If Christmas means anything at all to me, it means food. Rich food. And the same rich food every year, as made by my family members who are, assuredly, excellent cooks.
This year my mother bestowed a great honour/responsibility on me: she requested that I make The Christmas Cake. My mum makes this cake every year, from my Sri Lankan grandmother's recipe. And since she's working all this week and I'm not she decided it was time to pass the baton. This baton comes with a fair degree of pressure - I do not want to be the one who fucks up the Christmas cake.
The cake itself is a masterpiece of decadence, and it's not for the faint of heart or weak of forearm. It involves finely chopping kilos of fruit, multiple essences that you measure by the tablespoons, a dozen eggs and unholy amounts of butter - you'll need two days to make it and an incredibly large bowl. No flour in this puppy, it's all semolina and fruit. It's similar to a standard fruit cake, but more exotic elements include additional spice, rose water and cashews. The recipe itself is in Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook, known amongst my family as The Bible, but my own (utterly gorgeous) Sri Lankan grandmother made her own adaptations to the recipe and her version is the one I've followed.
So I received some helpful instruction from mum, who was herself instructed by Gran, and set about caking.
- 250 g seedless raisins
- 375 g sultanas
- 250 g preserved ginger
- 2 small cans chow chow preserves
- 125 g mixed peel
- 250 g glace cherries
- 250 raw chashews
- 1/4 cup brandy (on the large side)
- 375 g butter
- 500g caster sugar
- 12 egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons lemon rind
- 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons vanilla essence
- 2 tablespoons almond essence
- 1 large wine glass full of rose water
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 250 g fine semolina
- 10 egg whites
Take all your glace fruit, raisins, sultanas, mixed peel and cashews, and chop finely. Drain the syrup from the preserves and ginger and chop these finely as well.
Chow Chow preserves can be found in a decent Asian grocers, I get them at Minh Phat by the Vic markets.
Once these have all been finely chopped, sprinkle the brandy over the top and mix it through. The recipe calls for one quarter of a cup, but my hand may have slipped a little... it is Christmas after all. Then cover the fruit mixture and leave it to soak overnight.
Set the oven to 130 degrees Celcius. Using the biggest bowl you have, cream the gargantuan quantities of butter and sugar, then add the egg yolks one at a time, remembering to keep 10 of the whites aside in a clean, dry bowl (any contaminants will prevent the whites from stiffening when you mix them later). Grate your lemon rind and add this to the mixture with spices, essences and honey and mix them through. The mix will turn into a sticky sweet gloop at this point. Then add the semolina and mix well.
Now tip the huge bowl of fruit and nuts into the batter and mix thoroughly with a sturdy wooden spoon. Beat the egg whites until they are so stiff as to hold their shape when you remove the beaters. Then fold the egg white mixture into the batter gently, so as to keep as much fluffiness in the mix as possible.
Prepare your baking pan. I used a low wide baking dish most often used for roasting potatoes. Line the bottom with six pages of newspaper - this prevents the bottom of the cake from burning. Then line the pan with baking paper across the bottom and up the sides and brush this liberally with melted butter. Then pour in the cake mix and set in the oven.
Bake at the slow heat for at least one and a half hours. Check the mix at this point, and once the middle is set firm, remove from the oven. You can continue to bake longer if you want a firmer, drier cake, but traditionally we have it moist and soft. Once it's finished baking cool for several hours, preferably overnight. Wrapped in foil the cake can be kept for a year or longer, if you have the willpower! Serve cut into small pieces.