Stepping into a dark June morning, rugged-up, the cold takes a moment to adjust to. Shivering hands are thrust deeply into pockets. Even the dog, bounding with her usual energy, is a little reluctant to leave the faint light of the hallway. Softly, the door clicks shut. The key is icy, finally found fumbling through layers and swearing under foggy clouds of breath. These days of early winter, with their misting chill hold such delicious promise. Summer has her charms, oh yes – the deadly nightshades; luscious, dripping stone fruits – but it’s winter and the kind of cooking that colder weather inspires that I adore. Stepping in, post-walk, kettle rumbling toward its familiar ‘ping’, I give the fruit, plumping in a fragrant bath of orange liqueur, one last stir.
As a greedy child, I stole chunks of tooth-achingly sweet icing from my mothers carefully, lovingly, crafted Christmas fruit cake. It sat on the sideboard each December dressed in snowy, wintry white, adorned with plastic sprigs of festive holly. But the cake itself was too rich, too dark, too adult for my taste. It still sits there in its time-honoured place, though these days the icing is, at last, safe from prying fingers. The cake, well, now that’s another story.
Here, close to the bottom of the globe, the pagan roots of the religious holidays that punctuate the calendar sit awkwardly. Traditions really do die hard. Rich, hot food served beneath a sweltering Christmas sky is beyond silly. Icy days and freezing nights on the other hand, make a cake attuned to the contents of the pantry seem worthy of a rare baking experiment. With the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, rapidly approaching, A.O.F.’s Solstice cake event places the celebratory fruit cake squarely in the season to which it so clearly belongs. Sans icing, this fudgy cake is quite something. Heavenly scenting the house as it slowly cooks, just knowing that it’s sitting tightly wrapped in the pantry, waiting to reach perfection, is very nearly agony.
Marzipan Solstice Cake – feeds 8-10
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess for both its tinker-ability and comparatively fast maturation. Nigella, Queen of Cakes, makes this with ready-made marzipan, but I made my own for the simple reason that there is already a truckload of sweetness coursing through it and besides, a cane sugar-free version is dead easy. This is hardly everyday fare. You may as well go all the way, I say.
100g (4oz) of sulphur-free dried apricots
150g (5oz) of dried pears
150g (5oz) of sultanas
100ml (scant ½ cup) of Cointreau or white rum
250g (9oz) of marzipan (something good OR see below)
100g (4oz) of caster sugar
100g (4oz) of unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten
50g (2oz) of ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of ½ an orange
175g (6oz) of wholemeal spelt flour
If you’re making your marzipan (see below), start it first. Snip the apricots and pears into small pieces with scissors. Soak the dried fruit overnight in the alcohol of your choice and cover, giving it a lazy stir from time to time. Chop the marzipan into small dice and place in the freezer.
Next day, preheat the oven to 140 C (275 F).
Drain the fruit of any liquid left at the bottom of the bowl (my fruit drank it all – shame, that). Beat the sugar, butter and eggs together in a roomy bowl, followed by the ground almonds, zests, orange juice and flour. Fold through the drained fruit and the frozen marzipan dice and mix well.
Line the base and sides of a springform cake tin, approximately 20cm (8 in) in diameter, with baking paper. Spoon the mixture into the tin, level with the back of the spoon and bake in the preheated oven for 2-2½ hours, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Cool in the tin. Wrap the cake in baking paper, then tightly in foil and set aside in a pantry for at least two days, but preferably a week.
The texture of this is akin to those little fruits that grace Proper Cakes rather than the silky, marble-like stuff used to ice them. Thanks go to Ricki who assured me it was, indeed, possible. Little nuggets dipped in lush, dark chocolate would be rather nice.
1 ½ cups almonds (about 225g)
3 tablespoons of rice syrup (from organic/health food shops)
¼ tsp of almond essence
Preheat the oven to 180 C.
Boil the almonds for 3 minutes, drain and add to a bowl of cool water. Slip each almond from its coat, place in a single layer on a baking tray and cook in the oven for 5-7 minutes, enough to dry them thoroughly. Cool.
Whiz the almonds to a fine texture in a food processor. Add the rice syrup and almond essence. Turn the machine back on and let it run until the mixture forms a ball around the blade. Remove the paste immediately then knead for a moment. Form into a log, wrap in greaseproof paper and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Makes 250g (or near enough).
There is something to be said for this sort of cooking. It really does connect you with tradition in a small, but significant way. Next time, I may even attempt mum's more laborious recipe.
Pictures when she's ready, folks
Solstice Cake 2008 runs right up until the 25th of June. Get soaking and baking.