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Inspired by Bake Off? How to nail the perfect fruit cake – according to royal baker Fiona Cairns

The Great British Bake Off has finally returned to our screens. Kicking things off, as always, was cake week – the perfect way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The first signature challenge was a fruit cake which had to be choc-full of fruit. Many of the bakers called upon family recipes for their signature bake, whether it was Rosie’s spicy chai loaf or Steph’s great-grandmother’s fruit cake with marzipan roses.

A fruit cake may be a classic, used in Christmas cakes and wedding cakes, but they aren’t the easiest to get right – one wrong move and you can have a stodgy dessert, and its altogether too easy to end up with a dry cake.

If Bake Off inspired you to get into the kitchen and make your own fruitcake, there are some tricks you can use to ace the bake. And who better to school us on the perfect fruit cake than royal baker Fiona Cairns, who made the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding fruit cake?

Fiona Cairns stands proudly next to the Royal Wedding cake

Fiona Cairns and her Royal Wedding cake (John Stillwell/PA)

1. Use the best ingredients

When baking a cake filled with fruit and nuts, it’s important to let these ingredients shine. “Always bake using the best and plumpest dried fruits and nuts,” advises Cairns, because you’ll be able to tell if you’ve skimped on your ingredients.

2. Prep the fruit and nuts

Fruitcakes aren’t like a Victoria sponge you can whip up in no time. If you want your bake to be as rich and flavoursome as possible, it’s going to take a bit of planning and preparation. “Soak the fruits and spices together overnight in the alcohol or/and fruit juice,” says Cairns. “We always lightly roast our nuts first, to release the essential oils.”

3. Watch out for your cake in the oven

“Do not over bake, as nothing is worse than a dry fruit cake!” she says.

4. Give it time

Fruit cake is all about deep, complex flavours – whether it’s from the alcohol you’ve added or the multitude of spices. Cairns says: “Try to leave the fruit cake to mature for at least 1-2 weeks for the flavours to mingle and develop.” Exercising patience is difficult when there’s cake involved, but in this case a bit of time will make everything taste so much better.

How to make Fiona Cairns’s fig, port and star anise cake

This cake is a great one to make for Christmas – you could even start it now, and let it sit and become extra-delicious in the months leading up to December. If you can’t wait that long, skip the festive decorations and you can tuck into the cake in a few weeks time.

As the first episode of Bake Off showed us, fruit cake isn’t just for Christmas. Thankfully you have plenty more time to work on yours than the three hours the bakers had in the tent.

Fruitcake

Ingredients:
(Makes 25 slices)

For the cake:
140ml port, plus 2-3 tbsp to feed the cake
3 star anise
500g dried figs, roughly chopped
300g dates, roughly chopped
300g prunes, roughly chopped
3 tbsp treacle
Finely grated zest of 1 organic orange and 1 unwaxed lemon
1 tbsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
250g unsalted butter, really soft, plus more for the tin
200g pecan nuts
100g hazelnuts
160g dark muscovado sugar
6 eggs, lightly beaten
170g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp salt

To decorate:
4 tbsp apricot jam
2 tbsp brandy
9 dried figs, 22 dates, 20 prunes, 22 pecans and 5 star anise
1 egg white
Pot of gold edible glitter

Tools:
Paintbrush
Ribbon, or lengths of raffia

Method:

1. The day before making the cake, pour the port into a pan with the star anise. Bring to the boil, remove from the heat and leave for a good few hours to infuse. Place the figs, dates and prunes in a large bowl with the treacle, zests, mixed spice, nutmeg and port (removing the star anise). Stir, cover and leave overnight.

2. The next day, butter and line the sides and base of a 23cm square, 7.5cm deep tin (do not use a loose-based tin) with baking parchment. Wrap brown paper round the tin and tie with string. Preheat the oven to 150°C/fan 130°C/300°F/gas mark 2. Put the nuts on a baking tray and cook for 10 minutes, until toasted. Cool and chop. Place a tray of hot water (large enough to hold the cake tin) in the oven.

3. In a food mixer, beat the butter and sugar for at least five minutes, until pale and creamy. Mix in the eggs slowly, adding 1 tbsp of flour to stop the mixture curdling. Using a large spoon, fold in the remaining flour, the salt, the fruits and their liquid, and the nuts. Fold together and tip into the tin.

4. Place in the water-filled tray and bake for 2 to 2 and a half hours, or until a skewer comes out almost clean with a couple of crumbs on it. If the top is browning before it is cooked, protect with foil. Cool in the tin, on a wire rack. When cold, prick all over with a skewer and sprinkle over the extra port. Wrap in baking parchment and then in foil, and leave for at least a few weeks.

5. A week before Christmas, bring the jam and brandy to the boil, push through a sieve and brush most of it over the cake. Decorate with dried fruits and nuts, glazing with more jam. Paint the star anise with egg white and glitter, and add (they are not for eating). Wrap the sides of the cake with baking parchment or clear film to stop it drying out. Finish with a ribbon or lengths of raffia.

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