Monday, 3 December 2018

My Mum's Classic Christmas Cake

This is a dense, boozy, spicy Christmas cake that evokes many happy memories. My Mum Jenny Hobbs made this every year when we were kids, using a recipe inherited from her own mother, and I have used the same formula (with a few tweaks of my own) for the past 20 years.

You'll find the recipe directly below and, underneath that, my detailed cook's notes. Whether you serve this cake naked, or add a cloak of home-made marzipan, or add marzipan and Royal icing is up to you - isn't it interesting how people have emphatic opinions about what should go on top of a Christmas cake? Is a luscious, almondy layer of marzipan enough? Or must every fruit cake be smothered with a swirly frosting of deliriously sweet, tooth-cracking Royal icing? You tell me!

My Mum's Christmas Cake

I've halved my Mum's original recipe, which is so enormous that it requires a gigantic mixing bowl and very strong arms. But still, this halved formula will make a cake that easily serves 10 people.

Classic Christmas Cake 

For the fruit/nut mix:
½ cup (125 ml) dried apricots
½ cup (125 ml) pecan nuts
½ cup (125 ml) walnuts
½ cup (125 ml) glacé cherries
800 g mixed dried fruit (including candied peel)
½ cup (125 ml) flaked or slivered almonds
2 Tbsp (30 ml) cornflour

For the cake:
500 g unsalted butter, very soft
250 g brown sugar
4 extra-large free-range eggs
500 g cake flour, sifted
60 g cornflour, sifted
½ tsp (2.5 ml) nutmeg
½ tsp (2.5 ml) ground cloves
1 Tsbp (15 ml) good instant coffee
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) syrup or honey
the finely grated zest of a lemon
the juice of a lemon
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract or or 2 tsp (10 ml) vanilla essence
1 tsp (5 ml) almond extract
a pinch of salt

For feeding the cake:
brandy

For the marzipan:
1 cup (250 ml) whole blanched almonds
1 cup (250 ml) almond flour
1 egg white (from an extra-large egg)
a few drops of almond extract
3 Tbsp (45 ml) smooth apricot  jam

For Royal icing: 
650 g icing sugar, sieved
3 egg whites
the juice of a lemon
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) glycerine [optional]


Some of the ingredients for a double batch.
Heat the oven to 150 ºC.

Prepare a deep 24-cm springform tin. Place the tin's base on a doubled-up sheet of baking paper, draw around it with a pencil, and cut out the two circles. Put the base into the ring, snap it shut and press the paper circles onto the base, buttering each one generously.

To line the ring, cut a long strip of baking paper double the height of the tin. Fold it in half lengthways and butter it on both sides. Press the strip, folded side up, around the inside of the ring.

Now prepare the fruit and nuts. Roughly chop the apricots, pecans and walnuts, and cut the cherries in half. Put them into a big bowl along with the mixed dried fruit and almonds. Add 2 Tbsp cornflour and toss well, using your hands, so every piece is lightly coated. Set aside.

To make the cake batter, cream the softened butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, beating well between each addition.

When the mixture is smooth and creamy, add the sifted flour and cornflour and mix well. Stir in all the remaining cake ingredients and then add the fruit and nut mixture. Stir well to combine (this is a very stiff batter - please see my tips in Cook's Notes, below). 

Mix to a very stiff batter.
Spoon the mixture into the cake tin and smooth the top. Place on the centre rack of the oven and bake for about two hours and 20 minutes. You will know the cake is done when it is deep brown on top, and feels firm all over when you press it with your fingertips. At this point, stick a wooden skewer into the cake. If the skewer comes out dry, with no wet batter sticking to it, your cake is ready.

Check on your cake after about 90 minutes - if you notice that the top is browning quickly, and/or the raisins are burning, cover it loosely with a sheet of tin foil.

Remove the cake from the oven, and immediately pour over 3 Tbsp of brandy - the cake will sizzle satisfyingly as you do so. Now cover the tin loosely with foil and let it stand for a day.

To 'feed' your cake: leave it undisturbed in the tin, loosely covered. (It's important not to seal the top of the cake too tightly, or the alcohol will not evaporate.) Use a slim skewer to poke about 12 deep holes right to the base of the tin.  Every two or three days (depending on how boozy you want your cake), trickle a little brandy over the top, and tilt the pan as you do this so the alcohol seeps evenly into the holes.

To make the marzipan, blitz the whole almonds to a fairly fine powder in a food processor fitted with a metal blade (but don't overprocess them, or they will become oily). Add the almond flour, egg white and a few drops of almond extract, to taste, and pulse until the mixture forms a smooth ball.  If the marzipan isn't clinging together, add a few drops of water and pulse again.

While the marzipan is still warm and flexible, roll it out into a thin sheet big enough to cover the whole cake (see Cook's Notes). It's best to do this between two sheets of baking paper.

Warm the apricot jam and brush it all over the top and sides of the cake. Drape the marzipan over the cake, pressing down lightly and easing it down the sides. Trim the excess marzipan all the way round the base of the cake.

For Royal icing, lightly whisk the egg whites until just frothy. Add the sifted icing sugar, a spoonful at a time, stirring well. When the mixture is thick, stir in the lemon juice and (optional) glycerine. (The glycerine prevents the icing from setting to rock hard). Using an electric beater, whisk the icing for ten minutes, or until it is glossy, white and standing in stiff peaks. 

Dollop the icing on top of the cake and use a spatula to spread it evenly across the top and sides. Using a swirling motion, create little spikes and peaks for a snow-scene effect. Set aside, uncovered, to dry for at least 12 hours, then transfer to a cake tin.

Makes 1 fruit cake, enough for 10. 

Cook's Notes
  • This recipe is easily doubled, but mixing such a large quantity of batter takes powerful arms and a very big mixing bowl. Use a cake tin about 28 cm in diameter and at least 7 cm deep, and insulate the tin by wrapping a double layer of brown paper around the outside and securing it with wet string - this will prevent the outside of the cake burning before the inside is cooked. A bigger cake will take between 2½ and 3 hours. 
  • Add the fruit and nut mixture to the batter in batches, using a wooden spoon and a stabbing motion. This is a very firm mixture, so take your time. If the batter seems impossibly thick, add a little milk. 
  • You can make this cake up to six weeks in advance, but I always start three weeks ahead. Add the marzipan and Royal icing a few days before Christmas.
  • To figure out the size of the marzipan circle, place the end of a piece of string at the base of the cake, drape it across the top, and then take it down to the base on the opposite side - this is the diameter of your circle, but add 1 cm to be on the safe side.
  • You can use all almond flour for the marzipan if you're in a hurry.
Swirl the Royal icing to create little frosty peaks.
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Sunday, 4 September 2016

Low-Carb Roast Baby Cabbage Wedges with Bacon

My sister, an excellent cook, suggested this method for roasting fresh young cabbages, and I was dubious at first because I'm not enthusiastic about cooked cabbage. How wrong I was - thank you Sophie! These tender, slightly charred wedges are quite simply delicious with their plain dressing of fruity olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

Low-Carb Roast Baby Cabbage Wedges with Bacon
As a Type-2 diabetic, I'm always looking out for good ideas about preparing ultra-simple, nutritious, low-carb veggie dishes, and I'm so sold on this recipe that I've made it three times in the last fortnight.

You can, if you fancy, add all sorts of extra flavours to the wedges - Sophie uses a delicious dusting of powdered fennel seeds. I reckon I might try caraway seeds or garlic next time I make this. But, for now, I think they're perfect with just a tingle of heat from the dried chilli flakes, plus plenty of black pepper.

I've added crisped-up bacon bits for a touch of luxury, but you can of course leave these out. This is best with good quality cubes of bacon (I buy mine at my favourite, most excellent German butchery), but if you can't find these, you can use decent streaky bacon instead.

 Low-Carb Roast Baby Cabbage Wedges with Bacon 

2 baby cabbages
the juice of 1 big lemon
5 Tbsp (75 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp (5 ml) dried red chilli flakes
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (250 ml) bacon cubes, or 10 rashers of bacon, chopped

Arrange the wedges cut-side up on a tray.
Heat the oven to 200 °C, fan on, or 210 °C if your oven has no fan. Cut each cabbage into four wedges and arrange, cut side up, on a baking sheet.

Drizzle with the olive oil and lemon juice, sprinkle with chilli flakes and season generously with salt and pepper.

Roast for about 35 minutes, or until the edges of the wedges are slightly blackened, and they are tender on the insides.

Ten minutes before the end of the roasting time, fry the bacon until just crisp, then drain and keep hot.

Sprinkle the bacon cubes over the cabbage, add another spritz of lemon juice and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a side dish; 2 as a main course






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Thursday, 21 January 2016

Chicken with Roasted Onions, Grapes & Verjuice

When I made a serious effort to learn to cook in my early twenties, it seemed terribly important to impress dinner-party guests with fiddly platings and pointless twirls and swirls. (Thank goodness the ubiquitous sauce/plate skidmark had not yet been invented, because who knows what horrors I would have perpetrated on the plate.) These days, in my fifties, I have a much more uncomplicated approach to entertaining, and when I'm expecting guests I pour all the effort into creating simple, delicious dishes that sing with clean flavours.

Chicken with Roasted Onions, Grapes & Verjuice

This is the sort of food people want to enjoy when they eat in your home. Of course there is a place for exquisite cutting-edge cuisine that looks like a flower garden exploded on a plate, but that place is not your family table. Honest food made with love and good ingredients will always knock the socks off your guests - and I promise you that most professional chefs melt into puddles of delight when presented with a homely classic such as roast chicken, a rustic veggie soup or a fall-apart beef stew.

This unusual but delicious combination of clean fruity flavours highlights the versatility of Verjuice, which lends a pleasant sweet acidity to this rustic dish.  It takes a little time to fry the chicken pieces and onions before they go into the oven, but it’s well worth the effort, because the sticky golden residue that forms on the bottom of the pan adds gorgeous flavour to the final dish, and the chicken pieces look so beautifully golden and rustly.  

This is the penultimate in a series of new recipes I've developed using Verjuice (available at Woolies),

Chicken with Roasted Onions, Grapes & Verjuice

20 (about 750 g) small pickling onions
3 Tbsp (45 ml) oil, for frying
12 free-range chicken pieces (breasts, thighs & drumsticks)
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
½ cup (125 ml) Verjuice
½ cup (125 ml) dry white wine
1 bunch red grapes, stripped from their stems
1 bunch green grapes, stripped from their stems
salt and milled black pepper

Heat the oven to 180 ºC.  Cover the onions with boiling water and set aside for 15 minutes (this loosens their skins).

In the meantime, heat the oil in a large shallow pan and fry the chicken, in batches and skin-side down, over a medium-high heat, until the skins are crisp and a beautiful golden brown.  (Don’t turn the pieces over or let them cook through.)  Set aside on a plate.

Cut each blanched onion in half lengthways, trim the tops and bottoms, and slip off the skins.  Fry, cut side down, in the hot chicken fat left in the pan, for 3 minutes, or until nicely caramelised. Watch them like a hawk so they don’t burn. Carefully turn the onions over using tongs and fry for a further 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate.

Add the bay leaves, thyme sprigs and garlic to the pan and cook over a low heat for a minute, without allowing the garlic to brown.

Deglaze the pan with the Verjuice and wine, stirring and scraping to loosen the golden sediment on the bottom of the pan.  Tip any juices that have accumulated under the chicken into the pan. Simmer over a brisk heat for two minutes to burn off the alcohol.

Arrange the chicken pieces and onions in a roasting tray, and tuck in the grapes.  Pour the hot wine/Verjuice mixture around the chicken, and scatter over the bay leaves and thyme sprigs.  Season to taste with salt and milled black pepper.

Bake at 180 ºC for 40 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and the grapes are beginning to collapse.

Serve immediately with a crisp green salad, plus crusty bread to mop up the juices.    

Serves 4-6.


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Friday, 18 December 2015

Pavlova with Poached Apples and Caramelised Verjuice Syrup

Apples and almonds have a great affinity with Verjuice. Although apples are not a traditional topping for a Pavlova, they work beautifully in this recipe, with its extravagant, brittle nest of almond-scented meringue, its clouds of whipped cream, and a reduced Verjuice syrup that’s just on the point of turning to caramel. The Pavlova should be made 8-12 hours ahead of time, and you can also prepare the apple filling well in advance.

Pavlova with Poached Apples and Caramelised Verjuice Syrup

This is another in a series of new recipes I've developed using Verjuice (available at Woolies), and I hope you'll give this recipe a bash, even if you're mortally afraid of making anything involving temperamental meringue.

My attempts at making billowing pavlovas and snowy, crisp meringues were spectacularly flat, sticky failures for many years, but eventually I nailed them, and I haven't had a flop since.  I hope my method works for you - and it it doesn't, please drop me a line on Facebook so I can assist you.

Pavlova with Poached Apples and Caramelised Verjuice Syrup

For the Pavlova:

5 extra-large free-range eggs
a pinch of Cream of Tartar
250 g caster sugar
2-3 drops of good almond extract

For the filling:

5 large crisp apples, peeled, cored and quartered (I've used both Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, with good results)
1½ cups (375 ml) Verjuice
½ cup (125 ml) caster sugar
1 cup (250 ml) whipping cream
¼ cup (60 ml) flaked almonds, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan

First make the Pavlova. Heat the oven to 160 ºC, fan off. Separate the eggs and place the whites in a spotlessly clean bowl together with a pinch of Cream of Tartar (you'll find this in the baking aisle of supermarkets). Keep the yolks for making mayonnaise.

Using an electric beater or a food processor fitted with a balloon whisk, beat the egg whites for 2-3 minutes, or until they are standing up in firm - but not dry - peaks.

Add a third of the caster sugar at a time to the whites, whisking well for a few minutes between each addition. When you've added all the sugar, drop in the almond extract, to taste, and continue beating for another 3-4 minutes, or until the meringue is very thick, firm and shiny (with no sign of grittiness when you rub a blob between your fingers).

Your mixture should hold its firm billowing shape without drooping. If the meringue seems thin or floppy, your Pavlova will collapse in the oven, and you'll need to chuck out the mixture and start all over again.

Line a baking sheet with lightly oiled baking/greaseproof paper (put little blobs of meringue on four points under the paper to stick it down). Draw a plate-sized circle on the paper, spread a third of the meringue mixture over it to form the base of the Pavlova, then place big, generous dollops of the remaining meringue around the edges to form a basket. A huge metal spoon is the right utensil for this.

Place the baking sheet on the middle rack of your preheated oven, and immediately turn the heat down to 110 ºC (oven fan off). Bake for an hour and a quarter, then switch off the oven (don't open the door!) and let the meringue case dehydrate, undisturbed, for at least 8 hours, or until it is crisp and dry.  If you'd like a Pavlova with a slightly squidgy centre, let the case dry out for 6 hours.

To prepare the apple filling, put one cup of Verjuice and the caster sugar into a pan.  Bring to a gentle bubble, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar.  Add the apple quarters and poach, covered, for 9-11 minutes, or until they are just soft.  Set aside to cool completely.

To assemble the dessert, remove the apples from their syrup with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Add the remaining ½ cup of Verjuice to the syrup, turn up the heat and boil over a medium-high heat for 10 minutes, or until the syrup has reduced by about two thirds, is turning to an amber colour, and is thick, glossy, and producing plenty of big lazy bubbles. Watch the mixture like a hawk – you want it to be just on the point of caramelising.

Whip the cream until it's thick and billowy, pile it into the Pavlova and arrange the apple pieces on top.  Drizzle the hot syrup over the top, scatter with toasted almonds and serve immediately.

Serves 6. 

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