FOOD & DRINK; CROWN JEWEL OF CHRISTMAS

Encrusted with glace fruits and studded with nuts, Sisi Edmiston's Christmas cakes are the epitome of indulgence. Michael Bateman sees her at work and suggests two simpler cakes there is still time to make

THE BEST Christmas cake I've ever tasted is made by Sisi Edmiston; everyone I know who has tried one agrees. But the experience comes at a price. Isn't pounds 45 rather a lot to pay for a cake? Is pounds l,300 a kilo a lot to pay for beluga caviar, or pounds l,000 a kilo a lot to pay for white truffles? Yes, it's a lot.

Sisi Edmiston is the Michelangelo of cake bakers, an interior designer who has turned her hand to works of art decorated with glazed dried fruits and nuts, encrusting them like so many jewels. Not only are they expensive, they're as hard to come by as truffles. Until very recently you had to turn up at food fairs, where Sisi would arrive with a car boot full of them. Or they would surface in upmarket food stores at even more prohibitive prices (we're talking pounds 65 each this time). Now, happily, the world can beat a path to Sisi Edmiston's door, for her cakes have found a place in Henrietta Green's new Food Lovers' Guide to Britain (BBC, pounds 9.99).

Ms Green sums up the cakes' appeal as follows: "They are so meticulously decorated you could almost mistake them for a dried nut arrangement," she says, "made to a family recipe that uses butter, rice flour, molasses and masses of dried Australian sultanas, California raisins and Greek currants, which she first soaks in vintage cognac, sherry, apricot brandy and fresh lime juice for at least seven days to plump up, then adds nuts and even more dried fruit such as apricots, dates, peaches, grated pine- apple and grated carrots to give it colour."

A little glycerine is added to keep the cakes moist, and vanilla and almond essence for extra flavour - and a little flour to bind the mixture together. A little flour is the understatement of all time. There's just one ounce of flour to every 2lb of dried fruit.

I went to see Mrs Edmiston at her west London flat, which is also her factory. Cakes are wrapped and stacked in the living room in green plastic supermarket trays. Amazingly, they have all been cooked in a regular domestic oven.

In August she sends her four children on music, ranch and drama holidays and bakes around the clock, assisted by her housekeeper, Mrs Waller from Wandsworth, and telephone alarm calls every three-and-a-half hours to signal the beginning and end of each batch of nine.

Sisi (her first name is actually Veronica) is better known in London as a rather superior interior designer. Cakes were a late career move, but are not luxury cakes an edible manifestation of the interior designer's art? She says she got the idea from Colin Street Bakery, a Texas mail- order firm for the world's better-off consumers that sends out their pecan- studded fruit cakes as gifts at Christmas. "Their brochure," Sisi says, "shows a photograph of seven very frightened men in suits saying please buy this cake or we'll be out of a job. It's presented as a quaint old Victorian bakery, but it's actually a multi-million pound business."

Colin Street Bakery may have given her the idea of attacking the luxury market, but the cake itself was entirely her own invention. Indeed, its conception was an accident.With her marriage over, she says, she found herself rejected by a new man in her life. In a furious rage she plundered his precious wine cellar and, discovering such treasures as pounds 30 bottles of vintage Hine, poured them into her Christmas cake mixture. In due course, she distributed 10 of her cakes to her children's godparents, to family and to friends. Some wrote to her and said they'd be willing to pay anything for another cake like that. Anything? The idea of Sisi's Christmas cake was born.

In a world where most commercial companies are looking to save on costs and keep prices down, someone who is guided by no such considerations will either go under or soar away from the rest. She has done the latter. I joined her in her home and watched her for an hour as she decorated a dozen cakes. Polythene sheeting covered the carpet, for this is sticky work.

She spreads by hand a base of apricot jam on to each cake, then studs it with clusters of glace fruit or nuts. The fruits glow like stained glass: boxes of red Italian glace cherries for sweetness and crunch; purple French cherries for colour and acidity; dried apricots to impart an orange glow. Large crystallised melon peel, called pepno, has a subtle lime-green hue. She also uses dull brown dried figs, which she butterflies open to reveal their speckled caviar of seeds.

It's not only the cakes' appearance that is stunning. So is their quality. Sisi knows her fruit. She comes from a Garden of Eden, she says, in the valleys of north-east Transvaal, South Africa. "My papa is the Banana King (though mama is a brain surgeon). There every valley has a different crop of fruit. It used to be citrus, but now it's pecans, mangoes, avocados, bananas."

As it's impractical to make a return visit to papa, she goes to local wholefood shops to buy her dried fruit. No one sells better, she says. "Health food shops all seem to be managed by religious groups, so you get these signs saying 'Jesus Lives'. Inside these great warehouses they are playing religious muic." But they know their fruit and nuts, and as well as being religious, ethical and organic, their stuff tastes better than anyone else's. (Community Foods at Brent Cross (0181-450 9411, north London, is a favourite supplier of hers.)

Her cakes are not to be iced, of course, but the finish is breathtaking. She applies a dense glaze made by heating and straining equal parts of damson, apricot and plum jam. For sale, she wraps them, like a bouquet, in cellophane.

For advice on availability of her cakes (but it may be a bit late in the day) phone Sisi Edmiston on 0171-229 6722, fax 0171-792 8092.

There is still time to make a fruit cake for Christmas, though not one with such a high density of fruit as Sisi's. It needs a few weeks to settle or else it will just be a sticky slab. And alcohol really does need several months to do its magic, otherwise it will be simply raw.

So here is a recipe for a Christmas cake that will do the trick. It's from Leith's Book of Cakes by Fiona Burrell (Bloomsbury, pounds 16 99). You may wish to decorate it with marzipan and icing in the usual way; or you could decorate in the style of Sisi Edmiston, embedding clusters of the glace fruits and or nuts in a jam base; then glazing it with a strained mixture of hot jams.

FIONA BURRELL'S CHRISTMAS CAKE

A sure sign that Fiona's Christmas cake recipe is authentic is that it is conceived in imperial measures; metric measures are approximations. Twenty years after decimalisation, cookery writers still have to be if not bilingual, biquantifying, rounding-up and rounding down as they translate from one code to the other. No problem in most recipes, but infuriating in recipes for cakes where imprecise measurements can mean the difference between success and failure.

Fiona's recipe is the one she learnt at school aged 13 (in Denbigh, North Wales) and took home to her amazed family for Christmas. "It was very good, but they had to take a chisel to the icing, it was so hard."

It's a very easy cake to make, but you must follow the instructions carefully. "I told a friend about this, and she rang me up in the middle of making it, saying the mixture had turned into a bowl of liquid. I said, did you really cream the butter and sugar? ('I just beat them together a bit'). Did you add the eggs one at a time? ('I bunged them all in together'). Well then."

There's no raising agent in this cake, so you need the eggs for lightness. Do cream the butter and sugar thoroughly. Do add the beaten eggs gradually and not in one go.

Makes one cake of approx 2.25kg/5lbs

Melted lard or oil for greasing tin

110g/4oz glace cherries

55g/2oz chopped mixed peel

450g/1lb raisins

285g/10oz sultanas

110g/4oz currants

225g/8oz butter

225g/8oz soft light brown sugar

5 eggs, beaten

285g/10oz plain flour, sifted

2 teaspoons ground mixed spice

grated zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons black treacle

200ml/7fl oz beer or sherry

110g/4oz ground almonds

Preheat the oven to 325F/170C/Gas 3. Prepare a 22cm/9in round cake tin or a 20cm/8in square cake tin. Cut up the cherries and mix them with the remaining fruit.

Cream the butter in a large mixing bowl until soft. Add the sugar and beat together until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs, gradually, beating well after each addition. Add 1 teaspoon of the flour if necessary to prevent the mixture from curdling. Fold in the flour, mixed spice, lemon zest, treacle and beer or sherry, using a large metal spoon. Stir in the ground almonds and the fruit.

Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and make a deep hollow in the centre to counteract any tendency to rise in the middle.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 212 hours or until a sharp knife or skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool completely in the tin before turning out.

ANTON MOSIMANN'S CHRISTMAS CARROT CAKE

There's still plenty of time to make a cake that is lighter in style altogether than either Sisi Edmiston's or Fiona Burrell's. This is one that Anton ices, fashioning marzipan into carrot shapes. You can buy the icing and marzipan to mould into cake topping and carrots respectively, or the cake can simply be decorated with a dusting of icing sugar. The glaze is made from sieved apricot jam, boiled with a little water until it falls in slow sticky drops from a spoon.

Makes one 900g/2lb cake

2 lemons

6 eggs, separated

300g/11oz caster sugar

300g/11oz carrots, finely grated

300g/11oz ground almonds

75g/3oz cornflour

a pinch of powdered cinnamon

10g/14oz baking powder

150g/5oz apricot glaze

150g/5oz fondant icing

marzipan carrots

First, preheat your oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4.

Finely zest both the lemons and squeeze the juice from one of them.

Beat the yolks in a large bowl with half the caster sugar, the lemon juice and the lemon zest until they are pale and sticky. Fold in the carrots and almonds carefully.

Sift together cornflour, cinnamon and baking powder, and fold in lightly with a spatula.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff, and fold in the rest of the sugar. Carefully fold this into the carrot mixture.

Place in a prepared 25cm/10in cake tin and bake in the preheated oven for one hour. Test to see that it's cooked by feeling the centre. It should spring back when pressed lightly. Turn out of tin.

When cool, brush apricot glaze over the cake. Allow to set. Cover with icing, and decorate with marzipan carrots. !

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