Part one: The most wonderful time of the year
I love Christmastime – I might actually love the weeks running up to Christmas more than the day itself. I love fairy lights in the street and glitter everywhere and putting up my tree in November even though I know everyone else hates it. I love ginger and cinnamon and nutmeg. I love wrapping presents. I love watching the music channels do Christmas playlists hosted by awkward celebrities. I love singing Fairytale of New York at the top of my voice. I love wearing Christmas jumpers and dressing up fancy for Christmas parties.
Now that we’ve lived together for a couple of years, Hattie and I have also begun creating our own traditions – like drinking cocktails before we start our Christmas shopping, and going to see a musical in December, and roasting an entire duck on the weekend before we go back to our families (Hattie wrote beautifully about this tradition yesterday on her other blog). Last year when I tasted the gravy I had made from the roasting pan, it was so good that I cried a bit.
That is the first thing that I am in charge of: the gravy. The second thing is dessert. Last year I made this incredible Mary Berry Baileys cheesecake.
This year, for obvious reasons, it was time for something more fruity (but no less boozey.)
The one thing about Christmas that I have never appreciated is that fruit manages to get EVERYWHERE. It’s in the puddings. It’s in the mince pies. If you’re not careful there will be cranberry on your turkey.
But this year, that hurdle has finally been cleared. I ate a mince pie of my own volition! I ate a turkey-and-stuffing sandwich with cranberry jelly from Sainsbury’s!
This my last Amy vs Fruit. But in the spirit of a spectacular Christmas finale when all the old favourites return to tie up their storylines, I will lay Amy vs Fruit to rest by baking lots of fruits together in a big, rich, indulgent cake.
Part two: The finale
Our story starts way back in October. All the best Christmas cakes are baked at least a month in advance – it gives time for the flavours to soak in or something – and you then have the fun of ‘feeding’ it with booze once a week to keep it moist.
I decided to use whisky. It’s not the most Christmassy of spirits – you’re probably supposed to use brandy – but I like whisky more, and I especially liked the idea of saying “one for you, one for me” to the cake every Friday night as I poured myself a glass.
I used this recipe by Nigel Slater, the lovely little Christmas elf.
Step one: Buy some dried mixed fruits, and an orange. As you grate the orange and Hattie is all “You’re grating too vigorously, Amy, stop getting the white bits in the zest,” you will remember why you were so annoyed by oranges the first time: they are just too much of a faff. Once you’ve zested the skin, juice the rest. (This came with more difficulties, because I peeled off the excess skin before I juiced, and then there was nothing to hold on to while I squeezed, and then Hattie had to step in and do it for me and hasn’t shut up about it since. But that’s just me.)
Step two: Empty your dried fruits into a bowl and cover in the hard-won orange juice, zest and whisky. Leave overnight if you remember – I didn’t, of course, so I did this first thing in the morning instead.
Step three: Beat some butter with two different types of muscovado sugar.
Step four: Beat together two eggs and add to the butter and sugar. Add the dried fruits, along with some hazelnuts and almonds.
Step five: Add baking powder to your flour, then mixed spices, nutmeg and cinnamon. It smells incredible already. Breathe it in. Then add it to the mixture one tablespoon at a time, and stir.
Step six: Line the baking tin with two layers of baking paper, and keep it a good few inches taller than the tin. This is where I made another pretty terrible mistake – I had to choose between a deep rectangular tin and a shallow round one. I thought a rectangle would be weird, so I went for the circle. Idiot.
Step seven: Pour the finished mixture into your cake tin and bake for an hour.
Step eight: Your flat (or house) smells incredible. Unfortunately when I removed my cake it was, predictably, as shallow as the stupid shallow tin I decided to put it in. It was probably about an inch thick and it looked ridiculous.
Step nine: Whatever state it’s in, there’s nothing more to do until you ice it, so keep it wrapped in the baking paper by folding the edges over the top, then wrap it in foil, then put it in a cake box and store in a dry place. Feed with a tablespoon of whisky every Friday until Christmas. Don’t forget to pour yourself one too.
**Interlude: Frank Sinatra plays. Cue a montage of Amy and Hattie going to work and riding the Ferris wheel in Lille and trying on party outfits in New Look and ordering a duck from the butchers and collapsing after a whole day of Christmas shopping**
Step ten: Look at that, two whole months have passed! I’ve had my last day at work, and it’s the day before our Flat Christmas (also known as Chelmsmas, because the tradition started in Chelmsford and it’s too late to change the hashtag now.)
Step eleven: I’ve been thinking about the flat cake and I’ve decided to take drastic measures. I’m going to cut it in half and stack it, so it’s a half-moon shape. And I’m going to use this recipe for whisky buttercream to hold it all together. I couldn’t find any advice on what to use if you want to layer a Christmas fruit cake, so I’m hoping to reap lots of google SEO from this: you can use whisky buttercream as a filling for layered Christmas cake. You can, you can, you can.
Step twelve: Whisk together butter and icing sugar. This will send clouds of powdered sugar all across the kitchen. But it looks quite festive. Add a pinch of salt, vanilla, and then two tablespoons of whisky. Whisk some more.
Step thirteen: Measure the cake carefully, and score a line down the middle before you cut. Measure it again to make sure the line is definitely in the middle – a half moon cake already looks a bit embarrassing, it might as well have straight edges. When you’re feeling brave (maybe eat some buttercream for courage), cut it in half.
Step fourteen: Spread the buttercream across the top of one half, and place the other on top. Congratulations, your cake just doubled in height!
Step fifteen: We had a request for no marzipan from one of our guests. Once again, google searches are very unforgiving. There’s an entire NetMums thread about how there is really no alternative to marzipan. Well, I’m sorry mums, but I disagree. You don’t even need apricot jam. If you’re making a Christmas cake and you don’t have apricot jam or marzipan, you can stick on the icing with whisky buttercream. It works perfectly.
Step sixteen: Dust your surface with icing sugar and roll out some white icing. You can make this yourself if you really want to, but full disclosure: I bought mine from the supermarket. It was fine. Although I had to roll it out a couple of times, because it kept getting stuck to the table underneath, and I wanted it to be as smooth and pure white as possible. When you’re happy, carefully lift it up and place it on top of your cake. Press it to the sides, and tuck in the corners. Then carefully cut away the excess.
Step seventeen: You’re done! You’re finally done! If you like, you can cover with some cute decorations. (Also bought from the supermarket in this case.) This is especially helpful if there are some cracks in the icing you would like to cover up.
In the end, despite all of the mistakes and bodges and haphazard fixes, the cake was incredible. Look at that colour! Look at that even distribution of fruit! The buttercream wasn’t weird at all – it was great! Our flatmate Suze said it was “the best Christmas cake she’d ever had” – and she might not have been lying!
And so I would like to finish this ridiculous, awkward, slightly mad blog series with the following words of wisdom:
1. You don’t always have to follow the recipe to the last detail. Sometimes you can replace things with other things, or change the plan halfway through, or acknowledge that it doesn’t look quite like the picture, but it tastes amazing anyway.
2. It’s never too late to try new things. Honestly, I know it’s scary – I really do. But the sense of achievement, the freedom of knowing that there are a few more options on the menu that you can order, makes it so worth it. And the more new things you try, the easier it will become, even if you don’t like everything. It won’t kill you – and next time you might find something you love.
3. Merry Christmas, darlings.