Cooking With Mark

Festive chocolate Bundt cake

This take on the traditional recipe is ready in hours, not months

The history of the Christmas cake dates back to the 16th century. A very British tradition, the original recipe was more of a plum porridge mix, believed to be eaten to line the stomach after fasting.
Later, eggs and flour were added, along with spices and dried fruits. Traditionally round, richer families would cover the cake with marzipan and royal icing, similar to a wedding cake. My super baker gran would begin the three-month process around October, and it just wasn’t Christmas without the table centrepiece.

Dried fruit and mixed peel would be soaked for days, heaped spoons of brown sugar would be added along with flour and spices, and mixed. This was a big deal. The dining table would be cleared, and the family gathered, each taking a turn to combine the endless ingredients. Turning the mixture with a huge spoon was like a core workout.

Although I have fond memories of the great Christmas cake countdown, nowadays it has become less a part of my Christmas celebrations.

Baked for hours, the cake base would go into storage for a few months. A week before the big day the dense, sweet smelling cake would be uncovered, smothered in apricot jam, covered with marzipan and then finally iced.
The final decoration would take place on Christmas Eve. Stored away for the year, the tin with cake decorations would be dusted off. The cake would be decorated to look like a winter wonderland. However, the cake was rarely cut until at least the middle of January — with endless leftovers to eat we just never got around to cutting it. Squares of cake would be part of my January lunch boxes; chunks were handed out to visiting relatives. By the end of the month, they would be dry, and the not-so-royal icing would be impossible to cut without a small power tool.

These days you can buy cakes from the supermarket; the idea of a shop-bought cake back then would be unheard of. And although I have fond memories of the great Christmas cake countdown, nowadays it has become less a part of my Christmas celebrations.

Most people I know don’t like fruitcake and dislike marzipan even more — like me they would have cake left over well into the new year. So this year, refining my gran’s recipe for today’s tastes, I’ve created a centrepiece for the holidays. Ready in hours rather than months, this recipe is a take on my Bundt recipe, topped with some pomegranate seeds, icing and plain chocolate. I’m sure this won’t last until next week, let alone next year.

Here are a few timesaving tips for the big festive meal.

1. Make the gravy and freeze it, then defrost it the night before, adding some juices from the meat from the roasting tray for extra flavour.

2. Roll stuffing into golf ball sizes and place in freezer bags and freeze. Take out as many as you need for your meals over the holidays.

3. Vegetables like braised red cabbage can be prepared in advance, and stored. This actually improves the flavours.

4. Peel your potatoes the night before, keep them in a bowl in salted water and cover. Rinse, part boil, drizzle vegetable oil, add some garlic cloves, season and roast for 45-50 minutes.

5. Yorkshire puddings can be made ahead and just warmed up before the meal. This also gives you time for a remake if they aren’t as fluffy as you want.

Recipes, food styling and photography by Mark Setchfield

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