E suggested the title of this post because it has felt like making my solstice cake has been like planning a military operation. We ate it yesterday after it had sat in the cupboard for 2 long weeks. It feels like this cake has required much more preparation than my usual cakes. It has been helped unexpectedly by my purchase of both new and secondhand books.
When AOF asked bloggers to bake a solstice cake, I knew this was a great chance to try my hand at a proper fruit cake. My mum has made fruit cakes since I can remember but I thought they were a bit boring compared to other cakes (ie chocolate!). Fruit cakes were merely about decoration. But times have changed and I have grown to love the complexity in a rich soft fruit cake packed with dried fruit. I recommend that you read AOF’s delightful post about putting on her apron and immersing herself in the ritual. It really is about process as much as taste. And feeling like a domestic goddess.
The only time I have made a proper fruit cake was when I was 14 years old. We baked a fruit cake in our home economics class at high school and then decorated it. I mainly remember the decoration and that our cake had to have flat surfaces and square corners so that the icing would hold. I learnt tricks about patching the holes and wrinkles with a little icing. A layer of marzipan and then of royal icing – from the shops – must result in a smooth white expanse like a blank artist's canvas, waiting to be decorated. To do this well takes a little skill and a lot of patience. We were taught some basic piping, moulding and flooding techniques.
I loved it so much that for years I would ice my mother’s Christmas cakes. While she baked goodies for the holiday season, I would happily busy myself at the kitchen table with my piping equipment, my colours and new ideas. As my life got busier I struggled to find time to quickly slap some layers of icing onto the cake and place a few plastic decorations on top. But my mum always baked the fruit cake (and continues to do so each year).
So the idea of baking my own fruit cake was a little intimidating. I have vague memories of problems I needed to watch for. I remember that lining the tin in important. Proper fruit cake bakes a lot longer than my usual cakes and I was aware that it is all too easy for them to be too dry on the outside and too soft inside. I discussed lining the tin with my mum and my grandmother. We consulted Cookery the Australian Way (which was my home economics text book but my mother’s beloved copy is more modern).
After these consultations, I decided a couple of layers of newspaper outside, and a couple of layers of brown paper (which I got by cutting up a brown paper bag from favourite local bookstore, Readings) and couple of baking paper in the tin. If you are a cake decorator, the lining the tin is also important to make sure there are no creases in the paper. It was quite tricky lining a round tin and I partly chose a square tin because it is so much easier. As I was not planning to ice it, my main problem was tying the newspaper around the outside of the tin. Luckily E was on hand to help as it was a two person job, holding the paper on and tying it.
Finding a recipe was easy. I have a chocolate fruit cake recipe I wrote out a few years ago which looked delicious. It uses real chocolate not cocoa (unlike Nigella). Next challenge was the fruit. Firstly buying it and then remembering to soak it. One thing about fruit cake that doesn’t interest me is that combination of sultanas, raisins and glace cherries.
I found a recipe by David Lebowitz for Chocolate Cherry Fruit Cake which is not really fruit cake but did make me decide to use dried cherries rather than glace. This prompted a search which I have already written about but since making the cake I have found local unsweetened dried cherries being sold in the health food shop at Cowes in Philip Island.
I did use some raisins and sultanas but also raided my kitchen cupboards to use up some dried fruit hanging around like blueberries, figs, prunes and apricots. But any dried fruit would be fine. I also took the opportunity to use up the last of my glace orange and some cocoa nibs and still used a little less fruit than the recipe required. Similarly any fortified alcohol can be used. I used up some very expensive whisky, some cheap port and duty free Cointreau from our liqueur collection, rather than heading out to buy brandy or rum.
Baking the cake was a delight. Once the fruit is soaked, it is easy to do if you are used to baking cake - cream butter and sugar, breaking eggs, melting chocolate and folding in flour are fairly common techniques. The only difference between this and other cake recipes is the huge amount of fruit. Then you just bake it for hours which means the kitchen smells heavenly. It took great self-discipline to wrap it up and store it for two weeks before eating. But I managed it.
My plan was to serve it at a solstice dinner party. Yarrow came over to help cook and so I enlisted his help with decoration. I didn’t want to do marzipan and royal icing because while they are fun to play with, I don’t like the taste much (but I would love marzipan in a fruit cake like Lucy’s). I saw Hippolyra’s chocolate covered candied orange peel and thought it would look wonderful piled on my cake. But it is very time consuming to make.
Yaz found a couple of candied kumquats while shopping so we used them and we took our inspiration from a Marguerite Patten book that I bought for $1 at the Trash and Treasure in Cowes on our break in Philip Island. We halved the kumquats and cut each half into into five wedges which we used to make a flower with a glace cherry (making me thankful I didn’t put them in the cake) into the middle of each flower. We also cut a star and some glints of shining light. A more traditional type would do this on the snowy whiteness of royal icing but I like the darkness of our design with just a little icing sugar sifted around the edges.
Finally after the long wait, we tasted it after dinner last night. Traditionally a fruit cake is served in small slices with a cuppa for afternoon tea or for supper. But as part of a meal, it seemed to need something else. Yarrow and E agreed with each other that it would be great served with custard but I thought this would make it a pudding. I had decided it should be served with a wintery fruit platter. I had mandarin, pear, persimmon and half a pomegranate. Yarrow did the design work. After turning up their noses at the idea of fruit, E and Yaz found it pleasing.
And the verdict? Did the cake taste as good as it smelled? Was it worth the effort? Oh yes! It was rich, dark, moist and melt-in-the-mouth as good fruit cakes are. I almost wondered if it should have been longer in the oven but it does not taste uncooked. It had the tartness of dried apricots, the seediness of figs and the occasional crunch of cocoa nibs. We couldn’t taste the chocolate so Yaz accused me of squandering it. But I disagreed. I believe it contributed to the richness and depth of flavours. I did wonder if it was a good use of costly dried cherries and blueberries as they didn’t jump out at me but again I think they added to the complexity of textures and flavours.
This is a cake for sharing. It is too large and rich to be eaten all alone so I am glad to have those who are eager to partake. E has declared he will happily eat a piece after dinner. Yaz took away a slab. Next weekend when I go to Geelong I will take some to my mum and dad. Apparently, it will last for months if wrapped properly, but who wants to wait that long.
I am grateful to AOF for the inspiration to make such a wonderful cake. I probably wouldn’t make it often because it is more expensive and time consuming than usual. But it is great for a special occasion. Head over to Confessions of a Food Nazi after 25 June to drool over the round up of 2008 Solstice Cakes.
Chocolate Fruit Cake
(adapted from a Sunbeam advertisement)
250g prunes, chopped*
170g dried figs, chopped*
145g dried apricots, chopped*
80g dried cherries*
75g dried blueberries*
35g cocoa nibs*
20g glaced orange, chopped*
100ml cup port*
1½ cups dark brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla
4 x 60g eggs
200g dark chocolate
½ cup apricot nectar
½ cup apricot jam
2 cup plain white flour
½ cup self raising wholemeal flour
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp mixed spice
* Use any combination of dried fruit and alcohol depending on personal taste and what is in your pantry.
Mix dried fruit and alcohol in a large mixing bowl and cover (with a dinner plate). Leave to soak at least 1 hour but preferably overnight.
Once fruit is soaked, line a square 23cm cake tin (or two smaller tins) with a double layer of brown paper (I find brown paper bags useful as I don’t have a roll of brown paper in my house) and a double layer of baking paper. Use string to tie two layers of newspaper around the outside of the tin. Preheat oven to 160 C.
In a medium mixing bowl, beat butter, sugar and vanilla til creamy. Add eggs one at a time and beat after each addition. Pour eggy mixture into the large bowl of boozy dried fruit and mix well.
Melt chocolate. Stir in jam and nectar. Pour into fruit mixture and stir well. Fold in flours and spices til combined.
Tip cake mixture into the prepared tin. Smooth top and tap tin to remove air bubbles. Bake for 2½ to 3½ hours (2 – 3 for smaller tins) til a skewer comes out clean. I turned off the oven and cooled in the oven in the tin overnight.
To store wrap in clingfilm or foil and place in an airtight container in the fridge or cupboard for months. (Mine has been in tissue paper and a teatowel in the cupboard for two weeks – but my mum says tissue paper can soak up the moisture.) Marguerite Patten also advises that a fruit cake will remain moist if you keep a piece of apple in the tin with it.
The recipe says to serve with a dusting of icing sugar. This cake would be fine to cover in marzipan and royal icing. We used candied fruit to decorate, brushed the cake with the sticky syrup from the fruit and dusted the corners with icing sugar.
On the stereo:
Black Angel – Live! Death in June