Generally, I hate that Christmas has become something that starts being planned for this early. I particularly hate the emphasis that seems to be put on making everything perfect for one day, especially when there is so much excess involved. Making sure you have the 'perfect gift all the family will enjoy' or the must have Heston Blumenthal Christmas pudding (or whatever the thing of the moment is this year) - I hate it. So much time and energy is invested in consumption (I'm not just talking food here) for that one 24 hours. I get so irritated when I see colour supplements in magazines exhorting you to make sure you change your cushions & curtains for Christmas. What??? New curtains? JUST for CHRISTMAS?? Believe me, I have seen this. I'm all for traditions and making things special, but why not spend a little more time and energy every day making each day a little happier, and sod it if you don't have matching napkins and table runners for Christmas.
I am not completely humbug about Christmas, especially when there's opportunities for marzipan (can you tell where this post is going?), but the thing that really upsets me about all this consumption is that there are, today, and there will be at Christmas, families in Britain. where, either temporarily or on a longer term basis, there just isn't enough food to go round. Forget Christmas curtains, there are real, actual families not being able to feed their kids, or families where the parents go hungry so that the kids can at least have something. I know that there are millions of children dying all over the world from malnutrition, and that we are all stretched at the moment what with the recession and everything, but it does really upset me that in the midst of all this consumerist binging, people round the corner or down the road might be going hungry. The last thing they will be thinking of is Christmas curtains - although I can imagine that parents in that position might be sad that they are not in a position to create traditions for their own families. That's not to say that you can't create real traditions of family warmth simply from love and hope but it's a damn sight harder when you're worried where your next meal is coning from.
Our Church supports a local food bank run by the Trussell Trust and there are hundreds of these amazing places round the country helping families out in times of desperate need. So, you know all those buy 2 get 1 free offers in the supermarket? Why not take advantage, and give the 'free' tin or packet to a local food bank? If you were able to afford to donate that free tin or packet, I'm sure they would be thrilled. And if it helps a family out, helps them get back on their feet before Christmas - well wouldn't that be fantastic? I know it's not as straightforward as that, but you never know.
Anyway, now that I've got that off my chest, I can tell you that I baked my Christmas cake last night. I know it's a bit keen, even for Christmas cake, but in the interests of spreading costs I bought an industrial quantity of dried fruit this week, with this endeavour in mind, and the occasion arose.
I'm not a big fan of fruit cake - certainly I never was - and I always found the one that appeared at the family Christmases of my childhood to be too dry (may be it was actually the same cake form year to year...?), so I've never had a 'family recipe' to be able to fall back on (I mean, if I didn't like the cake why would I carry on baking it for the sake of tradition?). To be perfectly honest, in my book, fruit cake is only worth existing as a vehicle for marzipan. For a long time, I would skulk round at weddings and christenings (ones I'd been invited to, of course), eyeing up the 'corner' bits of cake for maximum marzipan. I even used to announce at the beginning of such things that I would gladly take the marzipan from any marzipan haters at the table (although this only after I'd got used to the fact that there are people in this world who don't like marzipan - wierdos). But the Husband is a big fan of fruit cake, as is Blue, so as our little family has developed its own Christmas traditions, I have felt the need to dig deep and find a cake that works for me. I've also become acquainted with a tradition of eating cheese with Christnas cake and a jolly fine idea it is too. If you haven't tried it, you really should. This, and the marzipan, makes me more inclined to bake Christmas cake.
I've based my cake on Nigella's 'Time-Honoured Christmas Cake' for a couple of years now, and it's always been great. This year is no exception. I am debating (as I always do) whether to make my own marzipan this year. I never have yet, but watch this space, and a second post will follow - the decorating post - where I will chronicle my latest attempts at bad taste Christmas cake decorating. Nothing is likely to top the sparkly orange creation I produced a couple of years ago, but who knows what inspiration will strike?
For a 23cm round cake tin
500g sultanas, 425g raisins, 110g currants, 220 glace cherries, 125ml sherry (or brandy), plus extra for brushing with when the cake comes out of the oven, 225g caster sugar, grated zest of 3 oranges and 1 lemon, 4 large eggs, 2 tbsp marmalade, 1 tsp almond extract, 350g plain flour, 1 tsp all spice, 1/4 tsp cinammon, good grating of nutmeg, pinch of salt.
The night before you want to make the cake, put all the dried fruit in a large bowl and add the sherry to soak overnight. Actually, you can leave the fruit like this for a couple of days.
Prepare your cake tin (I love this bit!) - wrap the outside of the tin on newspaper, making sure that the paper comes up a good way (5-10cm) above the top of the tin, and tied with string. It stops the cake burning on the outside during the long cooking time. grease and line the inside of the tin.
Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl and set aside.
Pre-heat the oven to 150C.
Cream the butter and sugar together, then beat in the orange and lemon zest. Beat in the eggs one at a time, making sure each one is well beaten in before adding in the next one, then add in the marmalade and almond extract and beat again. Mix in the soaked fruit and the flour mixture alternating fruit and flour till it is all combined, then scrape the mixture into the prepared tin.
Bake in the oven for 3-31/2 hours until a cake tester comes out clean.
When the cake is out of the oven, brush the extra sherry (hopefully you didn't drink it while the cake was cooking) over the surface of the cake, then quickly wrap the whole lot, tine, newspaper, cake in a couple of layers of foil and leave to cool completely. What happens is that the addition of the sherry and then the wrapping it up stops the top of the cake drying out. It's magic. When the cake is completely cold, remove from the tin and re-wrap, and store in an airtight tin till you are ready to decorate.