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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Unrepeatable Christmas cake

Or, What to do with a dead Herman.

As recipes go, this one's pretty useless, as a key ingredient is a friendship cake starter that's been neglected to the point of alcoholism. Other key ingredients are the remains of two tins of treacle that have been sitting in the back of the cupboard for approximately a decade, which I discovered when I went to put away the two new tins of treacle that had been on special offer in the supermarket.

Where was I? Oh yes, alcoholic Herman. If you neglect the starter for long enough, it will separate into three layers: Gloop on the bottom, froth on the top, and an alcoholic liquid in the middle. The first time I discovered this I tried drinking the liquid, but it wasn't as good as you'd I'd expect alcoholic cake mix to taste. Reasoning that wine yeast survives quite a lot of alcohol, I fed him and sure enough, he revived, but then I neglected him again. I've really lost interest in sourdough cake making by now. I've yet to find a recipe that Ian likes and it's distracting me from making cakes to tried and tested recipes, so all our cakes are slightly (or very) disappointing experiments.

The combination of alcohol, cake mix, and treacle (and the time of year) put me in mind of Christmas cake. I consulted my mum's recipe, which requires a 9 inch cake tin. Is that square or round? In any case, I don't have a tin that big. That one must have gone to my sister. I then consulted Delia, whose recipe for rich fruit cake was very similar (and even richer) and called for a 7 inch square tin, which is what I had. Using these two recipes as a very rough guide, my version consisted of the following:

  1. Cut up the remains of a tub of glace cherries, a few dried apricots and two pieces of crystalised ginger, then make up to two pounds with a bag of mixed dried fruit (including citrus peel).
  2. Add a tablespoon of brandy and the alcoholic liquid from the cake starter to the fruit, mix and leave overnight.
  3. Feed the remaining Herman mix with about 4 fl oz each of flour, sugar and milk. Cover and leave overnight (it bubbled in a desultory manner. I don't think he was going to revive this time.)
  4. Next day, soften/melt about half a pack of unsalted butter together with the remains of the salted in the butter dish - probably about 5 or 6 oz altogether. At the same time, put the treacle over the heat so it'll be easier to get the last bit out of the tin. When fairly liquid (because it's easier to mix that way), stir these into the Herman gloop. I didn't actually use all the treacle, but it was probably about three tablespoonfuls, or three times what the recipe said.
  5. Beat a couple of eggs (half what the recipe said) and mix in
  6. Add sugar (white) until it tastes sweet enough - about 4 oz
  7. Add flour until the consistency looks about right - 8 oz
  8. Add a quarter teaspoon of bicarb (how can such a small amount make any difference in so much cake mix?) and spices to taste - maybe half a teaspoon each of nutmeg and cinnamon, plus a little mixed spice.
  9. Wonder about the grated lemon and orange rinds in Delia's recipe and remember the orange peels still in the freezer from making juice last Christmas. Get out a couple of halves and grate into the mix. They grate well when frozen.
  10. Mix gloop into fruit (the fruit was in the bigger bowl). Look at resulting cake mix and think, That's never going to go into that tin.
  11. Search cupboard for another tin. Find various fancy shaped things lurking at the back (did my sister get all the useful tins?) and settle on the loaf tin (oh no, I got that one.)
  12. Line tins with a double layer of greaseproof paper, leaving plenty sticking up around the top of the tins, and grease well. I hate this job. There's no baking powder in this recipe, so it's OK that I put this off until I had the cake mix, um, mixed.
  13. Fill tins with cake mix to a similar depth, then fold greaseproof paper to make a cover over the top of the tin, but don't seal or the steam won't be able to escape.
  14. Bake at gas mark 1 (yes, really that low) for four and a half to five hours. I took the smaller cake out after four and a half hours, the larger after five. Leave to cool a bit
  15. While they're still a bit warm (I'm not sure whether this matters, but it's the way Mum used to do it), turn the cake over, poke holes in it with a skewer, and pour brandy over it. I used the bottle cap to measure (and to make sure I didn't tip out half the bottle) so it wasn't that much. I may add more over the next month or so.
  16. Wrap in greaseproof paper and try to find a tin that the cake will fit into for storage.

Since this was a very experimental recipe, with a much higher liquid content than the ones I was basing it on, and my track record with the friendship cake not being very good, there was no reason to expect this to turn out well, so I'm glad to have a spare one for testing.

It's important to test it thoroughly.

It's rather good, actually. Against all the odds, this is one successful Christmas cake. Now I hope it keeps!

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