Last Friday I had a little chat with Olivia the Cat Lady -- remember her? I was locking my bike in front of my work when she appeared from around the corner, her pink hat and sweat pants tucked into the knee-length off-white socks all in place, as ever.
"Be aware", she said putting her two tightly-packed supermarket plastic bags on the ground, "there will be a lot of cats on the streets today. It's Friday the thirteenth and it's twelve days before Christmas."
The dawn hadn't even broken out yet.
When I asked her, naively, which cats and how many of them to expect, she wasn't economical with her truth of how she feels about me. "I've been in Amsterdam for twenty years now, and I've had enough of you," said Olivia, wagging her swollen finger at me, in a pitch that sounded like a mosquito drone. I wanted to object, but her round face was already starting to deform into a frown, and may I remind you that Olivia can frown. So instead I nodded and affirmed that yes, it was Friday the thirteenth and it was twelve days before Christmas. "Exciting," I rounded my cadence off.
The moment the word slipped off my lips the gloom on Olivia's face started to melt -- not unlike a knob of butter on a heated pan -- into a toothless but knowing smile. I was bewildered, even thought that maybe exciting was a code word for a change of heart. But then she leaned forward, encircled her mouth with her hands, and whispered: "It is internationally understood not to mention this."
"Mention what?", I whispered back.
"That we are all excited."
Merry Christmas, dear Reader!
Adapted from The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater
Yield: 12 generous servings
To make this Christmas cake has become my new annual tradition, and although it's new to me, I feel I've known it since long ago. Ideally it's a project for the start of December when there is still plenty of room to weekly nourish the cake with brandy, but this time, my second, I left it till exactly twelve days before Christmas. I'm not worried, though. Nigel Slater writes it will be almost as good, and his word has never failed me before. Which brings me to say if you haven't yet decided on your Christmas sweets, make this one, perhaps? Or bookmark it for next year?
It's a big-hearted cake - one kilo of dried fruits alone goes into making the lot -- so enjoy it by a thin wedge over the next few weeks, those empty, silent weeks after holidays. Or invite twelve people for dinner to tackle it on the spot. By the way, it's not cloying as it may seem, it's sweet just enough. Besides that, it doesn't reek of booze, it's moist, chewy and crunchy in all the right places, and above all, it's moreish. You have been warned.
600 g in total of prunes, apricots and figs
50 g candied citrus peel, roughly chopped
250 g butter, slightly softened
125 g light brown (or muscovado) sugar
125 g dark brown (or muscovado) sugar
3 large eggs, ideally free-range
65 g ground almonds
100 g shelled hazelnuts
350 g in total of raisins, sultanas, currants and cranberries
3 Tbsp brandy, plus more to 'feed' the cake
zest and juice of 1 medium orange
zest of 1 medium lemon
1/2 tsp baking powder
250 g flour
Set the oven to 160 C (320 F). Line a 20-cm (8-inch) cake tin with a double layer of lightly buttered greaseproof paper or baking parchment, which should come at least 5 cm (2 inches) above the top of the tin.
Cut the the prunes, apricots and figs into small pieces, removing the hard stalks from the figs.
In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugars to a cappuccino--coloured fluff, pushing the mixture down the sides of the bowl from time to time with a spoon or a spatula. Add the eggs, one at a time. Then slowly mix in the ground almonds, hazelnuts, all the dried fruit, the brandy and the citrus zest and juice.
In a separate bowl, sieve the flour and baking powder together. Fold them lightly into the mix. Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, smooth the top gently, and send it in the oven. Bake for an hour, then, without opening the oven door, turn the heat down to 150 C (300 F) and bake for one and a half hours before.
Check the cake for doneness by inserting a skewer or a toothpick into the centre. It should come out with just a few crumbs attached but no trace of raw cake mixture. Take the cake out of the oven and leave to cool before removing it from the tin.
Spike the cake with a skewer or a toothpick and drizzle in from two to three tablespoons of brandy. Continue feeding the cake by pouring brandy into it every week before Christmas. Cover tightly and leave in a cake tin till needed. It will keep for several weeks. When ready to serve, powder with some icing sugar (optional).