When it comes to Christmas cake, I always follow the habit of the late composer Richard Wagner and make my own.
A nicely wrapped slice of Christmas cake, as the noted composer well knew, is sure to please and now it’s become my own gift of choice.
As the giver it means I have gained the efficiencies of standardization – I can give the same thing to everyone — and as a bonus I can make it well in advance, avoiding last-minute rushing around. In fact, if there’s any left over it might well be kept in a safe place for next year’s round of gift-giving. Don’t worry; Christmas cake never goes out of fashion.
As far as recipients go, they find it hard to dismiss the obvious effort that went into the making. “What trouble you took”, they may say, “How thoughtful/creative/clever of you”. And they’re unwilling to harsh the seasonal buzz by saying anything bad about the result: “It’s not something I would otherwise have experienced” might be the worst response you could expect here.
Your gift will be enhanced by its rarity. Christmas cake is indeed hard to find, at least the proper cake with its dark, moist, fruity, brandy-infused texture and iced marzipan wrap. As such you might think I’d keep my gift cards close to my chest, unwilling to share such a great idea by publishing the composition of it and risking the stuff popping up all over the place. But my thinking is, if Wagner could take the time out of composing Der Ring des Nibelungen — no small feat in itself, to be fair — to distribute his seasonal treat to friends and family, then who am I, whose compositions have been limited to cassette mixtapes, to keep it to myself.
So herewith the Christmas cake secrets only the Leipzigian maestro’s grandmother might have known, laid bare.
The key to a good Christmas cake, the fundamental thing, is to include only those ingredients found in such a cake and exclude all others. You may say, “But I always use cheese”, to which I would reply, “Don’t.”
This advice applies not only to the cake part, but also to the topping of course which if it’s to be both tasty and historically correct, must be done properly.
Mix it well, adding the ingredients in order, and avoiding any undue clumping. If clumping should occur, you can remediate in the usual manner, but don’t overdo it.
Baking, I’ve learned through many hours of trial and error, involves two key aspects: time, and heat. Get these right, and your cake can’t fail. Bear in mind that one can be used to compensate for the other, but on previous occasions I’ve ended up with incinerated bricks or sticky goo, indicating that this is true only to a point.
Finally, don’t whatever you do warn people that you will be giving them your artisanal gift this year. For some reason, it’s a common belief that Christmas cake resembles nothing so much as a solid heap of fruit and nuts held together by sugar and dry enough to suck the last remaining moisture out of year-old turkey stuffing. So don’t risk such preconceptions interfering with their enjoyment of your authentic creation; surprise them with your tasty piece of history and just watch the expressions on their faces when they eat it. Insist on it.
But bear in mind that if your cake is anything like mine, it’ll be almost too good to eat.