Christmas cake-baking traditions in my recollection start with a recipe clipped and kept from Good Housekeeping magazine, circa 1960-something, pressed into service every year by my mother together with a sturdy Kenwood mixer, pounds of prepared dried fruit, and other richly spiced ingredients. This ritual put Christmas firmly in prospect, albeit not immediately — wrapped and stored in an “air-tight” tin, it would be months before this cake was “mature” enough to see the light of day again, ready to be covered with marzipan and finished with roughed-up royal icing, a plastic robin and a piece of tartan ribbon; too much for the day itself, it was destined to last well into each new year.
The tradition moved, in due course, from my mother’s Kenwood to mine via an updated GH recipe — that is until the year that Dan Lepard shared a Dundee cake in a “bake along” on The Guardian “Word of Mouth” blog. At 3.30 pm on 29 November 2009, four continents of keen amateur bakers stood ready, willing and (mostly) able to bake-along-a-Dan — their baking skills and enthusiasm for the task far outstripping the ability of most, in a pre-Instagram era, to share with any immediacy their unfolding domestic dramas and proud achievements in photographic form. Using only a comments section still primitive enough to need links to personal galleries, and entirely warm, fuzzy and forgiving, we met as strangers in what either started or finished as the night (depending on geographic location), baking and sharing together our trials, tips and triumphs, and never to meet again.
Such a success was the resulting cake in my house that I have baked a version of Dan’s Dundee every year since then. Not too heavy, not too difficult, but time and ingredient-consuming enough to feel special and to look appropriately decorative. It’s not my recipe, but just so that we none of us lose it to the vagaries of the internet - the ingredients list and my version of its basic method are as follows:
Ingredients: 175g butter; 150g caster sugar; 1 x orange (zest, grated); 250g plain flour; 1 tsp baking powder; 3 x eggs; 100g marmalade; 100g ground almonds; 375g mixed dried fruit; 200g glacé peel/cherries (chopped, halved or quartered); 100g blanched almonds (for decoration). Have ready: a buttered and lined 20cm round baking tin (three layers of baking parchment); a pre-heated oven, 170ºC. Method: Cream the butter and sugar together; add in the eggs — one at a time — beating well between additions (and adding up to a third of the flour if there is any danger of curdling). Fold in the orange zest and marmalade, followed by the almonds and the flour+baking powder. Finally fold in all of the dried and glacé fruit. Put the batter into your prepared tin and cover loosely wth a scrunched up piece of foil (you don’t want the top to “set” at this stage); bake for 45 minutes. Meanwhile: cover the blanched almonds with hot water; soak for 10-15 mins; drain and leave to dry on a cloth. After the cake has been baking for 45 minutes, remove it from the oven, lower the temperature (150ºC), and arrange the almonds on the top of the still unbaked cake in a pattern that radiates out from the centre. Put back in the oven for another hour. Dissolve a tablespoon of sugar in a tablespoon of milk while you wait, and find a pastry brush. After the hour is up, test the cake with a skewer in the centre; if it comes out almost clean, then brush the almonds with the sugar and milk mix and give the cake another 10-15 minutes to set its glaze. Leave the cake to cool completely in its tin, turn out, wrap, mature for as long as you want - like richer fruit cakes, this one improves with age, but it is also very forgiving if you don’t have time to wait.
I change something most years — this year I have included some richly perfumed, hand-carried, Iranian sultanas gifted by a friend, let them keep company with a handful of dried mulberries, and my marmalade was, frankly, a “mistake” from earlier this year, made with blood oranges rather than Sevilles — perfect for baking, imperfect on toast; otherwise I don’t think the people of the marmalade capital of Dundee (of which my mother was once one) will have too much to quibble with. An international exchange that I look back on with great fondness, from a time when the internet still felt like a challenge if not a novelty, and shared baking ambition like community not competition.
For anyone who wants to know exactly how Dan baked and worded his original, or to hear the wisdom that he shared with various non conformists among the group (the gluten-free, the vegan wannabes, the loaf and bundt tin users, …) the day is still on record for anyone who cares to read it.
The picture is of mine for this year, and here’s hoping it may inspire some more in the local community to bake-along too.
For, Living Within, December, 2017