The manner in which the Christmas cake has seen its boozy, fruity dominion over the festive dinner table gradually usurped is, depending upon who you ask, either one of the great breakthroughs, or one of the great scandals, of the culinary calendar. Panettone, stollen, Yule logs: all have enjoyed a spot in the festive limelight, gradually edging the traditional British fruitcake out of the picture.
In an age of selection boxes, chocolate truffles and mince pie ice-cream, our bellies feel too full for further consumption. People – a lot of people – don't like Christmas cake. It's too dry, too heavy. Likewise, Christmas pudding. After stuffing ourselves with turkey and bread sauce, few feel up to the sort of steamed pud that used to keep the Victorians warm through drafty winters.
This is a shame. A terrible shame. I love both Christmas cake and Christmas pudding and remain convinced – utterly convinced – that everyone else would, too, if only they had a nice one. I'm in good company on this. "It's like people who say they don't like fish, because they had some dry, horrible fish when they were a child," says Mark Sargeant, former protégé of Gordon Ramsay and head chef-proprietor of Rocksalt in Folkestone. "People don't like fruit cake because they've only experienced a dry one."
This year, those dining at Rocksalt on the 25th will be treated to a pudding drawing on a recipe by Sargeant's grandmother, Ada. At home, Sargeant will be having both: "You have to have the Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. Everything else can be experimented with – you can have goose, or beef, or turkey – but you have to have the pudding and the cake. My mum would make the best one ever. She was a nurse and would bring home a syringe from work to feed it with. Every few days, she would inject it with brandy to make sure it was nice and moist."
Moistness is key, in both Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. It's for moistness' sake that they're made so far in advance. Leave the baking until after the tree's up, and you've left it far, far too late. The traditional last-ditch is "Stir-up Sunday", the final Sunday before advent which this year falls on 20 November – so popular does baking become that Sainsbury’s will have its own Stir Up Sunday Hotline open, complete with experts offering advice. But for the discerning baker, the process may start even earlier. Most cake recipes advise soaking your dried fruit overnight before baking – some, though, suggest much longer than that. "You've got the six-week soak, where you soak the fruit for six weeks before you start making the cake," explains Phil Usher, pastry chef at Caprice Holdings. "And then you want to allow plenty of time afterwards to let the cake stand." Puddings can be started months in advance; as a child it was not uncommon to see my mother making two Christmas puddings in one year – then leaving the second one aside for the following year. "The older one's always the best," says Sargeant of this forward thinking.
But for those just beginning the process, there's still plenty of time for creativity. The cake we know and love tends to be a more or less predictable jumble of currants, sultanas and raisins, enveloped in a duvet of sponge, heavy with muscovado sugar and brandy. It's not clear where this formula came from; in the past, the Christmas cake had assumed several forms, be it the plain rye cake to Mrs Beeton's version which was, in fact, little more than a ginger cake, enriched with treacle.
Still, with the fruit assuming such a dominant role in the modern "traditional" cake, it is worth making the effort to get quality. Each year, Marks and Spencer shifts thousands of Christmas cakes and puddings; in drawing up the recipe, one lucky cake taster spends months tasting variations on the theme. This year the task has fallen to Ali Rodham, who swears by the transformative power of Vostizza currants ("the best you can buy ... personally, I wouldn't use anything else"). Usher, meanwhile, recommends substituting brandied cherries for the overly sweet, mass-produced glace variety: "Everyone picks those out anyway."
Elsewhere, supplementing the traditional three with further dried fruit is also popular: Nigella recommends including prunes; Mary Berry uses apricots. Flaked almonds add texture and bite. The ritual "feeding" of the cake – which sees the baker unwrap the maturing cake from its tinfoil casing in order to spoon brandy over it in weekly instalments – can be made all the more luxurious by combining brandy with Grand Marnier or port. Likewise, adding figs, apricots and prunes will only compliment a Christmas pudding.
As for the icing on the cake – well, one quick solution is to glaze your cake with heated apricot jam, and decorate with fruit and nuts. But for a properly white Christmas, more effort might be required. A confession: the past few years have seen me opt for the silky-smooth, ready-to-roll fondant icing that you can buy in supermarkets.
This year, I'm resolved to do better, following in the footsteps of Mother Sargeant with a royal icing made of egg white, sugar and lemon juice and layered over marzipan. And if it doesn't look as neat, never mind – there's always the tried-and-tested trick of forking it up to look like snow.
A piece of cake: festive baking made easy
First, the fruit
"We soak our fruit in barrels," says Marks & Spencer's Ali Rodham. "It's easy to recreate this at home and I'd definitely recommend it."
Bake it easy
"Place a layer of cardboard in the bottom of your baking tin to protect the base of the cake," says Caprice Holding's Phil Usher.
"Make sure your icing isn't too thick – there's nothing worse than biting into a thick layer of sickly icing," warns Rocksalt's Mark Sargeant.
Serve it up
"I would recommend serving your cake with a glass of Vin Santo del Chianti Rufina, Villa di Monte," says Rodham. "It matches perfectly with Christmas cake!"