Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Christmas Cake

The Christmas Cake
Stir- up Sunday has been and gone, but if you like many others didn’t manage to get stirring over the weekend, there’s still time! 

This week has been Christmas cake week at the Pumpkin Patch! Many of the regulars at the Pumpkin Patch have now weighed out, chopped and peeled, measured and stirred up a Christmas cake. 

It’s not as difficult or as time consuming as you may think. It does take a little organisation to ensure that you have all the ingredients, but from then on it’s prety straight forward. 

Usually, I’m one for throwing in a bit of this and a bit of that, and of not paying much attention to recipes. In making a christmas cake however, a little attention to detail is required. Leave out a few vital ingredients and your cake may become a door stop or just outright miserable!

I always recommend that you weigh everything out in advance, that way as you work your way through the recipe, nothing is left out or forgotten. Once the ingredients are weighed, you can methodically set about making the cake, but don’t forget to soak the dried fruit in a little brandy overnight. 

If you don’t want to use brandy, soak your dried fruit in some cold tea! Sound odd, but a traditional Welsh ‘barabrith' calls for just that - cold tea. It works well and adds plenty of moisture back into the dried fruit, which in turn makes a lovely moist cake. If you forget to soak the fruit, the fruit will swell and absorb the moisture from your cake, and leave the cake dry and crumbly.

Mix the cake early enough in the day, or early evening, as it takes up to four hours to cook! So, if you pop it in the oven at 9pm, you’re in for a late night!

I use a stand mixer, but the children in my classes don’t.  A large bowl and strong wooden spoon works well, combined with a bit of muscle power, and a lot of hard work!  To make life easier, line a cake tin with lining paper or grease proof paper before you start mixing, that way the awkward fiddly bit is out of the way. Simply use a pastry brush and a small bowl full of oil to brush inside the tin before you place the paper inside, this keeps the lining paper in place and makes the job considerably easier.  

Once the cake mixture is in the tin, trim the lining paper to the height of the tin and cover the top with more paper. For the past few years I’ve used foil baked parchment paper available in supermarkets to cover the top, it does the job, and stays in place whilst cooking. Why cover the top? Well, it prevents the cake from drying out and also stops the top from browning too much during the long cooking time. Keep the oven to a cool 140°C and just check it after about 3 ½ hours, just in case!

This is a lovely easy recipe for a dark moist, fruity cake.  When it’s cooled, wrap it in more greaseproof paper and foil or keep it in an air tight tin.  Feed it a little brandy on a regular basis for a boozy cake, and decorate it with candied fruit and apricot jam, or with traditional marzipan and icing. Good luck and have fun. 

If you don’t think you’ll find the time to get baking this year, don’t worry send one of the children along to the Pumpkin Patch Christmas Make & Bake sessions! 
We’ll have lots of fun, and you’ll have some Christmas treats :)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

It's stir-up Sunday

It’s Stir-up Sunday!

I only became aware of stir up Sunday sometime during the last few years. I usually made my Christmas cake whenever I found the time, and it was inevitably during the last few weeks in the run up to Christmas. I was usually found icing it late on Christmas Eve afternoon! 

I was totally oblivious to any traditions or unwritten rules relating to the custom of pudding, cake and mince meat making. Obviously, for those who make and bake to provide cakes for friends and family, they need to be a little more organised than I used to be. For years, I made one Christmas cake per annum, and it was us, for the family to enjoy on Christmas Day and during the days that followed. It was fun to purchase the ingredients and to dedicate an evening to weighing out and soaking the dry ingredients, then to mixing the vast quantities of butter and sugar, flour, fruit and spices. The annual Christmas cake bake would, and still does, fill the house with the real aroma of the festive season.  

This Sunday - the 23rd, is ‘stir-up’ Sunday, the last Sunday before advent begins. It become popular during victorian times, but it does actually serve as an useful reminder that it’s time to get busy in the kitchen and to begin the festive baking. If you’re keen to get mixing this Sunday, making your own mincemeat is a great start, and believe me, it really isn’t difficult. 

Obviously, you can pop to the shops and buy a jar of mince meat, but you won’t beat the flavour of the home made version, and it’s a lot more fun!

The advantage of starting now, is that the fruit and spices in the mince meat, cake or pudding will have time mingle and to get to know each other  in the run up to Christmas! This makes for a much richer and fuller flavour. It also means you have more time to get on with other things like school plays, concerts, carol services and shopping as the Christmas season progresses.

To make your own mince meat, mix all your favourite dried fruity flavours together for your perfect mix. Use currants, raisins, sultanas, cranberries, dates, and prunes. To make it more exotic, and less traditional try using mango and pineapple, papaya and dried apple for an alternative flavour. To about ½ kilo of dried fruit, you can add a handful of chopped walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds, then add some citrus flavours like orange and lemon juice and zest. 

To bulk up the mix, add 2 chopped apples, and then spice it up with 2 teaspoons of mixed spice and a glass of brandy, port or another favourite tipple. Sweeten with brown sugar (150-200g ish!) and add about 100g suet for a traditional mince meat. Suet is now widely available in the supermarket in both traditional and vegetarian forms, so this shouldn’t be a problem. 

The children can take over at this point, pop the kettle on and relax, make a cup of tea, and allow the children to do the stirring!! The flavours simply need to mix.

All you need to do now, is to jar this up into sterilised jars ready for the Christmas pies. If you’ve made too much, use pretty labels and ribbon and give them away to very lucky friends and family as little pre-Christmas gifts, or take it one stop further, and add flour, more spices and eggs and turn the remainder into a Christmas Pud. Job done, well done!