Photo: Yuki Sugiura
One week before you’re going to bake the cake, measure out the apple juice, coffee and bitters into a large saucepan. Put the almonds in a small pan and dry-toast them over a medium heat until golden. Roughly chop, then add to the pan. Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla pods. Add the pods and seeds to the pan. Add the remaining steeping ingredients, but NOT any of the alcohol, ticking off each item on the list as you add it.
Stir everything to combine, then put the pan over a low heat and cover. Stirring frequently, allow to cook very gently for 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat, give everything another quick stir, then set the pan aside and allow the fruit to cool slightly for 1–2 minutes. Pour in the brandy, Grand Marnier, kirsch and Madeira, and stir once more.
Pour the mixture into a large sterilised jar with a lid, or an airtight plastic container. Put the jar in the fridge and leave for seven days, shaking or stirring it from time to time.
When you’re ready to bake the cake, grease a 20cm (8in) square cake tin, or 23cm (9in) round tin, and line it with a doubled sheet of baking parchment, cut so that it comes 2cm (¾in) above the top of the tin. Then, measure and cut some brown paper (parcel paper is perfect) so that it wraps nicely around the outside of the tin. This should be much taller than the baking parchment, about 8cm (3¼in) above the top of the tin. Tie in place with kitchen string, and you’re ready to start baking.
Preheat the oven to 140°C (gas mark 1). Put the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and cream them together using a hand mixer until they’re really well combined, fluffy and pale.
Add 1 egg to the bowl and beat it into the mixture, then sift in 1 tablespoon of the flour and mix that in.
Now simply add the eggs one at a time, beating each one in really well before adding the next. Sift in the remaining flour, and gently fold it through the mixture using a metal spoon.
Put the steeped fruit in a large bowl and remove the vanilla pods. Add the grated apples, and orange and lemon zests. Stir well. Pour the fruit into the cake mixture, scraping out every last syrupy scrap, and carefully fold together until everything is evenly mixed. Be sure to use a gentle touch and don’t overwork it.
Spoon the mixture into your prepared tin and smooth the surface with the back of the spoon or with a palette knife. Make a slight hollow in the centre of the cake, then wet one of your hands and gently, briefly, lightly pat the cake’s surface all over. This will help to maintain a smooth surface while it’s cooking. Cover the cake with a doubled sheet of baking parchment, laying it gently on the surface.
Put the cake tin on the centre shelf of the oven and bake for 3½ hours without opening the door. Remove the baking parchment from the surface and continue to bake for a further 30 minutes or until the centre feels springy when you touch it lightly.
Remove the cake from the oven and put the tin onto a cooling rack. Allow it to cool for 1 hour.
Prick the top of the cake all over with a cocktail stick, and ‘feed’ it with Grand Marnier, carefully spooning the alcohol into the tiny holes. Leave the cake to cool in the tin overnight.
Next morning, remove the cake from the tin, leaving the baking parchment around it. Wrap it fully in more baking parchment, then in foil, and store in an airtight tin or a plastic cake box until you need it. The cake will keep nicely for three or four months or so, all wrapped up.
Mix the sugar and almonds together in a bowl. In another bowl, beat the eggs, Grand Marnier and almond extract, and scrape in the seeds from the vanilla pod. Pour this mix into the almond mixture and stir to a stiff paste. The paste should be really stiff, like marzipan, so add an extra sprinkling of ground almonds if necessary.
Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a work surface and dust it with icing sugar. Roll out half the paste on the greaseproof paper, rubbing your rolling pin with icing sugar as you go, to about 1cm (½in) thick.
Lightly mix the egg white with the salt and use to brush the top of your cake, then turn the cake over and put it on the rolled paste, sticky-side down. Gently press the cake down onto the paste. Cut around the cake, leaving a thin border of paste around the edge. Reserve the leftover paste for cutting into shapes later. Set aside.
Lift and turn the cake back over and remove the greaseproof paper if it’s still sticking to the paste. Use a little of the leftover paste to patch any gaps between the cake and paste, and to ensure the surface is level.
Put a piece of string around the outside of the cake to measure its circumference (mark the length with a pen). On another sheet of greaseproof paper, roll out the remaining paste into a strip the same length as your measured string and 1cm (½in) thick. Cut it into two equal lengths.
Brush the sides of the cake and one side of the two strips of paste with the egg white. Carefully put the two strips around the sides of the cake, sticky-side to sticky-side. Roll a straight-sided glass against the cake side to smooth it. Tidy up the cake’s appearance with your hands, moulding it gently until you’re happy with it.
Preheat the oven to 220°C (gas mark 7). Mix the egg yolks with 1 tablespoon water. Roll out the remaining almond paste to 5mm (¼ in) thick and cut out some festive shapes with a cookie cutter. Brush the cake all over with the egg yolk mix, arrange your cut-out shapes on the cake, then brush them with a little more egg. Carefully lift the cake onto a baking sheet.
Pop the cake into the oven for 15 minutes or until the paste turns a light nutty-brown colour. Take it out of the oven and put it onto your cake board. Allow to cool, then decorate the plate with a little holly and maybe a few baubles. That’s it. One beautiful, totally yummy Christmas cake!