Have back-up plan in case you forget the Christmas cake
UH-OH … hands up those who forgot to make a Christmas cake this year (hand snakes up quietly).
I made puddings in September (one for this year, one to keep for 2013) but the cake didn't make it onto the baking plan.
When faced with a minor emergency such as this, it helps to have a back-up plan in place … plus none of my neighbours actually like Christmas cake so it means I have only my guests on the day to serve it to.
The neighbours don't like pudding either, but I'm not sharing that anyway!
Plum pudding, as inappropriate as it is for the hot Australian climate, is one thing I can't resist at this time of year (and all of January, truth be told).
If you've been caught short, try making an Italian-style panforte cake.
While this offering is also full of dried fruit and nuts, that's where the similarity ends. In this case, the fruit and nuts are encased in a delicious dense, rich chocolatey confection.
Serve in small wedges only, preferably with an espresso coffee or a glass of the sweet Tuscan dessert wine, Vin Santo.
If you want to have a more professional finish, cut sheets of edible rice paper into 4cm wide strips and line the sides of the cake tin.
This is the traditional method but is quite fiddly, so omit this if you prefer - at least until you have had a few tries to master the technique.
There are many different recipes for panforte, which translates literally as "strong bread", but this one is the recipe I've developed over the years.
Italian-style panforte cake
Serves 8 - 10
unsalted butter to grease pan
120g blanched almonds
80g whole hazelnuts
100g chopped dried figs
60g chopped dried apricots
40g preserved mixed peel
2/3 cup plain flour
2 tblsp baking cocoa
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp mixed spice
75g dark chocolate, broken into squares
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup caster sugar
pure icing sugar, to dust
Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease a 20cm diameter springform cake tin with a little unsalted butter, line base and sides with baking paper.
If you don't have a confectionery thermometer, place a glass of water in the refrigerator to test chocolate caramel mixture later.
Roast nuts at 180°C for 8-10 minutes or until almonds are golden brown.
Check frequently, as nuts burn easily. Rub hazelnuts with a clean rough towel to remove as much of the skins as you can.
Combine nuts in a mixing bowl with dried fruits and sift over flour, cocoa, cinnamon and mixed spice. Stir gently to combine.
Melt chocolate, honey and sugar in a small saucepan over medium - low heat until chocolate has melted, stir continuously.
Bring mixture to the boil, reduce heat to low and simmer without stirring for about two minutes until a confectionery thermometer reaches 116°C, or the mixture reaches the "soft ball" stage - to test, drop a tiny spoonful of the mixture into a glass of chilled water. If it forms a soft ball, the mixture is ready.
Pour the chocolate caramel over the dried fruits and nuts and stir quickly with a wooden spoon to combine - it will set quickly, so act fast.
Tip into springform pan and smooth surface; if the mixture doesn't cover the bottom of the pan don't fret. The heat of baking will cause it to melt a little and spread.
Bake at 180°C for 30 - 35 minutes. It is easy to burn the chocolate, so open the oven towards the end of the cooking time and take a whiff.
You will smell it if it is done. Set pan aside and cover with a tea towel until cool.
Remove cake from pan and turn upside down on a serving plate; sift pure icing sugar over the top.