If growing old is humanity’s largely unavoidable curse, its reward is surely discovering and ageing into the untold experiences and possibilities and freedoms which adulthood affords you. Or at least, so I hear. Currently, the only one of these afforded freedoms I can afford, is that the years have sufficiently killed off my tastebuds, so I may genuinely enjoy eating Christmas cake.
Christmas cakes – or fruitcakes in general, be they secular or vaguely pious – were an extreme letdown in my childhood, not just because they tasted so foul to my dilettante palate – but because they looked so storybook spectacular, with that smooth expanse of uninterrupted white icing and that rich chocolatey-looking interior. But oh, such injurious, disgusting dissonance! The icing tasted like fimo modelling clay – the cake beneath like the inky pages of a King James Bible, recently flung into a puddle.
Anyway, time passed, now I like them.
But if I’m going to eat fruit cake, it still better be excellent, and this recipe, let me assure you, is the most excellent. Yes, it’s vegan, but specifically, it’s not merely the best vegan Christmas cake, it’s, in fact, the best Christmas cake. It is vegan – and it is best. It’s even better than the recipe I put in my 2013 cookbook (pictured up the top there with its dashing star wreath icing – look, it’s a nice picture, and visually, an iced fruitcake is an iced fruitcake, so I reserve the right to repeatedly trot out this relatively old image.)
This fruitcake is wonderful both to make and to eat – as you’ll see in the recipe, the most stressful aspect is lining the tin with baking paper. The combination of dark rum, Guinness and tea give it such a robust backbone of flavour – for some reason, the combination of chai and rooibos is particularly buttery and rich, but if you can only get one or the other then so be it. Guinness tracks its muddy footprints through the batter, lending complexity and intensity. Dark rum speaks for itself (but in case you can’t hear it: it’s just very delicious.)
I impatiently cut myself a slice as soon as the cake came out of the oven – needing to know whether the recipe actually worked or not – and it was incredible. Two days later, it was like a whole different cake. Deeper, darker, more settled, more confident, it tasted so good I’m ascribing human qualities to it. It tastes like the sound of Bing Crosby’s least phoned-in Christmas album. It’s amazing. It’s the Christmas cake you deserve.
The Best Christmas Cake
Easy, incredibly delicious, only gets better with age – just like you – and it’s vegan – just like me. I recommend starting this about five days before Christmas, for it to be really peaking right when you need it.
- 1/2 cup dried apricots
- 1/2 cup prunes
- 1 and 1/2 cups sultanas
- 1 and 1/2 cups tea made with two chai rooibos teabags (or one rooibos, one chai)
- 1/2 cup dark rum
- 1/2 cup neutral oil, eg rice bran or sunflower
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup treacle, or golden syrup
- 1 cup Guinness
- 1/2 cup soy milk, or your preferred milk
- 4 teaspoons malt vinegar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon cocoa
- 3 and 1/2 cups flour
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ginger
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 3-4 drops pure orange oil
1: Roughly chop the prunes and dried apricots (measure them out first, then chop them) until they’re all more or less in quarters or thirds, and place them, along with the sultanas, into a small bowl. Cover with the hot tea and the rum, cover, and leave in the fridge overnight, or for at least six hours. But ideally overnight.
2: After a suitable quantity of time has passed, drain the fruit, retaining any of the steeped liquor (there won’t be much, it will be delicious.)
3: Now comes the most difficult part – lining the tin. Take a 22-23cm springform or loose-bottomed cake tin, cut a circle of paper to fit the base, then take a long stretch of paper, fold it in half horizontally/along the long edge, bring the two edges together to make a loop, and fit this inside the cake tin, overlapping the paper where necessary to make it more or less hug the tin’s inner walls. It doesn’t matter if it’s all a bit hodge-podge, the cake batter will hold it in place, but it might help to place a bowl or something inside the tin while you wait, to hold the paper in place. You should end up with the cake tin lined on the base and sides with paper, with a good-sized collar extending over the top edge of the tin.
4: Now comes the easy part – making the cake. Set your oven to 160C/320F. Mix the oil, sugar and treacle together in a large mixing bowl with a wooden spoon. Stir in the Guinness and milk – it will probably froth up a fair bit, but it will subside – followed by the vinegar and vanilla.
5: Add the remaining dry ingredients (you don’t have to sieve the flour but I always sieve baking soda, because I live in fear of lumps in my baking and unfortunately have the past experience to justify such fears) and slowly stir together till it forms a cohesive, liquid-but-thick batter. If you’re worried, the cocoa doesn’t make it taste chocolatey – it just adds another layer of dark intensity.
6: Fold in the drained steeped fruits. Taste to see if you think it needs a bit more of any of the spices – and also just because the batter tastes really good, and you deserve it – and then spatula it all into the waiting cake tin. Even out the top, and then bake for around one and a half hours, or until it’s no longer jiggly when you carefully prod the centre, and a skewer comes out more or less clean. You may want to cover it loosely with tinfoil halfway through, to prevent burning (I did!) Check after an hour, but be prepared to bake it for closer to two hours, it being a very dense mixture.
7: Remove the cake from the oven, spoon over the remaining tea/rum liquid, and allow the cake to cool in its tin. Once cool, carefully remove it and transfer to an airtight container till required. This gets better every single day, although I haven’t had it last longer than a week so I can’t say for sure how far ahead you can make it, but if you keep it in an airtight container still wrapped in its paper, it should be good for at least that long, and surely longer still.
- If you need this cake to be alcohol free, replace the rum with more tea, and I would definitely go for a chai/rooibos blend here rather than black tea. I would add an extra dash of vanilla and maybe an extra quarter cup of brown sugar too. It occurs to me now that the carbonation of the Guinness helps aid the texture of the cake, so try a good ginger beer or ginger ale in its place instead.
- If you can’t get hold of orange oil, add the zest of a large orange instead.
- If you lack dark rum, you could use bourbon or a decent-ish brandy – either of these would be preferable to white rum, but golden rum would work in a pinch, and spiced rum is obviously not going to do any harm.
- You can quite reasonably use just sultanas and prunes if you don’t want dried apricots in it. These are the only concessions I will concede!
Also, if you really hate fruitcake but seeing the word “cake” has triggered a response in the brain of your taste buds, I recommend this perfect mocha cake (go for the fudgy icing variation) or this molasses loaf which I make roughly once a week, it’s incredibly good and slightly more chill with treacle instead of molasses, too.
Lovely Head, by Goldfrapp. My dear friend Charlotte and I once listened to this song on loop for literally forty minutes – it was also about 1am – and this is exactly how you should listen to it too, and don’t even click through unless you’re prepared for that commitment.
Where Do We Go From Here? by Death. Where, indeed? This is sludgy yet crunchy, like a smashed car windscreen falling into your porridge (or vice versa, I guess.)
A Perfect Relationship by Judy Holliday from the film (based on the Broadway musical) Bells Are Ringing. She was so deadpan hilarious and yet there was something so heartbreaking and tremulous about her. This song, however, is very cute, and in theory is not at all heartbreaking.
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