The standard would be cloves to stud the ham, or orange pomanders to flood the house with that lovely uplifting Christmassy scent. Perhaps spice biscuits for the tree: the spices that we most associate with Christmas are those heady fragrant, warming ones – cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and allspice (not to be confused with ‘mixed spice’ blend) that compliment all manner of Christmas fare. Add them to anything red; mulled wine, port sauce, cranberry sauce, spiced pomegranate juice, add them to many sweet delights; mincemeat, chestnut torte, the aforementioned spice biscuits, chutneys and even rub the ham with this blend instead of your usual:
-4 tbsp Soft brown sugar
-2 tsp Ground cinnamon
-1 tsp Freshly ground nutmeg
-1 tbsp Hot English mustard
-1 tsp Ground ginger
-½ tsp Freshly ground black pepper
Mix together, rub ½ onto the ham, stud with cloves, close to the end of cooking (20 minutes remaining) you can remove the fat and rub on the rest of the mix for extra loud flavour.
At this time of year family traditions are often strong, and for me the scent of spices (as they are used in so many dishes) instantly evokes all sorts memories, dishes and that general Christmas fuzz known as ‘the spirit’, this given there are no excuses, break out the Christmas spice.
Scent is a powerful and emotive thing and it’s one of the reasons why I feel so passionately about spiced world food (if you’re interested here it is explained in the manner of science).
An alternative to English Christmas cake, and descendant of plum pudding, I give you Caribbean ‘Black cake’ also known as ‘Rum cake’ as its key ingredient is rum. If like me you have left it this late to get cracking, why not switch it up and try this recipe it’s rich, dark and scented with Island spices. Traditionally the dark colour is due to the ‘browning’, created by the addition of caramelized brown sugar; but black treacle is a great substitute. In this cake, the rum soaked fruit is ground up into a sweet intoxicating paste, so if the chewy mixed peel in fruitcake puts you off, there will be no such trauma with Black cake. It has a less ‘cakey’ texture than British Christmas cake due to the fruit paste.
Emma’s Caribbean rum cake
-400ml dark rum, plus ¼ cup for glazing
-300ml port/ cherry brandy plus ¼ cup for glazing
-100g glace cherries
-200g prunes, diced
-100g candied, diced lemon or orange peel
-1 vanilla pod – scraped
-1 lime – zested
-220g unsalted butter at room temperature
-180g soft dark brown sugar
-2 tsp baking powder
-1 tbsp ground cinnamon
-1 ½ tsp ground nutmeg (grate this freshly as it loses its flavour very quickly)
-1 ½ tsp ground ginger
-1 tsp ground allspice
-½ tsp ground star anise
-2 tbsp (separately) soft dark brown sugar OR 2 tbsp black treacle
-5 medium eggs
-80g sliced almonds
-2 springform cake tins approx. 8 inches
Prep time: fruit soaking time (anywhere from a supremely organized 1 year, to a slightly chaotic 24 hours)
1-hour making, 2 hours baking + cooling and feeding time
-Combine all the fruit, 300ml of port/ cherry brandy, 400ml dark rum in an airtight bowl/ tub.
-Leave to steep for 2-3 days or preferably 2-3 weeks….
-Pre-heat the oven to 160C, grease and line your tins.
-Transfer the soaked fruit and juices to a blender and blitz to a thick slightly chunky paste, (or alternatively finely chop).
-Scrape the vanilla pod with the back of a table knife and add the seeds to the butter, sugar and lime zest in a large bowl.
-Cream together until thoroughly combined, lightened in colour and smooth, use a mixer if you have one.
-Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Add ½ tsp sea salt and all the ground spices.Add the treacle OR to make the ‘browning’ instead, add 2 tbsp of dark brown sugar to a small pan and heat over a medium heat, stirring constantly until it bubbles and darkens almost to black, you will smell it becoming ever so slightly bitter.
-Then add a splash of hot water, mix it in until you have a thick honey-like syrup.Add the eggs to the butter and sugar one at a time, combining thoroughly in between additions.
-Add this to the fruit paste, along with the treacle OR ‘browning’ and mix it all together.
-Lastly add the flour, (spices etc) and almonds and fold it all in.
-Pour into the cake tins and cook until a skewer comes out the middle of the cake clean (about 2 ½ hours). Spike it about 10 times with a thin skewer and immediately pour over the remaining rum and port or cherry brandy.
-Allow to cool for a good few hours, then give it the usual Christmas cake treatment if you can’t resist. I prefer a dollop of Chantilly cream with a little lime zest mixed in.
-To store, wrap it in baking paper and cling film.
-To give a rum cake as a gift is a sign of great love and respect. (OR keep feeding the second cake with rum until next year).