Baking Advent: Apricot and amaretti fruitcake with Marsala and clementine buttercream

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake

In my last post I mused about being, becoming, a grown-up; and the changing tastes of adulthood were something I thought of when making, and then eating, this fruitcake.

For some tastes are the ones we grow rather than the ones which come to us instinctively. The liking of certain foods – the bitterness of wine and beer among then – mark the undeniable transition from picky child and wary adolescent. Jay Rayner predictably called it for the oyster, which, in a slightly icky (and, it must be said, heteronormative) 2011 article which I have never really liked (I like a lot of his other writing), he describes as “the truly female tastes of adulthood” (yawn). Then there are olives – salty, briny; blue cheese – pungent, moudly; even the raw, iron, undeniably fleshy taste of rare steak.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake with marzipan stars
Marzipan stars on a naked cake for a modern look

Fruitcake, to me, is a grown up food, too. As a child, its dense, sticky richness was something best avoided in favour of, say, a predictable slice of chocolate cake. It sits heavily on the stomach and coats the palate in a thick wave of raisiny sweetness almost as a dessert wine does. A fruitcake is assertive; it is strong; it is not really that sweet and can be nibbled with cheese as much as eaten as pudding after a meal. It requires a bitter drink of some kind – hot black coffee; unsweetened, tannic tea; even ale – to offset the rich taste and texture. After years of remembered aversion and dislike, those same failings have become, in my eyes, the fruitcake’s very virtues. It is filling, it is rich, it is unapologetically traditional in vine-fruited taste and dense, even at times stodgy, texture.

Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream
Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream

I wasn’t intending to post this recipe, mainly because the photos I took weren’t very good. But this cake is so very delicious; I brought it in to work (a rare enough event) and my colleagues were full of praise – one even said he feared it would put all other Christmas cakes this year in the shade. That’s the kind of thing someone who brings in a homemade cake likes to hear…

The dried apricots in the fruit mix add a lighter, sharper taste and texture than the traditional combination of raisins, currants and mixed peel alone, and the pulverised amaretti biscuits which are included in the batter mix replace the more conventional breadcrumbs: they are dryer and, again, lighter, as well as adding a delicate almond perfume which complements the marzipan shapes the cake is decorated with. A few biscuits are held back to decorate the top of the cake. The sweet Marsala wine which plumps up the fruit and is used to feed the cake at regular intervals naturally imbues it with moisture, but also sweetly echoes the taste of the dried fruit within the cake. The clementine buttercream is of course deeply seasonal and adds a burst of freshness to proceedings. I added a dash of cinnamon to it too.

Apricot and amaretti fruitcake
Action shot – the cake getting dug into at work, in its tin

I went for a ‘naked’ look for this cake, partly because naked cakes are so very fashionable; partly because I don’t really like the royal icing that usually tops fruitcakes; and partly to avoid the awkwardness of buying sufficient quantities of marizipan and carefully rolling it over to drape the cake. I liked the look very much, in the end – though having said that, the original cake, as decorated by BBC Good Food magazine, looked absolutely glorious – with a coating of (edible) gold spray paint, it was fantastically Louis Quatorze.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

Apricot and amaretti fruitcake with Marsala and clementine buttercream
Adapted from the Golden Amaretti Christmas Cake from the November 2016 issue of BBC Good Food magazine

Note: Although the headline ingredient is the dried apricots, don’t stress yourself out if you don’t have exactly 175g in the house; rather than buy an extra packet, make up the weight with other dried fruit – though of course the more ‘other’ fruit you use the more you will lose the characteristic sharp-sweet tang the dried apricots bring. I omitted the flaked almonds from this cake because I didn’t have any at home.

You will need to start this recipe the night before.

For the overnight soak

  • Zest of one large orange
  • 120ml freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 175g dried apricot
  • 700g mixed dried fruit
  • 120ml sweet Marsala, plus extra for feeding the cake

For the cake batter

  • 250g unsalted butter, softened
  • 250g bag crisp amaretti biscuits (divided – 200g for the cake mix and 50g to decorate)
  • 150g light soft brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 125g plain flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1/4 tsp fine saltTo decorate
  • 1 tbsp apricot jam
  • 100g marzipan – I used natural marzipan (you may need more depending on how many cut-out decorations you want to make)
  • 120g icing sugar, plu extra to dust
  • 60g softened butter
  • Zest and juice of one clementine
  • Dash of cinnamon or cinnamon extract (optional)
  • The remaining 50g crisp amaretti biscuits, kept whole
  1. The night before you are planning to bake, soak the fruit. Grate the zest from one orange and squeeze 120ml fresh orange juice into a large bowl. Snip the apricots into small pieces with scissors, then add the dried fruit and the marsala. Cover with cling film and leave to soak overnight.
  2. The next day, rub a little of the butter around the inside of a 20cm round, deep cake tin, then line the base and sides with a double layer of baking paper.The double layer is important as it will stop the cake from burning during the long baking time.
  3. Preheat oven to 160C.
  4. Pulverise 200g of the amaretti biscuits – you could do this in a food bag or large mortar and pestle or bowl, or even the food processor if preferred. There should be a predominance of crumbs studded with a few larger chunks.
  5. Put the remaining butter and the sugar into a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer for 2 minutes or until paler and creamy.
  6. Mix in the eggs, one by one, combining thoroughly each time. Sift in the flour, baking powder, mixed spice and salt. Tip in the crumbs and beat together for a few seconds until evenly mixed.
  7. Fold in the soaked fruit with a spatula.
  8. Scrape the cake mixture into the prepared tin. Level the top and make a saucer-sized dimple in the middle of the batter. This will help your cake to rise evenly. (This is such a good tip – thank you Good Food magazine!).
  9. Bake for two hours, then turn the oven down to 140C. Cover the cake with foil and bake for another hour and 30 minutes or until risen and dark golden brown.
  10. Check the cake is cooked by inserting a skewer into the middle. It will come out dry when the cake is ready.
  11. Once fully baked, set on a cooling rack and leave for a few hours.
  12. Using a skewer, poke deep holes all over the cake. Slowly drizzle 2 tbsp marsala over the cake.
  13. When completely cold, wrap the cake in clean baking paper and store in a tin in a cool, dark place.
  14. You will need to feed the cake every seven to 10 days until you are ready to decorate it. To do so, simply remove the cake from its wrapping and carefully pour over two TBS of marsala, making sure to drizzle it evenly around the sides as well as the centre of the cake. Re-wrap the cake and return to its tin and cool, dark location.
  15. When you are ready to decorate, remove the cake from its wrapping. Warm the apricot jam in a small pan or the microwave, and brush a thin layer of the glaze over the entire cake
  16. Dust a work surface with a little of the extra icing sugar. Knead the marzipan until pliable and then roll it out until about as thick as a pound coin. Stamp out your desired shapes with a cookie cutter, sprinkling with icing sugar to keep the surfaces dry and prevent them from sticking to the work surface.
  17. When your desired mazripan shapes have been cut out, gently lift them up and press them to the sides of the cake as wished. You may have to hold them in place to keep them sticking.
  18. For the buttercream, beat the butter until soft and creamy using an electric mixer. Sift in the 120g icing sugar and beat together until completely incorporated. Beat in the zest and sieved clementine juice until the mixture is creamy. Add the cinnamon if wished.
  19. You can decorate with the buttercream as you wish – I transferred the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a star tip and piped stars interspersed with the amaretti biscuits, but you could also ice the entire top of the cake – the layer will be fairly thin. I fixed the biscuits onto the cake firmly with a blob of buttercream on the underside.

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