7″/18 cm square or 8″/20cm round loose-based cake tin. Preheat a slow oven, 300′F, 150′C, gas mark 2.
Put all of the cake ingredients into a large mixing bowl and mix well with a wooden spoon until thoroughly mixed, finally adding the apple brandy or whiskey, a little at a time, until the right consistency is reached – the mixture should be quite stiff.
Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top with the back of a tablespoon.
Bake in the centre of the preheated oven for an hour. reduce the temperature to 280′F, 140′C, Gas mark 1 and continue baking – protecting the top with a double sheet of greaseproof or brown paper if it becomes too brown at any stage – for another 1 1/4 hours or until the cake feels firm to the touch and is shrinking slightly from the tin. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
When absolutely cold, turn out and remove the base paper. If you want to store the cake, or use it as it is without decoration, wrap lightly in fresh greaseproof paper and store in an airtight tin until required.
For the topping: Add your preferred selection of fruit and nuts to the cake when cold, brushing with Orchard Syrup (or melted Apple Jelly or warmed, sieved apricot jam), to hold them in place.
To serve, set the cake on a board, sprinkle with a little icing sugar ‘snow’ if you wish, and decorate with ribbons.
Variations: A layer of almond paste can be laid under the fruit and nut decoration if you like, or you can omit the fruit and nuts entirely and cover the cake with almond paste instead. Either decorate with the usual white icing or with almond paste cut-outs – Christmas trees, holly leaves, stars and moons – then toast it in the oven or under the grill instead of icing it.