We never really did festive baking in my house. Mince pies were Marks & Spencer. Yule logs never crossed the threshold. Stollen was an unknown, and Pannetone hadn’t made it to South Shields in 1994. The exception was the Christmas cake.
Christmas cake was my granny’s domain, made – quite properly – weeks or months in advance, fed lovingly with sherry, and then eschewed by all but my grandfather who, one would like to say, was loyal in ploughing through it diligently, but was really more of an equal-opportunities-to-all-cakes sort of man.
Because here’s the thing: a lot of people don’t like Christmas cake. Or Christmas pudding. I don’t particularly like candied fruit. I don’t like currants. I don’t like overwhelming treacle. I wince saying this, because I know it is such integral festive fare that it’s a little like saying I loathe stockings or The Snowman or fun. But I really don’t like marzipan, or thick, stiff, royal icing.
Aged 28, I’ve successfully conditioned myself at least to find Christmas cake festive, and once a year will eat it with slabs of strong cheese, like any self respecting northerner. I may even have Christmas pudding if I’m three glasses of wine in, and someone sets fire to it in front of me, and there is brandy sauce available. But, like an awful lot of people, all things being equal, dark, rich fruit in either cake or pudding form, would never be my first choice.
So this is my Alternative Christmas Cake. It’s a beautiful cake, simple to make and present, and universally adored. Bundt tins delight me. They do the work for you, the cake that comes out of them looks instantly impressive in the way that a traybake or simple sponge can’t. It makes a handsome centrepiece, worthy of any Christmas table. And this cake embodies Christmas: filled with spice, and treacle, and sugar, with (if you choose to decorate it like I did) the strangely evocative smell of rolled icing.
It has the added bonus of being a cake you can knock up in an hour and a half. It doesn’t need feeding periodically with alcohol. Simple, quick, delicious. It’s hard to argue with that.
I’ve gone for a slightly gentler recipe than you often see for gingerbread, as I think treacle can be overwhelming, so this bake uses the traditional combination of treacle and dark muscovado sugar, lifted by light brown sugar and golden syrup. I’ve upped the amount of spice you normally see, so that instead of becoming lost in the dark, slightly muddy treacly flavours, the ginger sings.
As the cake matures (over days rather than weeks) the crust becomes darker and stickier, the sponge remaining pleasingly damp, studded with tiny jewel-like nuggets of stem ginger are the top notes, and a deep thrumming base note coming from the ground ginger.
Bundt tins needs to be greased assiduously, because there is nothing sadder than tipping a bundt cake out to find a third of it left in the top of the tin (although if this does happen, icing will cover any number of imperfections). So use your fingers as much as possible, and double check it’s thoroughly greased and floured. If you start panicking when the tin is in the oven that you’ve shirked your greasing duties, the steaming technique set out in the method below will go a long way towards mitigating this.
If you don’t have a bundt tin, this will work in a normal tin, and cut into thick, satisfying slabs. You will need a tin of equal capacity, so in a 20cm diameter round tin or an 18 cm square tin. It will probably need a bit longer in the oven, so start checking it at the 50 minute mark, but don’t remove it until a skewer stuck into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
It goes like this:
Sticky Gingerbread Wreath Cake
Makes: 1 bundt cake (enough for 12)
Takes: 20 minutes
Bakes: 50 minutes
250 ml milk
100g golden syrup
150g dark muscovado sugar
150g light muscovado sugar
150g butter, plus a little extra for greasing the tin
2 eggs, beaten
4 balls of stem ginger, chopped as finely as you can bear
2 tsps ground ginger
2 tsps cinnamon
1 tsp Bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp Salt
200g Flour plus 1 tablespoon for the tin
1. First, prep your tin. Rub butter into every crevice of your bundt tin, using your fingers or the butter packet. Take a tablespoon or so of plain flour and scatter it around the tin, rolling the tin until all of the butter you’ve rubbed in is coated in a fine film of flour. Tap any excess flour out of the tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
3. Measure the milk and squeeze a good blast of lemon juice into it. Stir and set to one side.
4. Place the two sugars, syrup, treacle and butter in a pan, and melt together.
5. Meanwhile, chop 4 balls of stem ginger as finely as you can be bothered. Remove the sugar-butter mixture from the heat, beat in the eggs with a balloon whisk and add the stem ginger.
6. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, bicarb, salt, and spices) in a large mixing bowl and add the melted sugar butter. Fold the mixture thoroughly with together a spatula or wooden spoon.
7. Add the milk, and mix. The mixture will be disconcertingly runny. Don’t worry, it’s meant to be. Pour the mixture gently into your prepared tin.
8. Bake for 50 minutes, or until a skewer poked into the deepest part of the cake comes out clean.
9. Just before you take the cake out of the oven, pour a small amount of boiling water over a clean towel (you want the tea towel steaming rather than sodden). Take the tin out of the oven, and lay the tea towel over the top of the tin for 15-30 minutes. When the tin is cool enough for you to comfortably hold, remove the tea towel, place a plate over the tin, and upend the tin in one smooth, assured movement. You’ll feel the cake drop heavily onto the plate. Remove tin and behold.
10. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
This cake is best eaten one or two days after baking as the crust becomes slightly stickier with time.
As is perhaps obvious, I couldn’t resist gilding the lily (although stopped just short of gilding the actual holly. I mean, I tried, but it looked silly) and stamped little holly leaves out of shop-bought fondant icing, which I coloured green, then placed on the cake in a loose overlapping pattern, to make the cake look (a little) like a wreath. It took all of five minutes.