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Last minute Christmas cake? Not a problem

The bossier type of TV cook will tell you that you really need to make your Christmas cake weeks in advance of the big day. Something about allowing all the flavours to blend and mature. That’s all very well if you are retired and have plenty of time on your hands, but actually there’s something more enjoyable about leaving the preparation until December, sticking on a CD of festive music and assembling all those ingredients for an afternoon’s baking. And no, not all of that brandy has to go in the cake . . .

Although there are those who like to sidestep the fruitcake and opt for an alternative such as a chocolate-topped Tunis cake, tradition makes a persuasive case for all that spice, dried fruit, nuts and festive white icing artfully arranged to look like pristine snow.

There is still some licence to tweak the traditional recipes a little. If someone in the family cannot abide mixed peel, all-spice or glace cherries, substitute orange zest, cinnamon or dates. Nuts are a deal-breaker though and almonds and walnuts are a vital part of the recipe. Family or friends with nut allergies will just have to stick to the After-Eights.

Equal quantities of plain flour, butter and dark sugar make up the cake mixture, but a Christmas cake is all about the fruit. Dried sultanas and currants are obvious choices, but don’t be afraid to experiment with dried apricot, dried apple and that most festive of fruits, cranberry. The density and moistness of your fruits will affect the cooking time (which is usually around three hours at a steady 150C).

When the cake is baked, allow it to cool, then lightly skewer the top with a cocktail stick. This is where you measure out three or four tablespoons of brandy to soak into the cake. Feel free to add a little more and tell yourself that it’s just to keep the cake moist and preserve the freshness.

Once the layers of marzipan and royal icing are applied, you can invite the kids in to decorate the top with snowmen, Santas, Christmas trees and the rest. Then do it again yourself, properly.

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