My children will sleep until 11am and after calmly opening their presents (from their hand-embroidered stocking), they will dress themselves and then file quietly down the stairs, looking for all the world like little catwalk models. I will not see them again until 1pm for they will be engrossed in their hand-carved wooden toys. We will share a delightful lunch, which will be cleared away in time for our bracing walk through the perfect white snow.
After a few parlour games and a little time spent admiring the various diamond accessories my husband has bought me, the children will go to bed at 6pm. My husband will surprise me with a delightful yet simple repast, and we will drink champagne and smile amicably at each other.
It is little wonder that the festive season fails to live up to my wild imaginings. My chaotic preparations hurtle wildly out of control towards December 25th resulting in a spectacular pile up at around 1am. It is at this point I realise I still have a good 2 hours of vegetable preparation and present wrapping to go. When over-excited children wake me in the very small hours, Christmas cheer is far from my mind.
The day doesn’t really get much better. I always make the mistake of opening champagne while cooking and I insist on playing Christmas CDs too loud. This means that everyone has to shout to be heard and the noise in the house becomes unbearable. At some point in the last few years I developed the tradition of everyone donning glad rags for the big meal. This means the kitchen becomes a highly dangerous zone as I totter around in heels, staggering slightly and wielding pans of boiling water and sizzling potatoes.
By the time the meal arrives on the table it is nearly 3pm and the night is already drawing in. When we have finished helping the children pull their crackers, changed the nappy we hadn’t realised was full, found the corkscrew, and mopped up the lemonade that an overexcited child has spilt, the food is nearly cold and it’s way too late for a walk in the woods. Dinner lasts about ten minutes as ungrateful children push their food around their plates, and my temples start to throb. The day invariably ends with my husband and I slumped exhausted on the sofa, our feet lost in a sea of brightly coloured wrapping paper. As I eye the piles of Christmas cards I haven’t got around to opening, I swear to myself that next year I’ll be more organised.
This year I again had grand preparation plans. I thought I would start a little light Christmas shopping in August. I planned to calmly and sensibly move it up a gear in September, culminating in that golden moment – around mid-October – when I would have all presents assembled in the house. I was going to start a staggered gift-wrapping programme; a couple one day, maybe five the next. By the end of November – tops – it should all have been done. My cooking preparations were supposed to have dovetailed neatly into the gift gathering; a cake baked in early September, mincemeat made in October, Christmas pudding mix ready to be stirred from November the 1st.
Of course it’s all gone to pot. We are nearly in December and the present pile is woefully small. I’m ramping up my Internet purchasing but I have a familiar sense of doom; I’m sure the wheels will be falling off the Christmas Bus at around about 1am on December 25th.
And this year I’ve played a blinder. We could argue that I was incredibly ahead of the game by baking a gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free Christmas cake in July. We could take solace from the fact that the cake was nurtured and fed with spiced brandy for three months, until its raisins and cranberries were juicy and plum. We could feel happy that I came up with a substitute for marzipan. We could rejoice that after the photo shoot, when I finally got to sample the cake; it tasted great. I’ve had to restrain my eldest daughter on a number of occasions; she loved it.
But dear reader, the Christmas cake has all gone. It has all been eaten. I now have about 35 days to make ANOTHER Christmas cake. I’m afraid there’ll be no gentle feeding of this cake it will be on an extended binge drink for the next few weeks. The Christmas pudding is a nagging worry at the back of my head, and although the mincemeat is made, the pies are not.
I’m sure it will all get done, and I’m sure the children will not notice the chaos. I think they will struggle not to notice the enormous dark sacks under my eyes, but I suppose that’s all part of surviving the festive season. Next year I'm thinking; Sun, tag-along au pair, beach resort, swim-up bar and cocktails before breakfast. Who says Christmas should be all about the children?
Christmas Cake (makes a 16cm cake)
Forgive me for only having made the 'fully allergic' version. As mentioned, I still have to make our Christmas cake, so may make it with wheat flour...but imagine it all goes wrong?! I only have 35 days left! I will update the recipe when I can!
Spiced Brandy for feeding the cake: (this can be made days/weeks ahead)
3-4 star anise
2-3 mace blades
2 cinnamon sticks
1 vanilla pod
1-2 tsps of sugar
For the cake:
40g ginger in syrup or I guess you could use about 20g of fresh ginger, very finely chopped
90ml of spiced brandy (see above)
85g dried cranberries
85g dried chopped dates
1.5tsp mixed spice
0.5tsp Pure Bourbon Vanilla Powder (if you have some. If you don't you should get some it's yummy)
0.5tsp vanilla extract
200g dairy free spread
200g regular sugar (or dark muscovado if feeling lavish)
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange
Either: 200g plain flour + 1 tsp gluten free baking powder
75g gram flour
125g rice flour
3/4 tsp xanthan gum
1 tsp gluten free baking powder
Either 3 eggs OR:
4 heaped tsps Orgran 'no egg' egg replacer mixed with 8 tbsps rice milk
2 tbsps linseeds (either whole or ground)
1/4 tsp xanthan gum
For the 'marzipan', icing and holly decoration:
1.2kg sugarpaste icing (this company will ship it to you, I've used them before) You may end up with some icing left over, but better to have surplus than to be scrabbling to cover your cake, no?
1 pot Christmas Red 'Sugarflair' sugarpaste colouring, or pre-coloured red sugarpaste icing (that would be easiest wouldn't it?!)
1 pot Holly Green 'Sugarflair' sugarpaste colouring, or pre-coloured green sugarpaste icing
1 pot Egg Yellow 'Sugarflair' sugarpaste colouring
1 pot Dark Brown 'Sugarflair' sugarpaste colouring
About 4tbsps of apricot jam
icing sugar to dust
NB: you will only need tiny dabs of the sugarpaste colouring, so you'll have tons left over for birthday cakes...or Christmas cakes for years to come
- To make the spiced brandy, put 500ml of brandy into a saucepan. Add the star anise, the mace blades, the cinnamon sticks. Split the vanilla pod, scrape the seeds into the brandy and then add the split pod. Heat it slowly and let it bubble for about a minute. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool. When completely cold pour it into a bottle / preserving jar and push all the spices in as well. You may have to cut the star anise in half to get it through the neck of a bottle, but not to worry. You now have brandy to make the cake, feed the cake and to swig at stressful moments of the Yuletide Season. You can remove the spices after about a month, or leave them in for a very spicy drink
- You can prepare this part up to 48 hours ahead if you wish (indeed, it is advisable to do this if you've left your cake really late like me). Put the dried cranberries, chopped dates, raisins and sultanas into a saucepan. Pour 90ml of your spiced brandy into the saucepan, cover the saucepan with a lid and gently heat. (Note: if your spiced Brandy has not had time to infuse - at least a week - put the brandy spices into a piece of muslin, tie the top with string, and add to the dried fruit mix. Simmer as above, then remove th spices and put them into your spiced brandy bottle). Stir occasionally, and when it has bubbled for about a minute, remove from heat, keep covered and allow to cool
- Grease and line a round, 16cm cake tin with baking parchment. Heat the oven to 160 degrees celsius / Gas 4
- Add the chopped ginger, the 2tbsps of linseeds and the orange and lemon zest to the dried fruit mix
- Mix up the egg replacer with the rice milk and set aside
- Weigh out the gluten-free flours, add the xanthan gum, baking powder, mixed spice and vanilla powder
- Put the dairy free spread and sugar into a large mixing bowl. Beat it together until thoroughly mixed and slightly paler in colour
- Add about a quarter of the eggs or the 'no egg' mix to the bowl, and seive in about a quarter of the flour mix. Gently mix together until combined. Repeat the process until all the eggs or 'no egg' and flour has been incorporated
- Add the vanilla essence and port and stir until everything is mixed together
- Add the dried fruit and brandy mix to the mixing bowl and stir throughly
- Scrape into the cake tin, leave a slight dip in the centre, the cake should rise to even itself out. Cover the tin with tinfoil and place in the oven
- Now all ovens are different, the following is a guide: Bake the cake - covered - for about 45 minutes at 160 degrees C. Lower the oven temperature to 150 degrees celsius then bake for a further 45 minutes. Uncover the cake and bake for a further 20 minutes. An inserted skewer or knife should come out clean when the cake is done. The cake should be risen and golden brown
- Leave the cake to cool in the tin, then turn out onto a cooling rack. Then wrap it up. I wrapped mine in kitchen towel, followed by greaseproof paper, then put it all into a plastic bag and then into an airtight tin. Yes, fairly paranoid.
- Leave for a few days/ a week, then get it out for its first feed. Using a skewer, gently poke holes in the top of the cake, you can poke down almost to the base. Take take 2-3 tbsps of your lovely spiced brandy and suck it up into a syringe (non hypodermic). Gently drip your brandy into the holes you have made. If you listen very carefully you will hear your cake sigh with happiness.
- Wrap your cake safely back up and feed it again in a week's time. Or twice a week. Or more if you're in a hurry
- For the icing: When you are ready to ice your babe of a Christmas cake, shoo everyone out of the kitchen and let some lovely classical music waft over you
- For the 'marzipan' I used food colouring to colour 500g of the white sugarpaste icing. Squidge it in your hands until it's warm and malleable, then dust your worksurface with icing sugar and place the icing on it. Roll out the icing sugar; don't be neat, you just need it stretched out at this stage. Use the tip of a knife to dab a little yellow food colouring into the centre of the icing. Fold the icing over the food colouring and then start to roll out the icing with a rolling pin. The colour will gradually start to spread through the icing. Add some brown colouring to the icing and repeat the rolling out. Remember to keep the worksurface well dusted with icing sugar or it will start to stick. Keep going until you have mixed the colours into the icing and it resembles a marzipan colour. It does require a fair amount of elbow grease
- Pause a minute and melt half the apricot jam in a saucepan (or microwave) until it's just liquid, don't let it get too hot
- Now that your icing is marzipan coloured, roll it out to a thickness of about 2-3 mm
- Put the cake onto its serving platter and brush the top and sides with the molten jam, it just needs to be a glaze
- Carefully place the 'marzipan' layer over the cake and smooth the surface with the palms of your hands so that the icing moulds to the cake. Gently smooth around the sides. You'll end up with a 'skirt' of extra icing sticking out. Carefully cut off the surplus. Do it in stages so that you don't cut off too much. Smooth and mould and squidge and cajole the icing into the sides of the cake until it looks smooth. Use the flat edge of a knife to push the icing right under the cake, you don't want any air getting to the cake
- When the cake is happily wrapped in its icing layer, leave it uncovered for at least 12 hours to dry out
- Now for the final push. Take the remaining apricot jam and melt it gently until it is liquid. Leave to cool a bit
- Take 600g of the white sugarpaste, dust your worksurface with icing sugar and roll out the icing. It may take a few goes to warm up the icing. Roll it out to a thickness of about 2-3mm
- Using a pastry brush, brush the 'marzipan' all over with apricot jam
- Place the white icing layer over the cake, and repeat your smoothing, cajoling, cutting off excess, squidging procedure. Use the flat edge of a knife to push the white icing right under the cake. Don't worry if it doesn't look perfect around the base, that is what your thick Christmassy ribbon is for; it will hide all imperfections
- Have a rest, you deserve it
- You can either decorate the cake with pre-made, take-the-easy-option-it's-nearly-Christmas-and-I-have-tons-to-do decorations, or you can make life extra hard for yourself and make the decorations yourself. I chose the latter, after all I only have four children and a permanent Everest of washing. Clever.
- If you want to make the holly decoration, you will need a holly shape cutter. First you have to colour the icing. Use about 100g of white icing for the holly and 50g of icing for the berries
- Colour the 100g of white icing using the Holly Green colouring. Follow the procedure described above for colouring the 'marzipan'. When you have it to the shade you want, roll it out to about 4mm thick and stamp out holly shapes. My lovely second daughter did the holly decoration for this cake. She coloured the icing, stamped out the shapes, everything. She worked like a trooper and I sat back and had a coffee. Child slavery; it's the way forward. Set the holly shapes aside
- Colour the 50g of white icing with the Christmas red colouring. Roll and dab colouring and roll and squidge, as per the 'marzipan' technique outlined above. When it's the right colour, break off little bits and roll them into small balls. Flatten the balls until they look berry-esque.
- Stick the holly decoration and berries onto the cake using apricot jam. Tie a Christmas ribbon around the cake and breathe a huge sigh of relief. It is done. Now, have you got enough sellotape in the house for all that wrapping you still need to do?
- Merry Christmas!