Stir-up Sunday is upon us once again which means that the countdown to Christmas can truly begin. First comes the excitement (yes this 28-year-old still gets overly excited with every Christmas song on the radio & at the prospect of presents) & second comes the baking.. so much baking.
Every December my little kitchen is transformed into a production line.. bowls sprawled across work surfaces, tins filled with maturing cakes dotted across the floor, neatly tied bags filled with confectionery hiding away in between decorations on the kitchen counter. It’s a lot of work & family members do often question my rationality but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Christmas is the season of joy & kindness.. honestly, what brings more joy than some homemade indulgence in the form of cakes & pies?!
Stir-up Sunday, which always falls on the last Sunday of November is the traditional day to make your Christmas cakes & puddings, allowing plenty of time for them to mature over the coming month as flavours mingle & collaborate to create that perfectly balanced sweet, spiced flavour synonymous with the season.
It is tradition that each member of the family is involved in creating the pudding, stirring from East to West in honour of the three wise men’s journey & with each member of the family making a wish for the year ahead as they do so. Traditionally a silver sixpence would be stirred into to the pudding mixture as it is said that it will bring wealth & good luck to the person who find it (this also comes with a hazard warning after a tipple or two).
Being rather old-fashioned in some of my ways, I’m rather fond of a bit of tradition, as can be seen by anyone who’s frequents my house around Christmas time (red, green & gold all the way. I loathe the display of a modern gaudy coloured tree!). I enjoy learning about the history of each (particularly where food is involved) & love hearing other people’s own little family traditions at this time of year.
I think that one thing is evident in Britain though, we all love a traditional Christmas cake. No Christmas is complete without a beautifully white iced cake on the table, even if not everyone likes it, every family will buy one “just in case” for those that do (I’m guilty of ‘just in case’-ing a lot at this time of year).
Christmas cake itself actually derived from something a lot less appetising. In the 17th century it was tradition to eat a thick meaty porridge with dried fruit & plums mixed in to sweeten (yum!), this was made to fill hungry stomachs after fasting periods during the religious holiday. By the 18th century sugar & dried fruits became more readily available, meaning that meaty counterparts could be decreased or replaced. The porridge would be wrapped in cloth & boiled, thus giving birth to plum pudding… what later became known as Christmas pudding. Gradually, wealthier families possessing ovens began to bake the mixture, creating our traditional Christmas cake.
Luckily ovens became more common & a tradition was born. A cake made from a combination of all of the best pantry ingredients.. dried fruit, exotic spices & well-aged spirits came to epitomise Christmas. Luckily I’m a huge fan of these store cupboard staples & could happily live on a diet of mince pies & cake alone for an entire month.
There’s something special about preparing to bake the Christmas cakes. The act of combining the sweet, dried fruits (nibbling all the while) with the pungent whiff of alcohol brings as much joy & a smile to my face as finally decorating the Christmas tree. Now I haven’t got any family of my own to help mix up the cakes on stir-up Sunday but I know that one day it will certainly become a family tradition but for now, without fail I will continue to whip up an extra ordinary amount of cakes to gift to friends & family every year.
With the odd tweak over the years, this cake has developed into the true flavour of Christmas for me. Moist, sweet & perfectly spiced this cake is made without fail every stir-up Sunday, ready to mature to perfection & be added to Christmas hampers. During the season of indulgence it can be difficult to fit in a slice of something dense but somehow I always find room for a slice (or two) of this, doused in a heavy helping of double cream.
(makes one 20cm cake, easily doubled)
- 725g mixed dried fruit
- 75g glace cherries, washed & chopped
- 50g candied peel
- 50g dried apricots, chopped
- 3tbsp brandy
- 1tbsp amaretto
- 225g butter
- 225g soft light brown sugar
- 4 eggs
- 225g plain flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 1 tbsp black treacle
- zest of 1 lemon
- zest of 1 orange
- 50g chopped almonds
- The day before you make the cake, put all of the dried fruit into a mixing bowl, stir through the alcohol, cover & leave it to soak overnight (or longer, you can do this stage at any point in advance)
- Before making the cake prepare the cake tin
- Start by by greasing, lining the inside of the tin (bottom & sides)
- Next a piece of baking parchment long enough to go around the tin & fold in half to make a double layer
- Use the long, double layered parchment to wrap around the outside of the tin with a & secure with a piece of twine to hold it in place
- In a large bowl, cream together the butter & sugar until light & fluffy
- Beat the eggs into the mixture, one at a time
- Sift the flour, salt & spices into the bowl & fold into the mixture
- Add the dried fruit, zest, treacle & nuts to the bowl & fold until everything is incorporated & evenly distributed throughout the batter
- Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin & level the surface
- Fold a piece of baking parchment in half (so it’s a double layer) & cut out a square large enough to cover the top of the cake
- In the centre of the square piece of parchment & cut out small 50p sized hole
- Place the cake into the oven & carefully rest the cut parchment on top of the cake tin
- Bake the cake at 140C for around 4 & a half hours
- You may need to allow extra time for the cake to bake (perhaps a half hour or so) but keep checking that the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the centre
- Allow the cake to cool for 30 minutes in it’s tin before removing & allowing cool completely on a cooling rack
- Once cold, use a skewer to poke holes all over the top of the cake & spoon over 3tbsp brandy or whatever alcohol you prefer
- Wrap the cake in foil lined baking parchment (or a double layer of regular baking parchment) & store in an airtight tin
- Periodically feed the cake (around twice a week is good) repeating the process of spooning over the alcohol (I prefer to alternate between brandy & amaretto)
- Continue this feeding process until you are ready to ice & decorate the cake