I can’t think of a single Christmas when I haven’t had fruitcakes, or at least missed having them—and not so I could pick out the raisins, plump with brandy or rum. Fruitcakes are as much a part of Nigerian Christmas culture as Jollof Rice and Chicken; as “Christmas shoes and clothes,” our one-day-a-year version of Sunday best; as the memory of setting off fireworks and bangers on Christmas day.
Growing up in Warri, on the southern coast of Nigeria, our fruitcakes were given as gifts—the best ones came from Mrs. O, a baker and a family friend. There was something about her blend of fruit, cake, and brandy that appealed to my developing palate—fruit just right, cake rich and brown, brandy smooth, everything in perfect proportion. Often, the cakes would come under a blanket of white fondant—reminiscent of snowy places—red berries, green holly, and the occasional snowman—anachronistic, but accepted, for it was Christmas, magical in all its ways.
In my university days at Liverpool in the north of England, where I first experienced wind chill and cold rain at the bottom of Brownlow Hill waiting for bus #47, I finally understood snow—white, fluffy and sometimes twinned with cold rain. Suddenly, rain—not the warm tropical rain in which I grew up playing in and running under—rain which plastered hair to face and shirts to skin now terrorized me, assaulted my senses and chilled my bones. But I loved the snow.
In that time, between 1997 and the year 2000, I spent my Christmas holidays with Jim and Ann, friends of my dad’s from the fifties when he was at college in Cornwall. The friendship never died; I simply picked up where Dad left off. I would arrive to stay in the blue room, the walls a delicate shade with bedding and curtains to match. I’d go to sleep early and sleep until late, and we’d eat roast turkey and mince pies with brandy butter, fruitcakes studded with glacé cherries, and down cups of tea brewed in teapots with floral motifs and whitened with semi-skimmed milk. It was there I learned to drink sherry after dinner.
In the Netherlands, as an adult with a husband and three children, I dreamt of fruitcake and stilled the hunger and longing with imported mince pies from the UK or the British store in Leiden, a few minutes by bus from our home in Wassenaar. In those years, family and friends would visit and bring Jollof Rice, Chicken, and Dodo—our name in Nigeria for fried plantains—Nigerian puff puff and Dutch doughnuts called olieballen, full of dried fruit and nuts.
Later still, I finally learnt to bake good and proper from a children’s cookbook. Thanks to my daughters’ cookbook, I learnt to make cupcakes and sliced cookies—but I never, ever thought I could make fruitcake. Everything about it made it seem out of reach: the fact that you had to soak the fruit in liquor months before; the fondant that cloaked it; that the cake seemed to be as much about planning and organization as getting a house and mortgage. I didn’t feel capable of any of it.
That was until my chance discovery of a cookbook from Good Food Magazine’s 80 Best-Ever Recipes while unpacking one of our 263 boxes when we moved back home to Nigeria. In it, there was a recipe for a "Simmer & Stir" Christmas cake. I read with fascination 14 days before Christmas, my eyes twinkling with the possibility of recreating a beloved cake and perhaps feeding my soul at once.
Now I make this fruitcake every Christmas and a few times in between—it is a delightful reminder of a time when we were young, and our parents fed us cake.
- 150 milliliters brandy or other liquor
- 1 teaspoon ground mixed spice (see note, above)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 500 grams (or 2 and 1/2 cups) luxury dried fruit
- 100 grams (1/2 cup) candied citrus mixed peel
- 100 grams (1/2 cup) glacé cherries
- 75 grams (1/3 cup) dried apricots, chopped
- 75 grams (1/3 cup) dried figs, chopped
- 200 grams (1 packed cup) soft, dark brown sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
- 175 grams (3/4 cup) cold (brown/ beurre noisette) unsalted butter
- 100 grams (2/3 cup) blanched almonds, macadamias, or pecans
- Finely grated zest and juice of 1 orange
- Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 100 grams (3/4 packed cup) ground almonds
- 200 grams (1 and 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Optional: 3 tablespoons chocolate chips
- Optional: 3 tablespoons candied ginger, chopped (this will lend a gingerbread taste to the finished cake)
- Extra brandy for soaking cheesecloth to wrap the cake, and for feeding the cake later
- Extra dried fruit and nuts to decorate: whole blanched almonds, apricots, figs, cherries