How to make a Christmas cake
1. You need to begin this cake the night before you want to bake it. These quantities will make an 8 inch (20 cm) round cake. Weigh out 1lb (450 g) of currants, 6 oz (175 g) of sultanas, 6 oz (175 g) of raisins, 2 oz (50 g) of glacé cherries (rinsed, dried and finely chopped) and 2 oz (50 g) of mixed candied peel, finely chopped. Place them in a large bowl and mix in 3 tablespoons of brandy. Cover the bowl with a clean tea cloth and leave overnight, or for 12 hours, for the fruit to plump up and absorb the alcohol.
2. You need to line your cake tin using a double strip of silicone paper (baking parchment), cut slightly longer than the circumference of the tin. Fold back 1 inch (2.5 cm) along its length and snip this at intervals, cutting at a slight angle to the fold.
3. Grease the tin then press the paper around the sides – it should sit comfortably around the sides of the tin. Finally, cut a double circle of paper – using the tin as a template – to fit the base and press into place.
4. Brown paper is then tied around the outside of the tin, to protect the cake during the long, slow cooking. Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 1, 275°F (140°C). (For important information about click here).
5. To make the cake you will need 8 oz (225 g) of unsalted butter, at room temperature, and 8 oz (225 g) of soft brown sugar. Using the classic creaming method, cream together the soft butter and the sugar until light, pale and fluffy.
6. Lightly beat 4 large eggs and add this, a little at a time, to the creamed mixture. It can sometimes happen that the beaten eggs are added to the sugar-and-fat mixture too quickly, causing the whole mixture to separate. This breaking-up means that some of the air incorporated at the creaming stage will escape and the finished cake will be slightly heavier. For beginners, the way to avoid this is to add the beaten eggs just a teaspoonful at a time, whisking preferably with a hand whisk. If it does curdle, though, don't worry: the cake won't be as light, but it's not a disaster.
7. When all the egg has been added, sift in 8 oz (225 g) of plain flour together with ¼ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and ½ teaspoon of ground mixed spice. Use gentle cutting and folding movements to incorporate this into the mixture to keep in as much air as possible.
8. Add the soaked fruits to the cake mixture, along with 2 oz (50 g) of chopped almonds (the skins can be left on), the grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon and 1 dessertspoon of black treacle. Fold these in carefully, using the same movements as before.
9. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top with the back of the spoon.
10. Finally, cover the top of the cake with a double sheet of silicone paper with a 50p-sized hole in the centre. It is now ready for the oven – bake on the lowest shelf of the oven for 4½-4¾ hours. Sometimes it can take up to ½-¾ hour longer than this, but don't look until at least 4 hours have passed. It is here that a cookery writer steps into a minefield. First of all, conventional ovens do vary and it is worth having them tested every now and again. Second, it is quite possible to make exactly the same cake (and I have had this confirmed by someone who makes at least a dozen each year for presents) and to find each one cooking in a slightly different time. On top of that there are fan-assisted ovens, which are a law unto themselves! To the beginner I can only say that no timing for a rich fruit cake can be absolutely precise, and be prepared for a Christmas cake to vary even up to an hour either way. So…
11. …to test if your cake is done, lightly press the centre of the cake with your little finger – it should spring back and not leave an impression. The cracks, by the way, will close up as the cake cools. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 30 minutes then remove it to a wire rack to finish cooling.
12. Several times before Christmas you can 'feed' your cake – make small holes in the top and base of the cake with a cocktail stick or small skewer, then spoon over a few teaspoons of brandy. (I get a number of letters from people who never touch alcohol, so let me say that freshly squeezed orange juice can be substituted for the booze in the recipe.) I like to wrap the cake in a double layer of silicone paper, then in double foil, before storing it in an airtight container.
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