Tradition has it that this Yuletide staple improves with age; the brandy and spices merge and mature. Tradition is wrong.
Fours years ago I decided to test the theory.
At the start of September I baked a cake and stored it in a dark place, wrapped up tightly. Every so often it was drizzled with brandy for good measure.
Then on Christmas Day, I baked another cake, using the same recipe.
We employed stringent double blind methodology – the test subjects were blindfolded and the person conducting the experiment didn’t know what was what. And then we put them both to the Chomp Test.
As it turned out, there wasn’t a lot between the two offerings. One test subjects (the daughter) had a slight preference, and another subject (husband) kind of liked the other – I liked both. There was no clear favourite, both were fairly fabulous.
What it tells me as a cake maker is that you can bake your cake when the time is right for you. If that happens to be earlier in the year, so there is less to do nearer the time, that is good. If it’s on the 25th itself, that also is good.
Christmas cake is good. Especially if you have an excellent recipe, which I happen to have.
In 2007 I came across the perfect cake tin which is, in fact, wooden. Made from kahikatea, it is designed for cooking rich fruit cakes that need long cooking times.
The great news – and this made me purchase the box on the spot – is you just line the sides and base with baking paper, no further wrapping or greasing is needed. Better yet, there is no washing to be done afterwards, you simply brush it out after use.
After an initial seasoning, my wooden cake box was ready to go and I’ve never missed a year since, using the exact same recipe.
I got in touch with Anthea Dunning, who runs the Wooden Cakebox Co, now based in Devonport. She told me she grew up in the Waikato, near Morrinsville. Her father first made a set of cake boxes in the 1950s, to bake the cakes for his own wedding. Until recently the family was still using the originals.
Over time my box has darkened somewhat with use, as the oils and sugars have soaked in, but it is a thing of beauty. And tradition.
It is important never to let the oven temperature exceed 160ºC.
And now I must pour three caps of brandy over my cake.
Wooden Cakebox Christmas cake, slightly modified from Anthea’s recipe
1kg mixed dried fruit (a bit of crystallised ginger is nice!)
250g brown sugar
1 Tbspgolden syrup
skin and juice of one lemon
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp curry powder
¼ tsp salt
70g chopped almonds
1 tbsp cornflour
4 eggs, beaten
¾ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
The night before (but you can do it in the morning:)
- Put butter, golden syrup, sugar and fruit into a large saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring to stop the mixture burning. Do not answer the phone at this point, like I did a few days ago.
- Add lemon, spices, salt, chopped almonds and brandy. Cover.
- Stirring from time to time, simmer for 10 minutes, then add cornflour.
- Mix well and remove from heat. Leave to cool thoroughly.
Preheat oven to 160ºC.
- Beat eggs.
- Sift flour, baking power and soda, and add alternately to the fruit mixture.
- Line your cake tin (or box!) and bake in the middle of the oven at 160ºC for 30 minutes.
- Reduce to 120ºC and bake for two and a half to three hours – test with a knife after two and a half hours. Once it comes out clean, it is ready. Pierce with a skewer and add a small amount of brandy. Allow to cool before removing. Merry Christmas!
Wooden cake boxes can be bought directly from Anthea, click here to visit her website.