This year I made my first ever gluten-free Christmas cake. I did the baking exactly one month before Christmas and put on the almond paste and icing in the week before Christmas. I love fruitcake. Making it involves several steps but none of them takes a really long time individually. Besides, making the fruitcake is as much as a ritual as a baking project, and rituals take time.
At our house, a lot of our Christmas traditions are German and Dutch. This is one that is entirely English and the whole process, from lining the cake tins to decorating the cake, is suffused with my memories of my Mum and my Granny. Granny is no longer with us, but when I unwrapped the cakes in order to do the almond paste, the smell of them was so evocative of happy Christmases with her and Grandfather that I nearly wept.
NB I use an idiosyncratic mix of Imperial and metric measurements in baking as in daily life, like most Canadians, I suspect. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, this measuring cup comes in handy.
This is a modified version of the recipe at artofglutenfreebaking.com
2 1/2 lbs (1.2 kg) mixed raisins, currants, pitted prunes, and dried figs
1/2 cup (60 g) candied orange and/or lemon peel
1/2 cup (60 g) candied cherries
2/3 cup (85 g) candied or preserved ginger
Grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon
Grated zest and juice of 1 large orange
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
1 cup (240 ml) orange juice
2 tablespoons of sherry, rum or brandy (or juice for a non-alcoholic version)
(you can also experiment with your own mixture of dried fruits–just be sure total weight is the same)
3 cups (420 g) gluten-free flour mix of your choice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks; 8 oz; 225 g) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (215 g) dark brown sugar
4 extra-large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons sherry, rum or brandy for adding after the cake bakes
Assemble the fruit. Chop it finely and mix together the first set of ingredients (fruits, jam, and booze). Cover and leave to macerate overnight on the counter, or for up to one week in the fridge. This will seem like a ton of fruit, but press on. My mixture had no prunes but a lot of delightful Black Mission figs.
When you are ready to mix up the cake, get the fruit out so that it is at room temperature.
Then line the cake tins. I made several smaller cakes for different occasions: Christmas Eve, and the Boxing Day-ish celebration with my family, as well as cupcakes to eat at our German Advent celebrations the four Sundays before Christmas.
Cut out a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of your pan, and another piece to go around the sides of it. Put the side piece in first and make a few vertical cuts in the bottom so it will follow the curve of the pan. Put the piece for the bottom on top. It is easier to pretend that you have the seven hands needed for the process if you grease the pan first so that the paper can stick to it. Then, and this is the bit that really reminds me of my mum, wrap the outside of the tin in brown paper. I used a large paper grocery bag and cut a strip about 2 inches taller than the pan. You can tie it on with string, or use some flexible wire, which was my brainwave this year. All this palaver is to ensure that the very dense cake cooks slowly and does not burn.
Assemble dry ingredients. Mix all dry ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl.
Assemble wet ingredients. Cream butter and sugar together thoroughly. Beat eggs in one at a time. Add vanilla.
Combine all ingredients. Mix the dry in with the wet with a mixer or a wooden spoon or a dough whisk. Then add the massive amount of fruit and mix until combined. This can be hard on the forearms.
Divide the cake among your prepared pans, or cook it in one big pan. Bake at 325º. My cupcakes took about 45 minutes, the loaf took a bit more than an hour and the 6 inch cake took about an hour and a half. I used a skewer to make sure they were no longer gloppy inside. A massive cake can bake for 325º and then continue to bake for 2 more hours at 300º. If the top seems to be browning excessively, cover it with tinfoil or a silicone mat.
When the cakes come out prick them all over with a skewer and pour the 2 tbsp of booze on them, or not, if you prefer.
Let cake(s) cool and wrap in plastic wrap and tinfoil and keep in a cool place, feeding them with more liquor every two weeks if you wish. Or you can freeze this recipe until you want to do your icing.
One year, I was unable to find almond paste in the stores and looked up the recipe in my Cookery for All by Mrs Beeton. I have a revised 1982 edition that leaves out all the information about how to manage servants contained in the 1861 edition. The original is worth a look.The almond paste was surprisingly easy to make and much fresher and better than any storebought specimen I have ever had. Now I just make it myself every time.
For two cakes, with some left over, I made a batch using:
400 g of icing sugar
400 g of ground almonds
2 whole eggs
2 tsp almond extract
Sift the icing sugar, add the other ingredients and mix until you have a dry-ish paste that resembles homemade playdough. You may need to add more icing sugar depending on the amount of moisture in the almonds. If you grind them yourself in the food processor, they will be moister.
Scatter icing sugar on your rolling surface and put some on your rolling pin too. Roll out the paste to the desired thickness, perhaps about 1/4 in.
Brush the cake with warmed, sieved apricot jam or room temperature apple jelly (which is what I had to hand).
For my loaf cake, I cut out a rectangle of the approximate size of the loaf, and inverted the cake on it. Press down firmly and cut around the cake so you have an nice clean edge. Set the cake upright again and put it in a cool dry place for 2-3 days uncovered so that the almond paste can dry.
For the round cake, I cut out a circle about 3 inches wider than the diameter of the cake. Invert the cake on it, pressing down firmly and ease the almond paste up around the edges of the cake so that all parts of the cake are covered except the bottom. Trim off any excess and put the cake in a cool dry place for 2-3 days uncovered so that the almond paste can dry.
For the first time this year I used meringue powder instead of egg whites. But egg whites work well too and are really more classic Mrs Beeton.
4 cups icing sugar
1/4 cup water, to start
1/4 cup meringue powder
1 tsp lemon juice
Food colouring, if desired
Sift icing sugar and add all other ingredients. Beat together, adding more liquid until a knifepoint remains visible for a few seconds. You can thin with water or a mixture of water and lemon juice if you like it a bit tart. I actually made mine a bit too runny for a first coat but I like the drippy effect.
Put a large dollop of icing on top of your almond paste and cover the almond-pasted surfaces with icing, using a palette knife. Allow to dry for a day and apply a second coat if you wish.
This is the part that is up to you: decorate as desired. Go mad with piping, or silver dragees or fondant snowflakes. Merry Christmas!