The long, restorative process of baking fruitcake – and eating the results – has helped Amanda Thompson through the worst of times.
A long time ago, so long it feels like this story belongs to a different person, I lost my first and cherished child. On a cold, blustery night around about this time of year, I sat up in a pain-wracked vigil for this tiny life that I had finally accepted was ending. For comfort I inexplicably watched hours and hours of BBC World News and then towards dawn, I made this cake.
I made it a lot over the next few months, through a grief so profound it split me forever into the person I was before and the person I became after. I baked it so often that my husband gave me a specially shaped cake tin ‘for that cake you make so much’ and I kept on baking it as I battled much more conflicted emotions after the birth of our next baby the year after that.
Whenever I’m in a cakey situation these days I will make a beeline for the nearest fruitcake. I will choose it over the lamington or pie or ginger slice, especially if it looks homemade. Even those traditional English Christmas cakes, coloured with treacle, flavoured with rum and complex spice combinations and double layers of thick icing so unsuitable for summer – even this most difficult-to-love fruitcake I will eat. Even if it is the one with Brazil nuts inside, which I particularly abhor. If you’re going to use nuts, put them on top so haters have a chance to pick them off rather than be ambushed in a mouthful, just saying.
My favourite type of fruitcake, though, is the luncheon cake, a yellow cake – the blonde version, if you will. With no need for nuts, spices or icing, it is usually just sultanas and lemon (and cherries if you are lucky). It doesn’t keep as well as the darker recipes but then it won’t need to because it’s yummy AF and even little kids will eat it all up immediately. To give yourself the best chance of being offered these kinds of cakes, start hanging out at bowling clubs on competition days, or your local Women’s Institute AGM, or the back rooms of any random church on any given Sunday.
Why turn to fruitcake? I like fruit, and I like cake, for starters. It has a fragrant smell and a nice texture and a history going back beyond medieval times, across many different cultures. Anywhere a local cuisine has dried fruits and nuts stored to make it through a desolate winter, a highly calorific cake of some sort that travels and lasts well seems to happen. I have eaten bready fruitcakes made of figs and polenta, hard little ones of cocoa and prunes, chewy squares of sour cherries and cinnamon. Dark cake reminds me of short dark days in the UK, also long ago, when you couldn’t get a good coffee or a smile or any vitamin D anywhere, but you could always get a piece of fruitcake with a strong cup of tea. In a cold, cold city with a dismally large selection of Ye Olde English Tea Shoppes, you stopped asking for a flat white and really started to see the point of fruitcake. It was a solid filler-upper and it never went stale. Also, think about it: the main ingredients are eggs, fruit and nuts – practically health food.
Why make your own fruitcake? Apart from the fact that most bought ones here taste bad or at least bad-adjacent, baking a fruitcake is a mindful activity that actually produces something you will enjoy at the end of it. At this time of year your house will be warm and fragrant from the hours of slow cooking required – it cannot be rushed, or the fruit will turn bitter and black. Baking is an active therapy for sad or bad times, and the more complicated the recipe, the more therapeutic it becomes – and some fruitcake recipes can be very complicated indeed. Many of the Christmas or wedding cake recipes I have made run into multiple cookbook pages and take several days to properly prepare, bake and complete. Some have months of ‘curing’ after baking, being turned and coated with brandy and rewrapped in clean paper every day, ageing like an artisan cheese. There is plenty of space around the edges of those tedious instructions and simple tasks to nurse your darkest thoughts. Time aplenty to soothe your soul. And then the cake’s not bad either.
This recipe – for that cake that I made so much, so long ago – is actually a Simnel cake. Traditionally made around Easter, the white almonds on top (or balls of traditional ground almond marzipan – easy to make yourself with almond meal, sugar and egg white if you fancy) are meant to symbolise the apostles and be numbered accordingly. Some say that number should be 11, because, well, Judas, but I think this is frankly revisionist and you should go bold with 12. Originally marzipan would have been layered through the middle as well. But like all cooks, I have changed the recipe to suit myself, and because I like whole almonds and don’t really care about apostles, I use as many nuts on the top as I like. It’s a medium-density cake, mostly adapted from a recipe I found in a 1970s church fundraising booklet. The ‘boiled fruit cake’ was a practical solution to filling the tins and maintaining the patriarchy back in the day, cutting out lengthy fruit maceration with boiling so wives could get on with folding those nappies with one hand and peeling lots of spuds with the other. Still, it does have a long making time and many easy, calming steps, which is why I have found it to be the all-round perfect mindful fruitcake.
PERFECT MINDFUL FRUITCAKE
- 1kg fruitcake mix
- 250g butter
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ cup white sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon marmalade (or grated rind and juice of 1 orange)
- ½ cup black tea with the leaves strained out
- ½ cup brandy, and a wee nip for yourself
Put all the above ingredients in your biggest saucepan. Pick through the fruit mix and pull out any of those fake cherries. Either chuck them or eat them, I’m not judging, but you can’t boil them, they just melt. Put the saucepan on your lowest heat and stir, raising it to a slow boil. You’ll have to watch it and stir (mindfully) if your stove is like mine and has ‘blast furnace’ as its lowest heat setting. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
Leave it to cool. While you wait, make a couple of layers of baking paper lining for your 22cm springform cake tin – leave the sides of the baking paper lining higher than the sides of the tin for that pleasing retro height to your cake. This is most satisfying if you manage to find a pair of scissors that do that slidey thing, going straight through the paper in one cut. Put at least four layers on the bottom, as it cooks fastest. This is all a bit fiddly so you may need to pour yourself another brandy.
Start the oven – 150°C or 130°C if fan bake.
- 300g glacé cherries chopped into halves
- 1 tablespoon golden syrup
- 5 large eggs or 6 small ones
- 2 cups high-grade flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg – buy whole nutmegs and finely grate them, they’re so much nicer and keep longer between cakes
- 70g packet blanched almonds
Once the boiled mix is cool, stir through the glacé cherries and golden syrup. Crack in the eggs one at a time, stirring after each addition. Now you can measure out and sieve all the dry ingredients on to the top at once, then to be folded through gently.
Pour the mixture carefully into the prepared tin. Once smoothed over, you can let your creative ideas take over with the blanched almond decorations; to make the traditional Simnel pattern make a clock face with 12 almonds (start with almonds in the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions for spacing). Or make a cat. Or an abstract still life, I don’t care. Go to town.
Place on the middle rack of your oven to cook, for 2½ hours. Start checking whether it is finished with the old ‘stab it in the guts with a clean knife’ method after 2 hours.
Make a small amount of glaze for the top of the cake, using a tablespoon of apricot jam or marmalade or honey with a couple of splashes of brandy mixed in, and put aside.
Once the cake comes out of the oven let it sit for 5 minutes then remove the sides of the tin or it will sweat. While the paper collar is still attached, paint it with the glaze that has been warmed with a splash of boiling water. Let the cake cool for a lot longer before attempting to remove the tin base and the rest of the baking paper unless you have asbestos fingertips. Finally, place your cooled cake on a special plate, display, feel proud, then eat. An aromatic nourishment, a tall and glistening work of culinary art, and a small soothing of whatever ails you.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.