The rain is torrential, bouncing off the kitchen roof for the fourth afternoon in a row. The house painters have jumped ship, declaring the scaffolding boards too wet, the kitchen is still a tangle of exposed wires and gas pipes (though it now has a radiator for the first time). No better moment, then, to hide away under the stairs and make the Christmas cake.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like a bit of cake in my Christmas cake - by which I mean the butter, flour and sugar bit that holds the fruit together. When I see advertisements in the back of newspapers and food magazines for - usually American - mail-order fruitcakes that are 'all fruit', I can't help thinking they are missing the point. If it's just currants you are after, then go eat an Eccles cake.
Over the years, I have worked at my Christmas cake and pudding recipes probably more than any other. I knew what I wanted: plenty of crumbs, fruit and booze, and with the warm crunch of nuts. It had to be a generous size so that there would be some for anyone who turned up, but not so large that we all got bored and started pondering alternative uses for it. The essence of it all was that it had to be rich, moist and not too sweet.
It occured to me that currants and raisins are sweet but not really very juicy, so I put in dried apricots and figs and whole undyed cherries from the health food shop, which made the cake more succulent. Another year I found that whole hazelnuts give a better texture than finely chopped nuts, which can often introduce a certain grittiness.
The sweetness of the cake is something I have fiddled with for ever and a day. I now feel I have a good balance. I should say here that I am as fussy about the sugar I put in my cakes as I am about the (unsalted) butter or the (free-range organic) eggs. Not for me a bag of soft brown sugar that lists its ingredients as sugar, molasses and glycerol (that's the norm, by the way). The anonymity of that first word troubles me. It sounds like refined white sugar that been coloured brown with molasses. I want to make my cakes with the real thing: unadulterated, unrefined cane sugar. The best result comes from using two sorts: unrefined muscovado, both the light - which has the flavour of warm fudge - and the dark that tastes of treacle toffee.
Cooking times also took a while to get right too long in the oven and you have a cake not even a whole bottle of brandy can revive. Too short and you have a dip in the middle you could rest a mug in.
It shouldn't raise any eyebrows to change the fruits, though it probably will. There can be no harm in tinkering with this one - Christmas cake is a relatively new recipe (unlike mincemeat, which goes as far back as the 16th century). So it is not as if we are tampering with anything sacred. What I am determined to do is produce a recipe that avoids the ultimate sin of being dry.
A Christmas cake always seems a little happier for having seen the inside of a brandy bottle, and in this weather who could blame it. I start feeding mine, pouring in the alcohol through holes pierced in its bottom, as soon as it is cool enough to hold. You can't really taste the spirit in the cake - the notion is to make it richer, more worthy of a feast.
You can prick it full of holes with a knitting needle if you have such a thing, or perhaps a meat skewer, then spoon the brandy over the base near to the holes and it will soak in only too well. A tight wrapping of greaseproof paper and foil will keep it from drying out.
One shouldn't forget, or sneer at, those who dismantle their cake, picking out the layer of almond paste or passing their icing on. Each to his own, I say. I use a soft, fudgy icing, of which more in a few weeks, but I must admit to loving the lot: the cake, the marzipan and the icing. But then, cake of any sort is something I take very seriously.
This is a large cake, enough to feed 16.
175g light muscovado sugar
175g dark muscovado sugar
1kg total weight of dried fruits - prunes, apricots, figs, candied peel, glace cherries
5 large free-range eggs
100g ground almonds
150g shelled hazelnuts
500g total weight vine fruits - raisins, sultanas, currants, cranberries
5 tbsps brandy
zest of 1 lemon
zest and juice of 1 orange
1/2 tsp baking powder
350g plain flour
You will also need a 24-25cm cake tin with a removable base, fully lined with a double layer of lightly buttered greaseproof paper or nonstick baking paper, which should come at least 5cm above the top of the tin.
Set the oven to 160deg. C/gas mark 3. Beat the butter and sugar till light and fluffy. (This is much easier with an electric mixer, though I have done it by hand.) Don't forget to push the mixture down the sides of the bowl from time to time with a spatula.
While the butter and sugars are beating to a cappucino-coloured fluff, cut the dried fruits into small pieces, removing the hard stalks form the figs. Add the eggs to the mixture one at a time - it will curdle but don't worry - then slowly mix in the ground almonds, hazelnuts, all the dried fruit, the brandy, the citrus zest and juice.
Now mix the baking powder and flour together and fold them lightly into the mix. Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, smoothing the top gently, and put it in the oven. Leave it for an hour, then, without opening the oven door, turn down the heat to 150deg. C/gas mark 2 and continue cooking for 2 hours.
Check to see whether the cake is done by inserting a skewer into the centre. It should come out with just a few crumbs attached but no trace of raw cake mixture. Take the cake out of the oven and leave it to cool before removing it from the tin.
The fruit content is no longer confined to currants, sultanas and raisins. Providing you get the ratio of fruit to flour, butter and sugar right, which fruits you include are entirely a matter of choice. So dried figs, cranberries and apricots can all be included. The juicier the fruit the better, so best not use the thin slices of dried fruit such as mango or apple. Glace cherries and dried apricots will keep the cake particularly juicy.
Look, I know lining the cake tin is a drag but it has to be done, otherwise the edges of the cake will burn. You can't spend enough time on this. I do it while the butter and sugars are slowly creaming in the mixer. A double layer of paper is the trick to stop the edges becoming burnt. Skip the process at your peril.
Rich fruitcakes are amazingly good natured. I once put my cake in the oven and started clearing up the kitchen, only to find most of the flour still on the scales. I simply took the cake out of the oven, mixed in the flour and put it back in the oven. And yes, it came out a treat.