Only 50 baking days to go: Why making your own Christmas cake and pudding is a surprisingly exact science

All at once I am not so sure this was a good idea. Go to Yorkshire, I'd been told, to Betty's famous tea shop in Harrogate, and they'll teach you how to make a Christmas cake and pudding. Do it now and they will be nicely matured by the festive season. They can teach anyone. Even you.

Now I'm not a bad cook. I learnt the basics at an école de cuisine in Paris three decades ago. But I've never been much good at baking, and my pastry is dire. My hands are too hot. Still, this was a pudding and a cake, which is just mixing, I told myself.

Imagine my horror, then, when I arrived to find that there was a sweet pastry mincemeat streusel tart on the curriculum. And the county ladies at the table around me were anything but culinary amateurs. "Did you get rid of that old Aga when you redesigned your kitchen?" asked one. "No, I decided to have it reconditioned," her chum replied. Others were talking about the previous Betty's courses they'd been on: fish cuisine, pâtisserie, baking with chocolate, breadmaking... "I didn't dare tell them I used a bread-maker machine," said one. "And they would only have fresh yeast... dried would have been like a swear word," giggled another middle-aged woman.

But the course tutor, Paul Gray, was a reassuringly down-to-earth Yorkshireman. His day job was as operations manager in Betty's bakery across the way but he had not forgotten how to do things on a smaller scale. He set out methodically the process of mixing the pudding. His ingredients had all been weighed out in advance, as had ours, in neat little plastic bags on the 18 workstations in the state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen.

"You get out what you put in," he began, in what was to become the refrain of the day. "These are top-quality Vostizza currants from Greece. You have to go for the best with every ingredient." There were sometimes a few little stalks in dried currants, one of the students ventured. "Get them out," he retorted.

What if you hadn't remembered to soak all the dried fruit in brandy overnight? "You'd probably get away with two hours," he replied. What if you didn't have two hours? "Then make the pudding another day," he said shortly. Timing is of the essence if you have 1,500 vintage puddings to make by February and nearly 6,000 ordinary ones by August, as he did this year.

And he was not just precise about time. "You can use vegetable suet in the pudding but you have to use beef in a figgy pudding or you don't get the traditional flavour... When you use tin foil always put the shiny side to the food to reflect maximum heat back... And don't forget to sterilise your jars for the mincemeat upside down in the oven." Why upside down, asked one bold enquirer. "Because that's how we've always done it." He was not being doctrinaire but simply passing on decades of experience.

After the mixing we put the puddings on to steam for five whole hours. It seemed an impossibly long time, but then the rest of the day was to be crammed with other tasks, from which we broke off periodically in response to Paul's cry of "Have you remembered to top up the water in your puddings?"

On Christmas Day we would need to steam them again for another two hours. Couldn't we microwave them? It was as if someone had mentioned dried yeast. The other tutor, Amy Callin, intervened deftly and warned of microwave hot spots. But there seemed a touch of the puritan in Paul's insistence that steaming was needed to serve the pudding as moist as possible. "I always microwave mine," the students whispered to each other furtively at the coffee break, which provided a brief opportunity to exchange guilty secrets. And yet the butter they ate with their fresh-baked croissants had, I noticed, been softened before it was served. The day was full of such little touches. Betty's is about buying little parcels of perfection.

After coffee Paul ran through the ingredients and method for the cake. "Where are the cake mixers," asked one lady. "This is your mixer," said Paul, holding up a wooden spoon. "It's important that you get a feel for this by hand before you can be let loose with a mixer."

I was to find out what he meant. I diligently followed his instructions. I checked the thermometer inside the oven I was to share with Bridget, from York, who had done the course the year before and enjoyed it so much that she was back for seconds. I massaged the lumps out of my brown sugar. Then I creamed the butter and sugar and added the beaten eggs in minute portions, as instructed. "Beat it till it looks like butter-cream before you add more egg," said Amy, looking over my shoulder.

But after the fifth splosh of egg I became over-emboldened and put a little too much in. And that's when the batter began to curdle. "You can beat it out or heat it out," Paul had said, but my beating arm had become weak with the effort. "Add a tablespoon of the floor," was Amy's tip, and she took over the beating with the vigour and precision of a Victorian school mistress. The mixture was rescued. My cake went into the oven alongside Bridget's.

The day passed in a blur. After breaking for lunch we moved on to making mincemeat, which is a much simpler business than I had supposed it to be, and yet which produces something immensely superior to mincemeat from the supermarket.

Even the pastry that followed was relatively painless – apart from having to plunge my hands into ice-cold water for five minutes before I worked it. And Amy showed me a technique for rubbing the butter through the flour and nuts for the streusel topping which minimised contact between my warming fingers and the fat. "It's like making pâte sucrée," I exclaimed. "Eh?" chorused the other students. "Less of the French, you're in Yorkshire now."

Indeed. To judge by the final aromas, the north-country precision and plain-speaking had done the trick. The proof of the pudding, and indeed of the cake, must await a yuletide verdict. But we ate the mincemeat streusel that night and it was melt-in-the-mouth magnificent. Perhaps they might make a pastry chef of me yet.

Festive treats: Bakery to start now

Traditional Christmas Cake

Makes 1 x 20cm round cake

Ingredients

250g sultanas
100g currants
400g raisins
75g mixed peel
165g glacé cherries
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
Freshly squeezed lemon juice ( lemon)
80ml sherry
175g butter (room temperature)
175 g dark brown Muscovado sugar
25g black treacle
3 medium eggs, beaten (room temperature)
220g plain white flour
4g mixed spice
2g ground cinnamon
40g ground almonds
25g glycerine

Method

The day before: Place the dried fruits into a large bowl with the lemon and orange zest. Pour over the lemon juice and sherry. Mix the fruit thoroughly to combine. Cover with cling film, and leave to stand overnight.

Line the base of the cake tin with a disc of baking parchment. Place a "collar" of baking parchment around the inside of a 20cm round cake tin.

To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 125°C (fan assisted), or gas mark 2. Beat the softened butter, sugar and treacle in a large bowl until light and fluffy.

Add the beaten eggs to the butter mixture, a little at a time to avoid the mixture curdling. When all the eggs have been put in, add the flour, spices and ground almonds. Gently mix together until thoroughly combined.

Stir the glycerine into the pre-soaked fruit (this helps to keep the cake moist). Add to the cake mixture and fold through until evenly mixed.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking tin and level off the top.

Place into a preheated oven for approximately 2 hours until firm to the touch. A skewer inserted into the middle of the cake will come out clean when the cake is cooked. (You may need to cover the top of the cake with a piece of baking parchment three-quarters of the way through baking to protect it, if necessary). When it's cooked leave the cake in the tin for 10 minutes before removing from the tin. Leave the baking parchment on the cake while it cools.

"Feeding" the cake: When the cake has cooled, brush the top and sides of the cake with sherry.

The cake should then be wrapped in a clean sheet of greaseproof paper, then in foil, and placed in an airtight container or cake tin and stored in a cool, dry place. Repeat the "feeding" of the cake with more sherry each month (maximum 3 times). The last feed should be at least one week before you cover the cake with marzipan.

Traditional Christmas Pudding

Makes 1 pudding, serves 6-8 people

Ingredients

230g raisins
50g currants
75g sultanas
50g glacé cherries
15g flaked almonds
100ml brandy
Zest of 1 orange
Zest of 1 lemon
Freshly squeezed juice ( orange)
Freshly squeezed juice ( lemon)
50g vegetable suet
30g wholemeal breadcrumbs
50g plain white flour
90g light brown sugar
2g mixed spice
1g ground nutmeg
1g ground cinnamon
1g ground cloves
5g salt
2 medium eggs, beaten

Method

The day before: place all the dried fruits and flaked almonds in a bowl. Pour over the brandy and add the zest and measured juice of the orange and lemon. Mix together lightly. Cover with cling film and leave to soak overnight.

To make the pudding: Put all the ingredients and the pre-soaked fruit together in a large mixing bowl. Mix together lightly by hand, so as not to break up the fruit.

Place a small disc of baking parchment in the base of a 1 pint pudding basin and then fill it with the mixture. Smooth the top down evenly.

Place another larger disc of baking parchment on top of the mixture. Cover the top of the basin with foil and seal tightly.

Stand the filled pudding basin on a strip of foil long enough to make a handle (this is to help you lift the pudding out of the saucepan once it is steamed). Place the pudding on top of a trivet in a deep-sided saucepan.

Pour hot water into the saucepan, so it comes halfway up the pudding basin. Place a lid on the saucepan and bring back to the boil. Then lower the heat and keep the water at a steady simmer. Steam the pudding for 5 hours. Check the level of water in the saucepan during cooking and top up if necessary.

Remove the pudding from the pan and allow it to cool completely. Remove the foil. Wrap the pudding basin in a piece of greaseproof and a layer of foil. Store in a cool, dark place and leave for at least one month to mature. The longer the better.

To serve: On Christmas Day, steam the pudding for a further two hours in a pan with water, as before. Warm some brandy in a ladle until it ignites and pour over the pudding to flambé.

Recipes courtesy of Betty's Cookery School, Bettyscookeryschool.co.uk

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