Foment in the ferments part 3

The C word

Well someone has to say it – if you’re going to make your own Christmas cake you need to start planning it just about now. I know no-one wants to think about Christmas yet (OK just me then) but it has to be done. They not only take time to make, but you also need time to feed it with alcohol, marzipan it and then ice it. Each step needs time before progressing to the next. And this type of cake improves for the keeping, I think. A couple of months is just about right.

Many folk have their own favourite recipe and this is mine, which means that it’s made from spelt flour and also sourdough – how could it be any other? I have to confess I’m not a huge dark fruitcake fan (nor is any of my family) but this one I like very much. It’s not too anything – sweet, treacly or dry, without being at all bland, and my version doesn’t have any of the dreaded candied peel – although you could use it if you wanted, the recipe is very flexible. I got the original recipe from the Nigella Lawson website here which in turn got it from a book called Wild Sourdough by Yoke Mardewi (sounds like my kinda book). I’ve tinkered with it rather a lot to suit it to my family’s requirements and tastes.

Being sourdough, of course, it does require a bit of forward planning but the individual steps don’t take much time – except the baking. I think the end result definitely justifies the time. Make it in the next week or two and you’ve got 4-6 weeks to feed it with the spirit of your choice, before moving on to the marzipan and icing which take about a week each, but more of that later. When it comes to cake food my preferred option is brandy, but I think if you wanted it a little sweeter it would be really nice laced with something like homemade sloe gin, plum brandy or damson vodka. I think they might make it quite sticky but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? That’s what cake forks are for (does anyone still have those except me? And mine rarely get used.) 😉

This recipe makes one 7” round cake – plenty big enough for us. The original recipe is double the quantity if you want a larger cake or two 7” cakes. If you want to make it in a square tin, this will be suitable for a 6” tin.

To start off you need 250g of 100% hydration sourdough starter, so it’s a great use for your leftover starter instead of making oatcakes – did I really say that? However, it’s time now to start thinking more of the subtleties of sourdough. Well, the truth is that sourdough needn’t be sour! If you feed it and use it regularly it is yeasty and almost sweet smelling. It gets more sour the longer you leave it, for bread-making I’m happy with it sour. If you leave it longer it starts to get a vinegary smell but can usually still be retrieved with a few good feeds. For cakes you want a sweet smelling, fresh starter. So use it after three feeds so it’s bubbly, active and yeasty.

About the same time as the second feed put 500g dried fruit of your choice in a bowl, along with 50g nuts of your choice and 50g sherry (or brandy etc). Note I’m weighing most things, as usual. Stir to wet everything and leave, covered, until ready to progress to the next stage – up to 24 hours. I stir it occasionally to make sure all the fruit gets some liquor. You can use brandy or even dark stout instead of the sherry. Fruit juice, cold tea (no milk) or even water, can be substituted if you don’t want to use alcohol.

The choice of dried fruit is whatever takes your fancy really. My preferred mix consists of sultanas (half the total wt or more), chopped unsulphured apricots, chopped dried figs and a few chopped dates. My cake is a bit plain, colour-wise, but we don’t care as it’s so tasty. However you can make it colourful using cherries as part of the mix or tropical with dried mango and papaya (soaked in rum?!). And more traditional fruit mixes would include raisins and/or currants. Sultanas suit us just fine, not least because they’re much cheaper than the others. The nuts are optional – I can’t bear big bits of nut in cake (I know, I’m weird) so I stick pretty rigidly to slivered almonds or miss the nuts out entirely.

From here I start to deviate from the original recipe quite widely.

I may have mentioned my gal is vegan so obviously eggs and dairy are out for anything we’re all going to eat. I don’t wish to upset anyone but we’ve tried several vegan Christmas cake recipes and not liked any of them. I always thought it was the lack of dairy and eggs that let them down but now I’m not so sure. Certainly the replacement for eggs is pretty crucial. I really didn’t like any vegan egg replacements that I tried, finding them totally unpalatable and/or not fit for purpose. Flax “eggs”, however, work really well and suit us all. In fact I find I use them quite often these days (especially where a carb recipe requires an egg) with no deterioration in the quality of the dish. You can use chia seeds the same way but they’re really expensive. Anyway 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed mixed with 3 tablespoons of cold water, whisked lightly with a fork and set aside for 15 minutes is the snotty equivalent of one egg.

Or, of course, you can use real eggs. If you are using real eggs you may need to refer to the original method on the link above, which involves creaming some things and adding others bit by bit. For my version you can bung everything in together. I like my version.

So, the next day, when the starter (250g) is ready to go, make 3 flax “eggs” and set them aside while you assemble everything else.

In a large mixing bowl put 200g brown sugar, 125g spelt flour and 1½ teaspoons of mixed spice (I make my own from equal quantities of ground ginger, cloves, allspice, cinnamon and a pinch of black pepper). I use Rapadura sugar (except for in wine making). It’s dehydrated whole cane sugar and retains as many of the vitamins and minerals from the plant as possible so on the occasions we use sugar it makes me feel better about it. It’s probably still not that good for you but better than the white stuff – and I like the taste. But you can use any soft brown sugar you have on hand or can buy. Mix thoroughly.

To the sourdough starter add 150g of a bland oil (I use olive oil – just not extra-virgin), 25g dark treacle (molasses), the flax mixture and a pinch of sea salt. Mix well and then pour into the dry ingredients, along with the fruit, nuts and soaking liquor (if there’s any left). Mix it well to make sure there are no clumps of dry ingredients. Cover and leave overnight in a cool area, until it has risen to 1½ times its volume.

Transfer the batter carefully into a greased, lined cake tin and bake in a pre-heated oven (180C) for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 140C and continue baking for a further 3-3½ hours. Keep an eye on it for the last hour, depending on the accuracy of your oven it may take more or less time. It is cooked when a skewer comes out clean from the middle. If it looks like the top is browning too much before that, cover it with foil. I’m fairly sure my oven runs too hot but my old cooker took about 3½ hours total.

Leave it to cool in the tin for half an hour and then remove tin and paper and finish cooling on a rack. Wrap it in two layers of foil and put it somewhere cool (but not the fridge).

Feed the cake once a week with 2 tablespoons of the liquor of your choice (I generally just use the cap – I’m not sure exactly how much that is but it seems about right. Unwrap the cake and poke gently all over the base of the cake, with a skewer, then carefully drizzle the spirit all over. Wrap it back up and keep it upside down to let the liquid soak in. The following week turn the cake over and repeat the process on the top of the cake. Continue feeding alternate sides for as many weeks as you’ve got to spare, remembering to keep the fed side uppermost that week. As long as I manage each side once I don’t mind too much but I’ve never heard anyone complain that I’ve over fed it when I’ve done it for 6 weeks! Leave it for a final week to finish soaking, after the last feed and then it is ready for almond paste and icing. These are one of the few occasions that I tend to buy ready made – thankfully it’s really easy to get both that are pretty decent (and vegan). One final point I’d like to add is that many recipes would have you use apricot jam for glueing the almond paste to the cake and the icing to the marzipan. Unless you’re a fan of apricot jam (which I’m not – I can’t stomach the stuff) just use what ever you’ve got open – I’ve used home made rowan, damson, rosehip and your more usual shop bought jams or jellies and they’re all fab, there’s not enough to have a major effect on the over all flavour.

2 Comments on Foment in the ferments part 3

  1. What a most excellent share. I don’t usually make a Christmas cake. That was mum’s forte and when she died we kind of left it hanging in the air but a sourdough Christmas cake? I could make that tradition my own! Thank you for the delicious share and the possibilities of Christmas traditions future 🙂

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