Showing posts with label Jenny Hobbs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jenny Hobbs. Show all posts

Monday, 3 December 2018

My Mum's Classic Christmas Cake

This is a dense, boozy, spicy Christmas cake that evokes many happy memories. My Mum Jenny Hobbs made this every year when we were kids, using a recipe inherited from her own mother, and I have used the same formula (with a few tweaks of my own) for the past 20 years.

You'll find the recipe directly below and, underneath that, my detailed cook's notes. Whether you serve this cake naked, or add a cloak of home-made marzipan, or add marzipan and Royal icing is up to you - isn't it interesting how people have emphatic opinions about what should go on top of a Christmas cake? Is a luscious, almondy layer of marzipan enough? Or must every fruit cake be smothered with a swirly frosting of deliriously sweet, tooth-cracking Royal icing? You tell me!

My Mum's Christmas Cake

I've halved my Mum's original recipe, which is so enormous that it requires a gigantic mixing bowl and very strong arms. But still, this halved formula will make a cake that easily serves 10 people.

Classic Christmas Cake 

For the fruit/nut mix:
½ cup (125 ml) dried apricots
½ cup (125 ml) pecan nuts
½ cup (125 ml) walnuts
½ cup (125 ml) glacé cherries
800 g mixed dried fruit (including candied peel)
½ cup (125 ml) flaked or slivered almonds
2 Tbsp (30 ml) cornflour

For the cake:
500 g unsalted butter, very soft
250 g brown sugar
4 extra-large free-range eggs
500 g cake flour, sifted
60 g cornflour, sifted
½ tsp (2.5 ml) nutmeg
½ tsp (2.5 ml) ground cloves
1 Tsbp (15 ml) good instant coffee
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) syrup or honey
the finely grated zest of a lemon
the juice of a lemon
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract or or 2 tsp (10 ml) vanilla essence
1 tsp (5 ml) almond extract
a pinch of salt

For feeding the cake:

For the marzipan:
1 cup (250 ml) whole blanched almonds
1 cup (250 ml) almond flour
1 cup (250 ml) icing sugar
1 egg white (from an extra-large egg)
a few drops of almond extract
3 Tbsp (45 ml) smooth apricot  jam

For Royal icing: 
650 g icing sugar, sieved
3 egg whites
the juice of a lemon
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) glycerine [optional]

Some of the ingredients for a double batch.
Heat the oven to 150 ºC.

Prepare a deep 24-cm springform tin. Place the tin's base on a doubled-up sheet of baking paper, draw around it with a pencil, and cut out the two circles. Put the base into the ring, snap it shut and press the paper circles onto the base, buttering each one generously.

To line the ring, cut a long strip of baking paper double the height of the tin. Fold it in half lengthways and butter it on both sides. Press the strip, folded side up, around the inside of the ring.

Now prepare the fruit and nuts. Roughly chop the apricots, pecans and walnuts, and cut the cherries in half. Put them into a big bowl along with the mixed dried fruit and almonds. Add 2 Tbsp cornflour and toss well, using your hands, so every piece is lightly coated. Set aside.

To make the cake batter, cream the softened butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, beating well between each addition.

When the mixture is smooth and creamy, add the sifted flour and cornflour and mix well. Stir in all the remaining cake ingredients and then add the fruit and nut mixture. Stir well to combine (this is a very stiff batter - please see my tips in Cook's Notes, below). 

Mix to a very stiff batter.
Spoon the mixture into the cake tin and smooth the top. Place on the centre rack of the oven and bake for about two hours and 20 minutes. You will know the cake is done when it is deep brown on top, and feels firm all over when you press it with your fingertips. At this point, stick a wooden skewer into the cake. If the skewer comes out dry, with no wet batter sticking to it, your cake is ready.

Check on your cake after about 90 minutes - if you notice that the top is browning quickly, and/or the raisins are burning, cover it loosely with a sheet of tin foil.

Remove the cake from the oven, and immediately pour over 3 Tbsp of brandy - the cake will sizzle satisfyingly as you do so. Now cover the tin loosely with foil and let it stand for a day.

To 'feed' your cake: leave it undisturbed in the tin, loosely covered. (It's important not to seal the top of the cake too tightly, or the alcohol will not evaporate.) Use a slim skewer to poke about 12 deep holes right to the base of the tin.  Every two or three days (depending on how boozy you want your cake), trickle a little brandy over the top, and tilt the pan as you do this so the alcohol seeps evenly into the holes.

To make the marzipan, blitz the whole almonds to a fairly fine powder in a food processor fitted with a metal blade (but don't overprocess them, or they will become oily). Add the almond flour, icing sugar, egg white, and a few drops of almond extract, to taste, and pulse until the mixture forms a smooth ball.  If the marzipan isn't clinging together, add a few drops of water and pulse again.

While the marzipan is still warm and flexible, roll it out into a thin sheet big enough to cover the whole cake (see Cook's Notes). It's best to do this between two sheets of baking paper.

Warm the apricot jam and brush it all over the top and sides of the cake. Drape the marzipan over the cake, pressing down lightly and easing it down the sides. Trim the excess marzipan all the way round the base of the cake.

For Royal icing, lightly whisk the egg whites until just frothy. Add the sifted icing sugar, a spoonful at a time, stirring well. When the mixture is thick, stir in the lemon juice and (optional) glycerine. (The glycerine prevents the icing from setting to rock hard). Using an electric beater, whisk the icing for ten minutes, or until it is glossy, white and standing in stiff peaks. 

Dollop the icing on top of the cake and use a spatula to spread it evenly across the top and sides. Using a swirling motion, create little spikes and peaks for a snow-scene effect. Set aside, uncovered, to dry for at least 12 hours, then transfer to a cake tin.

Makes 1 fruit cake, enough for 10. 

Cook's Notes
  • This recipe is easily doubled, but mixing such a large quantity of batter takes powerful arms and a very big mixing bowl. Use a cake tin about 28 cm in diameter and at least 7 cm deep, and insulate the tin by wrapping a double layer of brown paper around the outside and securing it with wet string - this will prevent the outside of the cake burning before the inside is cooked. A bigger cake will take between 2½ and 3 hours. 
  • Add the fruit and nut mixture to the batter in batches, using a wooden spoon and a stabbing motion. This is a very firm mixture, so take your time. If the batter seems impossibly thick, add a little milk. 
  • You can make this cake up to six weeks in advance, but I always start three weeks ahead. Add the marzipan and Royal icing a few days before Christmas.
  • To figure out the size of the marzipan circle, place the end of a piece of string at the base of the cake, drape it across the top, and then take it down to the base on the opposite side - this is the diameter of your circle, but add 1 cm to be on the safe side.
  • You can use all almond flour for the marzipan if you're in a hurry.
Swirl the Royal icing to create little frosty peaks.
Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Friday, 14 June 2013

Dave's Roast Pork Belly, a favourite dish of the dashing dog detective Napoleon Bones

Napoleon Bones (published by
 Random House Struik).
Napoleon Bones is a noble police dog, a crime fighter, a gourmand, and the star of a recent novel by my mother, South African writer Jenny Hobbs.

One of Napoleon's favourite dishes is a succulent belly of roast pork topped with extra-crackly crackling of great crackliness.

I know for a fact that the recipe my mum had in mind when she wrote her book is the one perfected by my uncle, master potter David Walters. 

It's also one of the recipes featured in my cookbook.  Is this book a family affair? Damned right it is! But then food is all about familie, isn't it? (There's a note about this word at the bottom of the page.)

Here's a paragraph from the book mentioning roast pork belly:

We were patrolling in Woodstock on the dog watch, eight to midnight. Spike was off-duty. A sudden gorgeous waft of aromas had my tongue lolling. Roast potatoes and parsnips. Fennel. Halved heads of garlic browning in the juices dripping from a racked pork belly with the crackling just starting to crisp.

Doesn't that sound toothsome?

I've referred a number of times to Dave's beautiful hand-thrown dinnerware on this blog, because I often photograph my food on plates, platters and bowls he's lent or given me.  But I haven't spoken much about my mum, apart from mentioning that I learned to cook at her elbow.

Because her new novel has much to do with food and eating (or wolfing down, arf arf,  in the case of Napoleon Bones), I thought I'd tell you more about it, and about her.

Jenny Hobbs, novelist, and director of
the Franschhoek Literary Festival.
I read my mother's novels with joy and appreciation, but there's often a level of trepidation because I know that at a certain point something from my childhood will leap off the page and seize me by the heartstrings.

This might be a character I recognise, or a favourite expression, or a line from a poem, or a whiff of something strange and beautiful and half-forgotten.

 In the case of her latest novel, I enjoyed juddering belly-laughs reading the droll observations of the dog Napoleon Bones.

Napoleon, a keen-nosed connoisseur and relentless chaser of frisky bitches is, you see, something of a composite of all the dogs I've ever known. Jenny has dedicated the book to all the stinky mutts of my childhood, including my beloved Mugsy, a bulldog of distinction.

Also, the text is scattered with family jokes and sly verbal references that cannot be appreciated unless you were actually there (the Strategic Fart is one example).

And then there's the language. A little-known fact about my mum is that she wrote, as Blossom Broadbeam, a popular column for Darling magazine in the early Seventies.

Her column became famous as a rich source of 'Seffrican', and many of the slang words she observed and used for the first time in print have been preserved in several dictionaries of South African English. I'm proud to tell you that some of these words were harvested from the mouths of her four daughters. (Okay, they're expressions not used much these days, but there was a time around 1975 when it was extremely cool to say 'tit', 'China', 'boney' and so on.)

She's put her keen ear for South African slang to good use in the new book, and I found myself performing the famous coffee-nose-spurt reaction several times as I raced through its chapters.

David Walters Pork Belly
Really crackly crackling, all brown and blistered. 
But back to the food.  My uncle Dave and his family live right next door to my mum in Franschhoek, so there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the houses, and much merrymaking and feasting when my extended family swarms into Franschhoek.

Whenever an extra-special feast is called for, Dave makes his Famous Pork Belly, usually preceded by his equally famous Smoked Franschhoek Trout with Hot Sesame Oil.

I can heartily recommend both recipes to you.

Dave's Pork Belly

1 large pork belly, bone in (about 2 kg, or enough for 8; see Cook’s Notes)
¾ cup (180 ml) olive oil
10 bay leaves, dried or fresh
8 cloves garlic, peeled
milled black pepper
1 Tbsp (15 ml) salt

Score the skin of the belly, not too deeply, into a narrow diamond pattern using a very sharp knife or the blade of a sturdy craft knife. If you’re not confident about this, ask your butcher to do it. A few hours before you cook the belly, put the olive oil, bay leaves and garlic into a food processor and whizz to a fairly coarse paste (don’t add any salt). Brush the mixture all over the scored skin, pressing it well into the cuts. Grind over plenty of black pepper. Cover with clingfilm and let it stand for 2–3 hours.

Heat the oven to 170 °C. Place the belly, skin side up, directly onto the middle rack of the oven, and put a roasting pan underneath it to collect the fat. Roast for 3 hours with the oven fan off, and without letting the temperature go above 170 °C (or the skin will crackle prematurely).

After 3 hours the belly will be soft, juicy and well cooked. Fifteen minutes before you want to eat, take the joint out of the oven and use kitchen paper to wipe any oily puddles and bay-leaf paste off the top of the skin. Sprinkle the skin liberally with flaky sea salt.

Turn the top grill of the oven to its highest setting and wait until it is glowing red. Adjust the rack on which you cooked the pork so the skin is about 15 cm below the grill. Within a minute or two the skin will begin to spit and sputter as it forms crackling: watch it like a hawk to make sure it is not burning.

If it shows any signs of catching, turn the grill down a little, or move the rack down a notch, but don’t remove the pork from the oven. When the crackling is a deep golden-brown and crunchy all over (this will take 8–10 minutes), take the belly out of the oven, put it on a carving board and take it to the table. Serve with apple sauce, a light potato salad and green salad.

Serves 8.

Recipe courtesy of Random House Struik

Cook’s Notes

Order, well in advance, a large slab of top-quality pork belly from your butcher; supermarket pork bellies are of indifferent quality and always too small. If you’re throwing caution to the winds, put some parboiled potatoes in the dish underneath the belly an hour or so before you serve it, where they will roast to golden and fatty perfection


'Familie' is an Afrikaans word that means, literally, 'family'. But it also has several other untranslatable layers of meaning, among them clan, tribe, loyalty, friendship, closeness, familiarity, and so on. Someone who is familie need not be a blood relative - this could be an old friend, or a neighbour, or someone who has been kind and generous to you over many years. A mensch, in other words.

Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly