Tried & Tested: Take the cake

Sugar and spice and all things nice? Our panel weighs up the seasonal mix of mail-order cakes

THERE'S NO avoiding it, Christmas is well and truly on the way. If you don't have an obliging great-aunt who sends her home-made festive cake to you every August and you're no good in the kitchen yourself, don't despair. With the help of a little judicious credit-card and telephone work, your home needn't be without this Christmas essential.


Philip Britten, chef at London's Capital hotel, and his pastry chef, Sarah Crouchman, were our experts. The other testers were: Duncan Fowlie, Hester Bloom, Louisa Rogers, Claire Blezard, Emma Bartlett, Donald Hudd, Andrew Simpson and Deborah Dawkin. Tastes varied, but there was a surprising level of consensus.


We asked six suppliers for "something festive" from their range. Most sent rich fruitcakes, though others made surprising choices. We looked for presentation and substance, for all-natural ingredients and for exclusive recipes to lift the product above the regular, mass-produced confections.


Pure Malt Scotch Whisky Cake, 800g, pounds 12.99 (plus pounds 3.50 p&p)

This fruitcake from the National Trust gift catalogue was the panel's second favourite, judged to be unpretentious, traditional and very moist. "It's just a nice, spicy fruitcake, not too heavy," said Louisa Rogers. Claire Blezard thought you'd easily get away with icing this for Christmas. Philip Britten declared it "good value and full of pure ingredients." But one criticism was universal: "Why does it come in such a naff tin?" Duncan Fowlie wanted to know. "It's the sort of thing my Gran would keep stale digestives in. Surely a nice, green, National Trust tin with a stately home on it would be better?"


Chocolate and Orange Panettone, 920g, pounds 8.95 (plus pounds 5.90 p&p)

Bettys Tea Rooms in Harrogate has joined forces with Taylors (of tea and coffee fame) to produce a brochure of mail-order edibles so inviting it makes your mouth water. Jaws dropped at this Yorkshire idea of a winter treat: a football-sized panettone done up in raffish cellophane with a tartan ribbon. "This would be a big, exciting Italian statement," mused Philip Britten, "but I think it makes an unfair comparison with the heavier cakes." He approved of the bits of Belgian chocolate, but not the orange flavour. Other panettone fans agreed that "the fantastic aroma is better than the taste" (Louisa Rogers), which some called "synthetic". And the ingredients list yielded eight E numbers. Testers who don't like panettone ("it's really just an oversized bun" - Deborah Dawkin) called this "average".


Chocolate and almond truffle cake, 450g, pounds 16.45 (inc p&p)

Wheat-allergic cake fanciers can rejoice that this rich chocolate cake contains no flour whatsoever. It relies on almonds for its substance. Andrew Simpson agreed with half the panel that the cake "is very enjoyable; it's gooey and rather insubstantial, but well-balanced". The only problem for the cake's supporters was its size. "It's minuscule," protested Hester Bloom, "so it seems very expensive. I could eat at least three slices; then it would be half gone." Philip Britten was not impressed: "This just doesn't work. The additives don't help - for this sort of price you want an exclusive cake that at least seems to be hand-made."


Sri Lankan Spice Cake, 550g, pounds 8.30 (inc p&p)

This exotic-sounding fruitcake from Bay Tree (better known for its chutneys and jams) divided the panel. Claire Blezard was among those who loved its flavour, and attributed most of it to molasses with ginger or all- spice. And Philip Britten agreed: "This has a nice, gingery aftertaste," he said, "and I like it better than the other fruitcakes." But Louisa Rogers said she couldn't tell the difference between it "and my Mum's Christmas cake" and others found it "not especially spicy, too sweet and lacking bite" (Donald Hudd).


Ginger cake, 1kg, pounds 13.50 (plus p&p)

This unusual, crunchy ginger cake was seen as a bold move by panellists, who voted it our winner. Emma Bartlett declared: "Stem ginger makes this so much better than the usual soggy ginger cakes." This was deemed moist and of pleasing weight - "Now that's what I call a cake," said Hester Bloom. Although Andrew Simpson didn't like the texture, he agreed that "Her cakes are always very good quality." It's true: the free-range eggs, ginger wine, Kirsch, etc make you feel you're getting value for money and a lovely gift. Only the Capital team demurred; they found the ginger "overpowering", which just goes to show you can't please everyone.


Almond Cake, 675g, pounds 8.50 (plus pounds 2.50 p&p)

"This is my idea of heaven," said Louisa Rogers of this very almondy cake from Mrs Gill's, a small-scale Dorset producer which supplies illustrious grocers like Fortnum's with fruitcakes. The cake was unimpressive-looking: a small sponge with a layer of almond paste running through the middle, and just as those who hate ginger disliked Meg Rivers' cake, so those who don't eat marzipan didn't go for this. "It's far too sweet," said the male panellists in unison and Philip Britten discerned "lots of almond essence - almonds aren't this pungent".


Bettys and Taylors, 01423 886 055; Meg Rivers, 01295 688 101; National Trust, 0117 988 4747; Bay Tree Food Company, 01749 831 300; Sarah Meades, 0171 801 9455; Mrs Gill's Country Cakes, 01884 242 744. !


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent