It is the law at Christmas to have both mince pies and Christmas cake on hand for caller-inners. But how many times have you seen your friends’ faces fall at the sight of their hundredth pie or slice? No matter how amazing your version is, if it’s past December 10 there’s a good chance people will already have rich, dried, spicy-possibly boozy, fruit fatigue.
I finally stopped making (or even just icing a bought version) Christmas cake as none of my children like it and I ended up eating most of it. And when I was living in West Cork, the only mince pies I wanted were those from the Stuffed Olive in Bantry, thank you very much. So be kind, assume that your guests will have quite ample mince pie and Christmas cake temptation elsewhere and stock your kitchen tins with something a little different and perhaps a little more decadent? I’m thinking chocolate, citrus, and then perhaps a little more chocolate.
In France the term for such “cakes that keep” is “cakes that travel” or gâteaux de voyage. They must be made from natural products which hold up at room temperature, don’t mind being bumped around a little and contain neither fresh cream nor fruit. They need to be easy to eat with one’s fingers and not be too heavy on the digestion. In the 17th century, the Marquis de Sévigné first mentions them in correspondence to his daughter as in those days, it took a good week to travel from his home in Brittany to Versailles. Financiers were also among the first gâteaux de voyage to take on the label, and have been joined by dozens of others over the years. Perhaps the most famous is gingerbread from Alsace, le marbré –marbled chocolate loaf, walnut cake, the buttery wonder that is kouign amann and, also from Brittany, le gâteau Breton, something like a very airy shortbread, with a crusty top and often filled with sweetened prune or raspberry purée.
But as you are not travelling by coach and four across the French countryside, but simply want to spoil your Christmas callers, how do you make sure your cakes stay moist and fresh as you cut them slice by slice? First and foremost, sugar is your friend here. Particularly brown sugar, so do not shy away from sweet cakes. Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts moisture and stores it and it is why it is important in our cakes to keep. And if you reduce the sugar in your recipe, as we are all tending to do these days for very good reasons, just be wary that your cake does not dry out faster than it normally would. Another way of keeping the cake nice and fresh is to douse it in syrup or cover with a very thin glaze. This adds moisture and sugar and also makes a seal-keeping freshness in.
Make sure your cakes are well wrapped in plastic film (sorry, no good alternative for now) That means it should touch the surface of the cake, and also the inside from where you have taken a slice. If you have a tin with a lid, even better, but do try to avoid the fridge as too much cold tends to spoil the texture of the crumb.
The recipes I’ve given you here all taste better the day after they’ve been baked, and all will keep, well stored for five or six days. Merry Christmas!
This luscious, gluten and dairy-free cake has become a classic over the past 15 years. At Christmas, it really comes into its own, as it keep beautifully for up to five days and can also stand alone as quite a chic dinner party dessert. Once cooled, drizzle with melted chocolate and let it harden for even more decadence.
For 6 – 8
10 minutes preparation
50 minutes cooking
200g clementines (or oranges, or a mix) • 4 large free range eggs • Zest of a large lemon • 150g caster sugar • 100ml olive oil • 175g ground almonds • 2 tsps baking powder • ½ tsp salt • Syrup • 25g caster sugar • Juice of the large lemon
1. Set the fruit quite snugly into a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and, gently, let simmer for about 25 minutes until the fruit is soft but not breaking up.
2. Drain off the water and leave to cool. Purée the fruit in a blender.
3. Heat the oven to 180oC. Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin.
4. In the bowl of your mixer, or by hand, whisk together the lemon zest, eggs, oil and sugar. Add the orange purée and stir. Then spoon in the almonds and baking powder.
5. The batter will seem quite wet but fear not! Pour into the cake tin and bake for around 50 minutes. The top will be risen and golden brown and the edges of the cake will have come away from the sides of the tin. Test with a skewer to make sure it is cooked in the middle.
6. Leave to cool on a wire rack.
7. While the cake is still warm, make up the syrup with the sugar and juice and spoon over the top of the cake. Leave to cool completely in the tin, while the syrup is absorbed.
Chocolate Buttermilk Cake
The buttermilk and dark brown sugar give this gorgeous cake extra moistness. Use the best cocoa powder you can find. Again, if you prefer to scoff it in one sitting, it’s also a lovely dinner party dessert served with boozy fresh cream or syllabub.
For 6 – 8
10 minutes preparation
25 minutes cooking
175g salted butter at room temperature • 125g caster sugar • 150g dark brown sugar • 3 eggs • 1 tsp vanilla essence • 210g plain flour • 125g cocoa powder • 2 tsps baking powder • 170g buttermilk • ½ tsp sea salt flakes
1. Heat the oven to 180oC. Grease and line a 22cm sandwich tin.
2. In the bowl of the mixture, beat the butter and sugars until the mixture becomes foamy and lightens in colour – a good four to five minutes.
3. Add the eggs one at a time, beating and scraping down the sides of the bowl as you go. Ad the vanilla essence, then fold in half of the flour and the cocoa powder.
4. Pour in the buttermilk, mix again and finally, add the rest of the flour and cocoa powder.
5. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the cake feels nice and springy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
6. Leave to cool on a wire rack for a few minutes before turning out and cooling completely.