Sweet Sweet Friday: Christmas Cake 2011

About a month ago I interviewed Dame Alison Holst, who had just published her 100th book – her life story, with added recipes. For non-New Zealanders, Alison Holst is as famous here as Margaret Fulton in Australia, Delia in Britain or Martha in the US. She graduated from the University of Otago in 1959 with a degree in the quaintly titled subject of ‘Home Science’ and was preparing for life as a teacher when suddenly she was catapulted into cooking on television. Dame Alison laughed as she told me the only advice she could find on cooking on TV was not to wear a patterned apron. Anyway, she made a meatloaf with hardboiled eggs embedded in one end of it for her audition, advising viewers that they could serve half of it hot one night and have the egg-studded remainder cold the next. The resulting show, ‘Here’s How’, was a massive hit and Dame Alison remained a mainstay of cooking on TV here for decades afterwards, along with promoting New Zealand produce to export markets.

Why have a patterned apron when you can have a patterned saucepan?

She still writes a regular newspaper column with her son Simon and even though their food is hardly at the Ferran Adria end of the spectrum, they are probably the most trusted foodwriters in the country (especially among people who don’t cook very much). ‘Alison Holst’ is regularly cited as one of the most Googled names in New Zealand and her little books on muffins or feeding children are legendary.
The new book, A Home-grown Cook: The Alison Holst Story, doesn’t air any dirty laundry (come on, were you really expecting ‘The Mother of the Nation’ to have any?), but it does feature some of her favourite recipes. I enjoyed talking to her so much that afterwards I decided her famous Golden Christmas Cake was going to replace our usual chocolate and fig extravaganza this year.

Alison Holst’s Golden Christmas Cake
In the introduction to this recipe in the book, Dame Alison says this is the favourite cake of her great friend and equally famous New Zealand broadcaster, Sharon Crosbie. She soaks the fruit in chardonnay, but as we’d accidentally drunk the bottle in the fridge I was saving for this purpose, I used green ginger wine and added glace ginger to the fruit mixture. This cake apparently only needs a week to mature, so there’s plenty of time to get down to business if you haven’t got yours underway yet.
This recipe is reproduced with kind permission.

For a 20cm square or 23cm round or square (2.25kg) cake:

3-4 cups (about 1kg) of crystallised mango, papaya, pineapple and ginger, cut into 5mm cubes
1 cup golden sultanas
1 cup dried cranberries or extra sultanas
1 cup chardonnay (or other white wine)
3/4 cup natural glace cherries
250g butter
1 cup sugar
5 large eggs
1 cup ground almonds
1 tsp vanilla essence
1/2 tsp almond essence
Grated rind of 1 orange and lemon
1 1/2 cups high grade flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder

Put the crystallised fruit, sultanas and cranberries in a large pot. Pour over the wine and simmer, covered, for five minutes until nearly all liquid is absorbed, then leave to stand in the covered pan overnight or for eight hours to soak up remaining liquid. The fruit will have a beautiful jewel- like appearance. Stir in the quartered cherries, if using.
Heat oven to 150 degrees Celsius (140C fanbake), with the rack just below the middle. Prepare a 20-centimetre square pan, or 23cm round or square pan, lining sides and base with baking paper.
In a food processor or large bowl, beat the soft (but not melted) butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in one egg at a time, adding a spoonful of the ground almonds after each one. Beat in the essences, remaining ground almonds and the finely grated citrus rinds, then sift in the flour and baking powder. Combine the cake mixture and the cold, prepared fruit using your hand and spread mixture evenly in the prepared pan.
Bake at 150C for 45 minutes then at 130C for 1 1/2 to two hours. Cover the top with baking paper if it browns too fast. The cake is cooked when a skewer pushed deeply in the centre comes out clean.
When cooled, wrap loosely with baking paper, then refrigerate.

I made ours before we moved house (for which I am now truly, truly grateful) and am planning to decorate it with more glazed crystallised fruit a la Delia in a week or two. I’ll show you a picture then!

Have a sweet, sweet weekend everyone. I am hoping to finish unpacking, find where the camera has got to and make something decent to eat…

Panettone problems

There’s probably a list somewhere of things you shouldn’t attempt to do the weekend before you move house. Making panettone, the notoriously time-intensive Italian Christmas bread, is probably one of them, but I thought it would beat cleaning the oven(s) and making decisions about what to do with all those little things that pile up on the kitchen island while you’re putting big things into boxes.

The main reason for this folly was that Sarah of Maison Cupcake chose panettone for the November Fresh From The Oven challenge and this weekend was my last chance to make it. I thought I devoted a reasonable amount of love and attention to the dough – I even nursed it on my lap to keep it warm while watching the last, tear-jerking episode of Downton Abbey – but I did neglect it a bit, shoving it in the fridge overnight because I was too tired to stay up and let it rise some more. Then I baked it in an angel food cake tin (I didn’t have the right sort of 18cm high, round tin anyway – and I’d packed all the others.
While it looked good enough (untraditional shape aside), it was surprisingly dry and much heavier than I had hoped. I blame myself, not the recipe, but I don’t think there’s much point replicating it here until I can figure out what exactly went wrong. I’m also consoling myself that none of my Italian cookbooks had a recipe, which infers that all good Italians buy theirs instead. In the meantime, here’s a well-researched recipe I wish I’d remembered bookmarking last year. It sounds both incredibly easy and delicious – and there’s still lots of time before Christmas to get it right.

Have you made panettone before? Do you know any tricks?

Christmas countdown: Pickled Beetroot

One of my most treasured possessions is my sister’s copy of Delia Smith’s Christmas. She gave it to me three years ago, complete with notes on some of Delia’s most sensible suggestions (the instruction to have a pre-lunch glass of champagne on Christmas Day is heavily underlined).
I was reading it the other day for relaxation purposes when I found a recipe I hadn’t seen before for pickled beetroot and shallots. It was enough of an “a-ha” moment to propel me into the kitchen immediately – and now I have the perfect gift for a friend for whom Christmas is inextricably entwined with the prospect of ham and beetroot.

You can find the recipe here, along with lots of other sage advice about festive food. Just don’t forget how much you (and I) deserve that glass of bubbles.

Getting this made has made me feel incredibly organised, though not as organised as the Let’s Make Christmas crowd. How are you getting on with your Christmas plans?

The glass jars are half empty

It’s not much, I know, but I wanted to show you the extent of my Christmas preparations as they stand so far. I went to the supermarket this morning too, but you can shoot me if I ever try to document that (no offence to the people who do).

It might not look like much but I find scraping the bits of glue and old label off jars to be one of the most tedious tasks of all time. Now it’s done though – well, for this batch, anyway – I can’t wait to get started.

How are your Christmas makings and bakings coming along? Any progress? Lots of inspiration can be found here.

Christmas countdown

Do you realise there are just 54 more making and baking days ’til Christmas? Quick, reach for the smelling salts!

I’m in a bit of a quandary about when to start my Christmas activities this year, partly due to our imminent house move on December 1. On one hand, I would love to move into our new house and think, ‘a-ha, thank goodness I did all that baking and preserving and general faffing about already’. But on the other, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to add to the pile of things to wrap and pack and move. Actually, filled jars and tins might stand a better chance of making it across town than empty ones. I can already envisage the conversation with the Boy Wonder:

Me: What happened to all the empty jars in the pantry?
Him: I put them in the recycling.
Me: But I’ve been saving those all year!
Him: Too bad. We’ve got enough to do without packing empty jars.
Me: And what about the Christmas cake?
Him: What Christmas cake?
Me: The big square package in the box in the pantry
Him: Oh, I thought that was just rubbish. I threw it out…

In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting what I made last year, because a friend and I are making plans to have a Christmas makeathon together. Top of the list will be these deliciously spicy Christmas tree decorations, not least because the recipe makes loads AND the dough can be frozen. Next, the ever-popular best-ever brownies (also makes lots and can be frozen). If you’re really short on time, then both the date truffle fudge and the chocolate body scrub can be made in minutes (and the former will be consumed even faster).

One decision I haven’t made yet though is what kind of Christmas cake we’ll be having this year. I’m not sure I want the Small Girl to get a taste for the brandy-soaked figs and chunks of dark chocolate that stud our traditional cake, but I can’t decide what else to make. Any ideas gratefully received.

If you need a little more inspiration to get your Christmas planning underway, I suggest checking out Vanessa Kimball’s Let’s Make Christmas idea (which has already got scores of organised people showing off what they’ve made already) or Polka Dot Daze’s Christmas Challenge. Don’t dilly-dally though, there’s not much time left!