Have you ever seen the film High Fidelity? The one where John Cusack reminisces about his top five break-ups of all time? I curled up on the couch the other night with a block of sea salt chocolate and watched it for the second time. All the protagonist’s talk of top fives got me thinking about the concept of, you guessed it, top fives. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get out the violin and bore you senseless with tales of my top five break-ups. But what I would like to share are my top five cakes of all time. You know how sometimes you eat a slice of cake that tastes so good you could eat it and only it for the rest of your life? That’s the kind of cake that deserves pride of place in a top five cake list. So, here’s my top five cakes of all time – the cakes that stood out over all others, the ones that I’ll never forget, the ones that I dream about, the ones that had me dying for more.
5. Carrot cake
As you can see, there is no mention of Christmas cake on this list. This may seem like a glaring omission given the title of this post is ‘Gluten-free Christmas cake’. Indeed, if I was to extend this list to include my top 10 cakes of all time, fruit cake would still be nowhere to be seen. It’s not that I hate fruit cake, but I just don’t love it like some people do (Dad and Paul, I’m looking at you), and if you gave me the choice between a cheese plate and a slice of fruit cake, I would choose the cheese plate every time. This is pretty big coming from a cake fiend, but there’s something about fruit cake that just doesn’t do it for me. Until now, that is.
This year’s cake is my second attempt at baking a gluten-free Christmas cake. You may remember last year’s attempt which resulted in a gorgeous-looking albeit crumbly cake. To avoid another disappointment, I got quite experimental with this year’s recipe in the hope of perfecting the finished product. Using the Christmas cake guru, Marguerite Paton’s recipe as a guide, I played around with the ingredients until I felt they were just right. My main adaptations were adding extra cinnamon, throwing in some vanilla essence, changing around most of the measurements, omitting the mixed peel (Paul hates it) and using gluten-free flour in place of regular plain flour (you can use store-bought gluten-free flour if you don’t fancy making your own mix from scratch).
The result? Well, if this cake was on an episode of The Great British Bake Off, I think the judges would say, “Great bake”. It’s the perfect cake – lovely texture (not crumbly), gorgeous flavour and good looks to boot. I dare say it’s so good that it may earn itself pride of place on my next top five cake list. Paul said it’s lighter in colour than a traditional Christmas cakes and I put that down to the addition of light brown sugar. If you’d prefer a darker coloured cake, just use dark brown sugar instead of a mix of dark and light. And in the words of the Christmas cake guru Marguerite Paton, you can make this cake a month or two before Christmas, but it is still delicious if made three weeks beforehand.
Gluten-free Christmas cake
Adapted from The Basic Basics Baking Handbook by Marguerite Paton
Makes a 23cm round cake or 20cm square cake
350g gluten-free plain flour (you can try my gluten-free plain flour recipe or use a ready-made mix)
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 tsp mixed spice
375g seedless raisins
2/3 cup brandy for soaking the dried fruit
1 tsp vanilla
60g blanched almonds, chopped
100g glacé cherries, chopped
4 large free-range eggs, whisked
2 tbs brandy
2 tbs milk
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
finely grated zest of 1 orange (optional)
225g sugar, preferably dark moist brown sugar (I used a mixture of dark and light brown)
1 level tbsp black treacle
For the topping:
1/4 cup apricot jam
1 cup Brazil nuts
1/2 cup glacé cherries
1/2 cup dried apricots, halved
1. Soak the dried fruit in 2/3 cup brandy for at least three days, stirring occasionally.
2. Lightly grease a 23cm round cake or 20cm square cake tin. Line the base with double layers of brown paper, then cover this with a double thickness of baking paper. Line the sides of the tin with greased greaseproof paper or baking paper. Tie a deep double band of brown paper round the outside of the tin.
3. Sift together the flour and spices. Mix the dried fruits, almonds and cherries. Blend the eggs with the brandy and milk. Cream together the lemon and orange zest with the butter, sugar and treacle until soft. Do not overbeat, as this type of cake does not need as much aerating as light cakes. Gradually blend in the egg mixture and sifted dry ingredients. Stir in all the fruit. Spoon the mixture into the tin, smooth flat on top, then press the top with slightly damp knuckles, as this helps to keep the cake moist and flat.
4. Bake in the centre of an oven preheated to 160°C (140-150°C in a fan oven) for 1 hour, then lower the heat to 140-150°C (120-130°C in a fan oven) and cook for approximately 2 hours. Baking times for rich fruit cakes like this vary considerably according to your particular oven, so test it carefully.
5. To test the cake: first press firmly on top – there should be no impression – then check to see if the cake has shrunk away from the sides of the tin. If it has, remove from the oven. Cool the cake in the baking tin; when completely cold turn it out carefully;
6. This cake is given a very moist texture if you prick it once or twice before decorating it and pour several teaspoons of sherry or brandy or rum into the cake. Use a steel knitting needle or fine skewer, make a number of small holes on top of the cake and spoon the sherry, brandy or rum over this. If wished, turn the cake upside down and do the same again.
7. Brush the top of the cake with warm jam and decorate with Brazil nuts, dried apricot halves and glace cherries.
8. Store in an airtight tin in a cool, dry place.