Darina Allen, The Ballymaloe Queen of Irish cooking, shares her very own tasty twist on the traditional Irish Christmas cake classic.
This makes a moist cake that keeps very well. It can be made months ahead, or if you are frenetically busy it will still be delish even if made just a few days before Christmas – believe me, I know!
This cake, now a classic, was originally published in 1989 in the first edition of "A Simply Delicious Christmas" and it’s still my favorite rich Christmas cake.
I have a passion for almond icing, so I ice the cake with almond icing and decorate it with heart shapes made from the almond paste. Then I brush it with beaten egg yolk and toast it in the oven – simply delicious!
It is important to note that this recipe is based on using a conventional oven.
If you are using a fan oven, check your oven handbook – ovens vary, but as a general guideline we recommend reducing the oven temperature by 20°C/70°F. It can help to put a dish of water in a fan oven while the cake is baking to keep it from drying out.
Darina Allen's Christmas cake recipe
- 110g (4oz) real glacé cherries
- 50g (2oz) whole almonds
- 350g (12oz) best-quality sultanas
- 350g (12oz) best-quality currants
- 350g (12oz) best-quality raisins
- 110g (4oz) homemade candied peel
- 50g (2oz) ground almonds
- Zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon
- Zest of 1 organic unwaxed orange
- 70ml (21/2fl oz) Irish whiskey
- 225g (8oz) butter, softened
- 225g (8oz) pale soft brown sugar or golden caster sugar
- 6 eggs, preferably free-range and organic
- 275g (10oz) plain flour
- 1 teaspoon mixed spice
- 1 large or 2 small Bramley’s Seedling cooking apples, grated
Line the base and sides of a 23cm (9in) round or a 20.5cm (8in) square tin with a double thickness of silicone paper. Tie a double layer of brown paper around the outside of the tin. Have a double sheet of brown or silicone paper ready to lay on top of the tin during cooking.
Wash the cherries and dry them gently. Cut in halves or quarters, as desired. Blanch the whole almonds in boiling water for 1–2 minutes, rub off the skins and chop them finely. Mix together the dried fruit and peel, chopped almonds, ground almonds, and grated lemon and orange rind. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
Cream the butter until very soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Whisk the eggs and add in bit by bit, beating well between each addition so that the mixture doesn’t curdle. Mix the flour and the mixed spice together and stir in gently (don’t beat). Add the grated cooking apple to the fruit and mix in gently but thoroughly (don’t beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake). You can, of course, use a mixer if one is available, but the same principle applies.
Put the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Make a slight hollow in the center, dip your hand in water and pat it over the surface of the cake: this will ensure that the top is smooth when cooked.
Lay a double sheet of brown paper on top of the cake to protect the surface from the direct heat. Put into the preheated oven and cook for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 160°C/320°F/gas mark 3. Bake for a further 2 1/2 hours approx., until cooked.
Test in the center with a skewer – it should come out completely clean. If not, allow a further 10 minutes in the oven. If at that point it’s still not fully cooked, allow 10 minutes more. Pour the rest of the whiskey over the cake and leave it to cool in the tin overnight.
The next day, remove the cake from the tin. Do not remove the lining paper, but wrap it in some extra greaseproof paper and tin foil until required. Store in a cool, dry place. The longer the cake is stored, the more mature it becomes.
Almond Paste and Cake Icing
- 450g (1lb) golden caster sugar
- 450g (1lb) ground almonds
- 2 small eggs, preferably free-range and organic
- 2 tablespoons Irish whiskey
- a drop of pure almond extract (be careful, it’s very intense)
For Brushing on the Cake
- 1 organic egg white, lightly whisked, or sieved apricot jam
- 1 x 450g (1lb) packet fondant (optional)
To make the almond paste, sieve the caster sugar and mix it with the ground almonds. Beat the eggs, add the whiskey and 1 drop of pure almond extract, then add to the sugar and almonds and mix to a stiff paste. (You may not need all of the egg.) Sprinkle the worktop with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth.
To ice the cake, remove the paper from the cake. To make life easier for yourself, put a sheet of greaseproof paper onto the worktop and dust it with some icing sugar. Roll out half of the almond paste on the paper: it should be a little less than 1cm (1/2in) thick. Paint the top of the cake with the lightly beaten egg white or apricot jam and put the cake, sticky side down, onto the almond paste. Give the cake a thump to make sure it sticks and then cut around the edge.
If the cake is a little round-shouldered, cut the almond paste a little larger; pull away the extra bits and keep for later to make hearts or holly leaves. With a palette knife, press the extra almond paste in against the top of the cake to fill any gaps. Then slide a knife underneath the cake, or better still, underneath the paper, and turn the cake right way up. Peel off the greaseproof paper.
Roll out 2 long strips of almond paste and trim an edge to the height of the cake with a palette knife. Paint both the cake and the almond paste lightly with egg white or apricot jam. Press the strip against the sides of the cake. Do not overlap or there will be a bulge with the uneven edge upwards. Trim the excess almond paste with a long-bladed knife and keep for decoration or to make almond biscuits. Use a straight-sided water glass to even the edges and smooth the join. Rub the cake well with your hand to ensure a nice flat surface.
Fondant-iced Christmas cake
Instead of toasting the almond paste you can ice the cake with fondant icing, but leave it in a cool, dry place for a few days to allow the almond paste to dry out, otherwise, the oil in the almonds will seep through the fondant icing later.
Sprinkle a little icing sugar onto the worktop. Roll out the sheet of fondant until it’s a scant 5mm (1/4in) thick, then gently lift it and lay it over the top of the cake so that it drapes evenly over the sides.
Press out any air bubbles with your hands, then trim the base. Decorate as you wish. We use a little posy of winter leaves and berries, including crabapples, elderberries, rosemary, old man’s beard, and viburnum. That’s just one option, but simple shapes stamped out of the remaining fondant icing – stars, holly leaves, Santas – can produce an impressive result. If you are really creative, the fondant may be colored using edible food coloring and then you and all the family can really have fun!
Toasted almond Christmas Cake
Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/gas mark 7.
Roll out the rest of the almond paste until it’s approx. 5mm (1/4in) thick. Cut out star shapes, paint the whole surface of the cake with some beaten egg yolk and stick the star shapes at intervals around the sides of the cake and on the top. Brush these with egg yolk also.
Carefully lift the cake onto a baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 15–20 minutes, until just slightly toasted. Remove from the oven, allow to cool and then transfer onto a cake board. Decorate with sprigs of holly and a dusting of icing sugar. You may feel that holly leaves and berries made of almond paste would be more appropriate for Christmas! Basically, you can decorate it any way that takes your fancy.