Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Raiding the Pantry: Solstice Cake

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.

Marzipan. Sugar-free.
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.


Johanna said...

that looks lovely! I am not an icing fan but love the idea of marzipan in a fruit cake - and love hearing fudgy and fruit cake in the same sentence - definitely my kind of cake!

Laurie Constantino said...

I've never cared for fruit cakes, but this one - this one sounds great. Simply dried fruits instead of candied, marzipan that isn't overwhelmingly sweet. Perhaps, just perhaps, for next Christmas, I'll take the plunge and make what I always swore I'd never make as an adult - make a fruit cake - it would make my mother so happy! Can't wait to see the final pictures.

Ricki said...

Even though the solstice over here is summer and the longest day of the year (can it already be so SOON??), I still want to make that cake! Sounds amazing. But it is a great idea to celebrate with the season--makes so much more sense. Happy Solstice to you (and looking forward to seeing that cake). PS Glad the marzipan worked out! :)

Rosa said...

I'm one of those people who thinks any excuse is a good excuse to eat Christmas cake. What a good idea to celebrate the solstice with it!

Callipygia said...

To my mind fruit cake is a trove of treasures and certainly one needs fortification on the longest day of the year. Forget the all night revelry, I just want solstice cake!

Lisa said...

I have never really been fond of fruit cakes, but of late, I've been experimenting with dried fruit. As always, if you make something I might not care for, your version is sure to change my mind.

Marzipan I have not attempted yet, but your sugar free version encourages me.

shula said...

Y'know, I'd never even heard of solstice cake until this year.

Me, the daughter of a witch.

Can you believe it?

Another Outspoken Female said...

You have me salivating in anticipation of this one :)

Hope you inspire some more people to jump on the solstice cake train :)

katiez said...

I'm barely into summer - haven't even had my first plum yet, and now you make me want to go back to winter cooking... The icing would not be safe from me...

Susan said...

Your unsulphured pears look far more golden and translucent than the browned, shrunken heads I have on hand. Could it be the sousing?

I'm game to bake another fruit cake number. Now, if I can just find the time...

Suganya said...

I guess the cake vanished before you could take a photo :). Sounds great.

Nora B. said...

Dear Lucy,
Winter does inspire certain types of cooking. I associate cold weather with fruit cake too, which is strange considering that I spent most of my life in tropical climate.

Homemade marzipan is definitely teh way to go. The store bought ones tend to have loads of sugar and not much almonds.

Can't wait to see the finished cake!

Stay warm,

Suganya said...

Lucy, is there any substitute for rice syrup in marzipan?

Lucy said...

Johanna - inside the cake it works a treat!

Laurie, nor, I must say have I cared for them. But this one is slightly different - particularly with the dried pears which are a gorgeous flavour.

Oh, Ricki, can you imagine at the height of your summer serving plum puddings and the like? Why we do is complicated (tradition; ties to our European heritage) but changng rapidly I'm pleased to report! Do try it - you might just be surprised...

Perfect occassion, Rosa. Perfect weather, too.

Calli, the revelry is way beyond me nowadays too, but the cake with afternoon tea I can happily do.

Lisa, there are some remarkable dried fruits out there. Well worth playing with! The dried pears here could be replaced with dried apple, perhaps, the sultanas for cherries and the apricots for my new favourite, dried peaches.

I can't Shula. But then, neither had I. I suspect that AOF's onto a new tradition...

AOF, I hope so too! Looking forward to the other cakes. I'm a convert, now.

Katie, yes...I used to ADORE the stuff. Even when I KNEW it would rot my teeth, I still couldn't help myself!

Susan, those golden, curvy pears were captured pre-sousing. Very femminine and pagan, don't you think? We'd love to see your cake - but indeed, only if you can fit it in.

Suganya, no, the cake requires a period of maturation. A week or so is how long it takes.

Nora, fruit cake and winter are the perfect pairing. I hope you do manage to make one!

Suganya, you could use a pre-made marzipan (loaded with sugar which is precisely why I made my own in the first place), or use agave syrup or honey.

stickyfingers said...

Christmas 2006, my mad mother (no really she is) made a 6kg fruit cake (sans icing) and I'm still eating it. She drenched it in so much grog I think it will still be good in two years time - LOL!

I'm allergic to marzipan but have always loved the fondant aspect of those cakes with the rich filling, and mum's includes big rocks of couverture and glace ginger in the mix too. Mr S on the other hand won't touch the stuff unless I crumb it, make it into balls and put two layers of chocolate on it.

docwitch said...

Blimey! Yum! What a fantastic idea. Looks scrumptious, and I bet it is too.