Stir up Sunday is traditionally the last Sunday in Advent, where families would come home from church and make their plum puddings and mincemeat in time for Christmas. Now days things are a little different. Instead of church most of us seem to spend our Sunday mornings recovering from the night before, while watching repeats of Match of the Day and X Factor; and instead of stirring up our puddings, over 90% of us will now buy a ready made version from the supermarket.
I experienced a Christmas pudding disaster a few years ago when my, slightly worse for wear, mum placed the (shop bought) pud in the steamer, and then promptly forgot about it. We were alerted to the impending disaster by the acrid smell of burning plastic, and rushed out to find the steamer boiled dry, with the dried out and burnt pudding welded to the bottom. As I love a good old Xmas pud, flamed with brandy and served with gallons of custard this, was right up there (along with not getting the deluxe version of Castle Greyskull), as one of Christmas day's darker moments.
We're off to Wiltshire for Christmas this year, so instead of lugging my own pudding supplies with me I decided to make a Christmas cake that could be fed with booze and munched on through out the coming weeks. To be entirely accurate the Ewing made the cake while I made (un)helpful suggestions and generally got in the way. From a Nigella recipe that blends a boiled fruit cake with a little twist, the flavour combinations are not too outré for the traditionalists, and it's perfect if you don't want thick layers of Polyfila-like icing to peel off every mouthful.
I first made this cake three years ago, the first Christmas cake I had baked, so I can attest to its simplicity. At the time the Ewing was studying for exams, meaning I was in sole charge of the Christmas cooking. Although I stuck (mostly) to the recipe, in the end I had to shut the kitchen door to prevent her noticing that I was tipping honey in straight from the jar and 'estimating' how much booze to use. The fact that it was a success shows how hard it is to really mess up cakes like this. The biggest problem seemed to come from the cooking times, it seemed to take at least half an hour longer than specified on both occasions. That, and the fact that when the Ewing double lined the tin the extra layer of brown paper ended up touching the oven roof, setting alight and setting off the fire alarm. Luckily the cake was too dark to notice any scorched bits, and a little ash never hurt anyone...
Chocolate Fruit Cake
350g dried soft prunes chopped
175g unsalted butter, softened
175g dark muscovado sugar
125ml coffee liqueur
2 oranges, zested and juiced
1 teaspoon mixed spice
2 tablespoons good quality cocoa
3 free-range eggs, beaten
150g plain flour
75g ground almonds
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
-Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C).
-Line the sides and bottom of an 8 by 3 1/2-inch deep, round loose-bottomed cake tin with a layer of baking parchment. When lining the tin with the parchment, cut the material into a strip twice as high as the tin itself; the height of the strips protects the cake from catching on the outside of the tin.
-Place the fruit, butter, sugar, honey, coffee liqueur, orange zest and juice, mixed spice and cocoa into a large wide saucepan. Heat the mixture until it reaches a gentle boil, stirring the mixture as the butter melts. Let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and leave to stand for 30 minutes.
-After 30 minutes, the mixture will have cooled a little. Add the eggs, flour, ground almonds, baking powder and baking soda, and mix well with a wooden spoon or spatula until the ingredients have combined.
-Carefully pour the fruitcake mixture into the lined cake tin. Transfer the cake tin to the oven and bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, or until the top of the cake is firm but will has a shiny and sticky look. At this point, if you insert a sharp knife into the middle of the cake, the cake should still be a little uncooked in the middle
-Place the cake on a cooling rack. Once the cake has cooled, remove it from the tin.
Nigella decorates this with chocolate covered coffee beans and gold stars and glitter. This might be a step to far with the Christmas kitsch, even for me. I've just gone for the simple sprig of holly approach, but feel free to wheel out the Christmas decorations. You could traditionally ice it if the fancy takes you.
Because this cake is it's extra moist and sticky, it probably won't keep quite as long as a traditional fruit cake (not usually a problem in our house...). Kept well wrapped in an airtight tin it should still be fine for at least 2/3 weeks. It freezes pretty well too.