You know, I rather like this time of year, as in-between and as weird as it feels. London’s empty; the streets are deserted- it’s like living in one of those old black and white episodes from The Avengers. The Christmas tree’s still up, just, and beginning to turn brown in places. The Sunday papers are full of self-help advice, which seems to get barmier by the year. This New Year’s award goes to The Sunday Times which explains “how to transform your body in 21 days”, and features exclusive extracts from The Pegan Plan (a Paleo diet combined with veganism, as recommended by Bill Clinton’s doctor). In a refreshing twist, this time round we’re encouraged to “eat more fat”. Jack Sprat eat your heart out.
Yup. It’s a short period of calm after the manic exhaustion of Christmas (love it that I do): a time to take stock, make plans and chuck out all the accumulated metaphorical rubbish stacked up over the previous year. That is, until the blues of deepest January take root.
Twelfth Night is either the 5th or 6th of January, depending on your point of view. It marks the coming of the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men finally make it to the crib. Historically, Christmas was celebrated over the Twelve Days, ending on Twelfth Night. None of this tiresome “Christmas Decorations in October” nonsense we suffer from today. Traditionally, a Twelfth Night Cake was baked and included a bean. The lucky soul who plucked out the bean was crowned The Lord of Misrule and presided over the revelries, carousing and merry making. Twelfth Night also happens to coincide with the Russian Orthodox Christmas.
And last week, for the first time ever in my life, I have actually- finally- made a cake. An old fashioned Dundee Cake. Soaked in J & B Rare Whisky to be exact. I’m not exactly sure why this has taken me so long. A contrarian aversion to the lemming-like mass worship of the Great British Bake-Off perhaps? A savoury tooth? Maybe. But I have to say it- my Dundee Cake is (was) exceedingly good. Masses of toasted almond and butterscotch flavours going on in there.
Here’s how I made it (courtesy of Dela Smith’s Christmas). Remember Her?
I mixed up the following ingredients in a bowl:
6 oz (175 g) currants
6 oz (175 g) sultanas
4 oz (110 g) glacé cherries, rinsed, dried and cut into halves
3 oz (75 g) mixed candied peel, finely chopped
grated rind 1 small orange
grated rind 1 small lemon
And then added three tablespoons of J & B Scotch Whisky, and left the thing to soak overnight.
The next day I preheated the oven to 325 °F (170 °C) and combined 150g butter with 150g soft brown sugar in a mixing bowl, using an electric beater to make it go light and fluffy. It’s really important to have the butter and sugar at the same room temperature, so don’t follow my example by taking out semi-cold butter straight from the ‘fridge, otherwise your mixture will curdle further down the line.
The next stage was to add eggs. I whisked up three eggs separately (ie one by one), and then them beat them into the mixture bit by bit, scraping the sides as I went along. In a way it’s a bit like making a mayonnaise emulsion. If it does curdle, don’t panic. I kept calm, carried on and the cake still tasted pretty good.
Then, using a large metal tablespoon, I very carefully (and lightly) folded in 225g sifted plain flour, and one level teaspoon of baking powder. Your mixture should now have a soft dropping consistency. In other words, it should drop off a spoon in a gloop. With hindsight, mine was a bit dry, and I should have added a dash of milk to soften everything up.
Finally, I carefully folded in two tablespoons of ground almonds, and then the whisky soaked fruit, peel and zest. So that’s your mixture finished.
Get hold of a cake baking tin and grease the bottom and edges. Next line with baking parchment (I cut a circle for the bottom, and then a long strip for the sides, which I ‘glued’ together with butter). Spoon in the mixture, level it off neatly and press whole blanched almonds lightly into the top in serried ranks, making a simple patterned design. Bake in the oven for 2 - 2½ hours. When it’s ready, leave it to cool in the tin for half an hour, before transferring it to a wire rack.
That’s more or less it. You could also spike the cake with some extra J & B (fed through holes). Not a bad idea. I’m a fan of J & B in as much that it’s the current house whisky of choice. But it’s not only a slightly peppery blend, it’s pretty light too- first distilled, I gather, back in the 1920’s for the American cocktail market. A punchier single malt might be the way ahead.