I bake a lot, not just for friends and family but at any opportunity I can. My cakes are often decorated with buttercream frosting and I am also a dab hand with a piping bag. However, not everyone likes a cake enrobed with frosting, particularly older family members who find too much sugar indigestible.
I decided to develop a fool-proof recipe for a simple fruit cake, inspired by my collection of vintage cookery books. I also wanted to create a recipe that didn’t break the bank or was too sweet. Many modern-day fruit cake recipes are loaded with extra ingredients and all-in often cost around £20! A delicious fruit cake, even a Christmas cake, doesn’t need all those extra varieties of nuts, exotic sugars and ground almonds to make it taste good.
These days we are encouraged by television cookery shows to ‘ramp-up’ our bakes. However, when making a basic fruit cake the fewer and less complicated ingredients you work with the better. I researched fruit cake recipes from the 1940s and 1950s, a time when baking, by necessity, was a much simpler affair. In Britain at this time, rationing was in full-swing and availability of ingredients very limited.
Food rationing had started on the 8th January, 1940 and ended June, 1954. Dried fruits and sugar were some of the first items to be put ‘on the ration’ as well as being some of the last items to come ‘off ration’. Carrots, parsnips, beetroots and potatoes were all used as sugar-substitutes. Carrots and beetroots work particularly well as a sweetener, I use them frequently in my baking. For a really tasty sugar alternative, try sweet potato. At the end of this article I have included a couple of original recipes from the 1950s along with some really useful cake-baking tips which are still relevant to the modern cook.
I purchased a packet of Sainsbury’s own brand dried fruit, added some chopped glace cherries and soaked the mixture in brandy for 4 days. If you prefer not to use alcohol, substitute with hot tea or boiling water mixed with ground ginger, cinnamon and mixed spice (1 to 2 teaspoons of each). In fact, you can soak the fruit in any hot or cold liquid of your choice. Whichever flavouring you choose, the dried fruit needs to be covered and soaked for at least 48 hours prior to cooking to ensure maximum Umami.
Unfortunately, last week my electric hand-mixer broke, thanks to some rather hard butter that I tried to break-up using one of the hi-speed settings. An absolute pain I can tell you. But before electric mixers, cooks managed perfectly well with a wooden spoon/whisk coupled with some good old-fashioned elbow grease. I had to warm the mixing bowl and leave my baking butter out for 3 hours to get to room temperature before I started. So if you don’t have an electric mixer, panic not, this recipe is easy to make without.
Budget Fruit Cake Recipe
- For an 8 inch cake tin.
6 medium eggs
250g sifted self-raising flour (3 tablespoons of which are used for coating dried fruit)
250g caster or soft-brown sugar
250g softened butter or margarine or baking butter
250g dried mixed fruit (soaked for at least 48 hours in brandy/cognac/tea/boiling water mixed with 1-2 teaspoons each of ground ginger, cinnamon and mixed ground spice)
Handful of glace cherries (optional)
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Juice and zest of 1 orange
2 carrots, peeled and finely grated
3 tablespoons of milk
- Heat oven to 180C.
- Line the sides and base of an 8 inch cake tin with greaseproof paper.
- Drain soaked fruit and dry thoroughly with kitchen towels. It is important that fruit is as dry as possible otherwise it will make your cake very heavy.
- Add 3 tablespoons of flour to the fruit, mix well and set aside.
- Break eggs into a jug, add milk, orange juice and zest, lemon juice and zest. Beat well until combined.
- Beat butter and sugar together in a large, warm, mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add 1/3 of egg mixture, beat well. Add 1/3 sifted flour to mixture, beat well. Add next 1/3 of egg mixture, beat well. Repeat this process, alternating flour with egg mixture until everything is thoroughly combined.
- Carefully fold grated carrot into mixture along with the flour-coated, soaked dried fruit.
- Pour mixture into cake tin.
- Bake for 20 minutes at 180C. *
- Turn down oven temperature to 150C and cover cake tin with a large circle of greaseproof paper that has had a small hole cut-out of the centre (see picture above).
- Check cake after it has been cooking for an hour at 150C. Continue checking cake approximately every 30 minutes until your cake skewer comes out clean from the mixture.
- Remove the greaseproof paper circle and bake for the last 20 minutes of cooking time, uncovered, at 150C.
- Leave tin to cool, on a wire rack, for 1 hour.
- Remove cake from tin, peel-away greaseproof paper and leave cake to cool on wire rack. This can take about 3 hours. Make sure your cake is completely cool before storing in an airtight container. If the cake is warm and you put it into a container, the cake will sweat. Fruit cakes take a while to cool.
*Oven temperatures vary greatly. Mine takes 20 mins at 180C then 3 hours at 150C. Just keep checking on your cake every 30 minutes. More efficient ovens may only take 2 hours 20 mins total cooking time.
1950’s Cake Making Tips
Below are some tips for making cakes from Be-Ro Home Recipes. There are no dates in the little booklet as to when it was published but judging by the illustrations it looks to me like the 1950s. The booklet belonged to my late grandmother and it is a well-used book, in fact so well used it has lost 8 of its pages (one of these pages possibly contained the publication date?). Since I have now had to resort to hand-beating my cake mixture until I purchase another electric mixer, I found the advice here very useful:
- Use a wooden spoon and warm bowl to cream margarine [or butter] and sugar. Never allow the margarine to ‘oil’;
- Always break eggs separately into a cup. If one of them happens to be bad, this will prevent it spoiling the others;
- Dip your spoon in milk before spooning the batter or mixture for small cakes. This will prevent the mixture sticking to the spoon;
- Fruit, if washed, must be well dried before the cake is mixed. Damp fruit causes heaviness;
- Testing a large cake to see if it is sufficiently cooked: 1) when its surface is pressed lightly with a finger, the cake should rise again, no impression being left. 2) A fine hot skewer (or thin steel knitting needle) inserted into the centre of the cake, should come out clean. 3) A slight sound of bubbling inside a fruit cake indicates that the cakes needs further cooking;
- Always leave cakes a short while in the tin before turning them out, just long enough to ‘set’, but not to cool. Then take them out and put to cool on a wire cooling tray.
Eggless Fruit Cake (Stork Margarine: The Art of Home Cooking 1954)
Ingredients: 8 ozs self-raising flour; 1/4 level teaspoon salt; 1 level teaspoon baking powder; 1/4 level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda; 1 rounded teaspoon mixed spice; 1 level teaspoon ground cinnamon; 4 ozs sugar; 4 ozs dried fruit; 2 ozs mixed chopped peel (or 4-6 ozs chopped stoned dates or chopped figs); 1/4 pint fresh milk; 1 tablespoon vinegar (or 1/4 pint sour milk).
- Prepare a 6-inch cake tin.
- Turn on the oven, setting it to a moderate heat (360F or Gas Mark 4).
- Sieve flour, salt, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, mixed spice and ground cinnamon together into a mixing bowl.
- Cut 4 ozs Stork Margarine cut into 1/2 inch squares. Rub mixed dry ingredients (3).
- Add sugar and dried fruit to rubbed-in mixture.
- Add vinegar to the fresh milk and stir until it curdles, warming very slightly, if necessary. Make a well in the centre of the flour, etc., pour in the milk, and mix to soft dough.
- Put into the prepared tin and smooth the top.
- Bake on the middle shelf [if you do not have a fan oven] for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.
- Remove the cake from the oven, when baked. Leave in the tin for 5 minutes. Turn out, remove the paper and cool on a wire tray.
Fruit Cake (Good Housekeeping’s Modern Hostess 1959)
Ingredients: 8 oz butter; 8 oz caster sugar; 10 oz flour; 1/2 teaspoon baking powder; a pinch of salt; 8 oz raisins; 4 oz sultanas; 4 oz cherries; 4 oz peel; 2 oz almonds; 4 eggs.
- This is a not-too-rich mixture. Cream fat and sugar and sieve flour, baking powder and salt.
- Add prepared fruit, peel and nuts to the flour and mix well.
- Beat eggs into creamed mixture, then fold in flour and fruit.
- Put into a prepared 9-inch cake tin.
- Bake in a moderate oven (350F, Gas mark 4) for 2 hours.
- Cool on a rack.