Thursday, December 8, 2011

English Fruitcake Part Two: The Recipe

This time last year, I wrote a piece about fruitcake and how it gets no respect. It turned out to be the blog entry that got the most hits of any that I posted all year. Who knew?  Apparently, there are people who really do have reverence for this staple of the English holiday tradition. Most of the search terms used were for a recipe, so this year I’m happy to oblige.

This simple recipe (they can get a whole lot more complicated) is from my own book, The Pleasures of Afternoon Tea. It was a best-seller in the late 1980s and is now out of print but used copies are easily found on Ebay and Amazon.

English Christmas Cake


2 and ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking poder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups golden raisins
2 cups dark raisins
2 cups currants
1 cup candied cherries, chopped
½ cup chopped mixed candied peel
1 cup blanched almonds, chopped
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
4 eggs
Juice of 1 lemon (about ¼ cup)
Grated peel of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon molasses
3 tablespoons brandy or dark rum
Milk, if needed


Preheat oven to 300F (150C). Grease a 9-inch springform pan. Line the pan with a double thickness of parchment paper; grease paper. Set aside.

Sift flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon into a large bowl. Add raisins, currants, candied cherries, and candied peel; toss until fruits are well coated with flour. Add almonds. Set aside.

In another large bowl, beat butter and brown sugar with a mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually fold in flour and fruit mixture. Add lemon juice, lemon peel, molasses, and brandy. Mix to make a batter that is soft enough to drop from a spoon but too thick to pour. If batter is too stiff, add milk, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Spoon into baking pan and smooth top. Bake 1 hour. Reduce oven temperature to 275F (135C) and continue to bake 3 to 3 and ½ hours longer or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack. When cold, turn out of the pan and peel off paper.

You can make this ahead and keep it for a couple of weeks wrapped securely in parchment paper in an airtight tin. You can “top off” the cake by poking holes in the top with a toothpick and pouring a few additional spoonsful of brandy or rum over it in the tin.

You can, of course, eat this cake just as it is. If you decide not to ice it, you can add a ring of blanched almonds around the top before baking. 

But a real traditional English Christmas cake will be iced first with marzipan and then with royal icing.

It’s hardly worth going to the trouble and expense (it requires ground almonds) of making marzipan as you can buy it readymade at grocery stores or by mail order. Here’s how to apply it: very light coat the top and sides of your Christmas cake with a jelly: apricot is good. Roll out the marzipan thinly and drape over the cake. Pat it down to make it smooth and trim of the excess. Leave it for 2 to 3 days uncovered in a cool dry place before coating with icing.

 Royal Icing


3 eggs whites, room temperature (if you don’t like the idea of using raw eggs, it’s okay to use the equivalent amount of pasteurized egg white available by the carton in stores but it might not whip quite as stiffly)
6 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice


In a large bowl, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar and beat until icing holds soft peaks. Quickly beat in lemon juice. (If your kitchen is hot, icing may start to harden as you are working with it. To prevent this, dampen a kitchen towel in cold water, wring out, and drape over bowl.

Tip: This will give you that “hard as a frozen pond” icing that I talked about in my original post. If you prefer a softer icing, add a tablespoon of pure vegetable glycerin at the same time as the lemon juice.

Working out from the center and using a straight-sided knife or spatula, spread icing evenly over the marzipan. If you want a coating that looks like snow, rough up the texture with the knife. If you like, you can put any excess icing into a pastry bag fitted with a decorating tip and pipe edging or a design on the cake.  Bedeck with small Christmas ornaments.

I use this little group of caroling mice that I’ve had since childhood.

Enjoy with a nice cup of tea on boxing day.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Meanest Kitty in Mexico?

When I bought my house in Mineral de Pozos six months ago, the previous owner warned me about the feral cat issue. (She also said there were ghost cats in the house; but that´s another story!)

Sure enough, when I moved in it became apparent that cats had been running rampant in the empty house. There was a hole in the very old, small door leading from the bathroom to the courtyard that gave them ingress; cat pee in the corner of a bookshelf; and little dusty paw prints all over the house. My first line of attack was to block the hole in the door from the inside but proved ineffectual as I´d come home and find my barrier pushed aside. Then I piled bricks in front of it on the outside. But these were super cats. The bricks would be tossed aside like Legos. Finally, I dragged a big pot with a particularly vicious cactus plant in it up to the hole and finally had an effective blockade. Eventually, I had a new door made and the picturesque old one is now an art installation on my porch. La puertacita a ninguna parte. (¨The little door to nowhere.¨)

The Little Door to Nowhere with the ¨cat hole¨in the bottom

But that didn´t stop the cats entirely. All the rooms in my house open to the courtyard so I have to make sure every door and window is closed and latched when I go out. I even have to close the doors on one side of the house if I am on the other side. I learned this the hard way when I went into my kitchen one night after watching a movie in the living room, and it was wrecked. The trash can was up-ended and the contents strewn all over the floor. The dog food dragged off its shelf and scattered everywhere. And there were broken dishes in the sink.

The mayhem in the house was not the only problem. The cats would party on my bedroom roof at night. They were a rowdy bunch: wailing and yowling and running around, making far more noise than you´d think possible. I´d see their shadows spookily passing over my skylight. They regularly overturned the recycling can with a clatter and used the fern bed under my bedroom window as a litter box.

Of course, I do have a secret weapon against them: Henry. My little dog Henry actually has no problem with cats. When we visit a friend who has one he will politely sniff them and yield the territory and if we meet one on a walk, he will just stroll on by. But these cats were a different breed. If he encountered one skulking under the lavender bush, it would go all saber toothed tiger on him. Just because he´s polite doesn´t mean he´s a wuss: When the cat arched its back, bared its teeth, and hissed at him, he´d fight back. Next thing, I had Wild Kingdom going on in my garden. Cats streaking and emitting blood curdling howls and Henry right on their tails, silent, focused, and looking for a take down. Further, at night, when he heard them on the roof, he´d hurl himself at the door barking loudly. Did I mention this was the middle of the night?

I decided it was time to know the enemy. I identified three: a pretty white female, a ginger tom, and a gray one of indeterminate gender. I realized pretty soon that the latter was the alpha whatever. Before long it had banished the other two to the perimeter of the property. I still see them sunning themselves on top of my water tank or prowling along the wall topped by broken glass (putting paid to the idea that it would deter a cat burglar) but they rarely come any closer.

Ginger cat is now exiled to the ruins next door

And now I think gray cat is trying to get rid of me. He has no fear at all. I see him watching me everywhere I go.

He´s always there; just watching and waiting

Several times he´s walked right into the kitchen when I´ve been in there. If I try to shoo him away, he makes noises like something out of The Exorcist. He brazenly tries to sneak passed me and into the house, crawling low to stay out my line of sight. He sleeps on my outdoor furniture at night and should I venture out to the courtyard after dark he acts like I´m the one who shouldn´t be there.

(OMG, even as I´m writing this, he just jumped on my firewood and knocked the whole pile down!)

Quite frankly, I´m scared of gray cat.

Don´t let his benign apperance fool you. One step closer and he would have had my eyes.

I really do like cats, so why not just make peace with him and since he already lives here, adopt him and fix him? Well, for one thing, he´s probably too feral to tame. He´s in pretty good shape and probably feeds off rodents and scraps so I don´t feel too badly about not trying to save him. And I know he drinks from Henry´s water bowl.

And secondly, I´m allergic to cats. At age five, I developed severe asthma. I´d have attacks of the kind that these days would have you rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. But in 1950s Africa, I just had to gut it out because there was no help on offer. Additionally, no one apparently made the connection between the onset of this condition and the new cat I got that slept on my pillow; both of us tucked snuggly under a mosquito net. His name was Smokey and he was followed over the years by Misty and then Mr. Jinx. And throughout my entire childhood I wheezed and huffed so hard my ribs would ache for days. Once I actually broke a rib.

Me at five with Smokey. Oh, if only I´d known ... !

The attacks stopped quite abruptly when I moved to England. I just thought it had been something in the air: maybe the jacarandas? Then after I´d been in London about three years, my roommate brought home a little calico kitten and we both fell in love. We named her Tiffany. (Hey, this was the early 70s and it was all about the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany´s. We were way ahead of the trend.) Within a couple of days, my asthma was back and I finally made the link. Now though, I was able to go to the doctor and get pills and later an inhaler that got me though until my roommate moved out and took Tiffy with her.

For the next 20 years, I avoided cats. It´s sad because I love all animals and would love to snuggle with a cat like I did in my childhood.

Who could possibly not adore Chacha and RubyCat, the new kitties at Galeria 6?

After all those years of dodging them, I tentatively tried being a room with one and I learned I´ve built up a tolerance.  My threshold is about two hours before I start to feel that familiar tightness in my chest. Some of my friends will be surprised by this revelation because I rarely talk about it. The thing is; if you say you´re allergic, people want to put their cat out of the room. But it´s the cat dander and hair that is already in the room that causes the problem and banishing the poor cat from its own home doesn´t really help. I had to clean and paint my house from top to bottom when I realized the cats had been hanging there while it was empty.

So, no, gato gris and I are going to have to make some kind of peace. He/she needs to understand that I am the mistress of this house and is going to have to find somewhere else to haunt.

I know: Fat chance.