November moved slowly in some ways and heedlessly fast in others. My guest room was busy for weeks on end, housing people that are closest to me; family and a cherished friend. When my mother and brother were here, we kept to the house, chatting over each other loudly with gesticulating hands like Indians tend to. The feeling they bring is an intense burst of happiness; the energy they radiate is infectious. After they left, my friend came and took their place. By contrast, we were out almost every night, driving for hours to nowhere in particular, discussing the merits of a song/band with seriousness that should be reserved for political analysis, or trying to find the best place to get a decent chicken shawarma at 11pm. I discovered the city more on those nights, but found more of myself along the way. Quiet spaces in the confines of the car were those of contentment; those moments of perfect understanding between friends, without the need for any expression. Roads lead to more than one destination.
My friend has left and after all the cheeky banter and shared efforts with cake decorating, I find myself suddenly planted firmly in December. My guest room shall be getting geared up for another two sets of visiting family as well as the usual birthday and seasonal party invites, including my own. Food hampers need to get sorted, and fast.
Living in the land of dates, I had a colossal amount of them staring at me every time I opened the cupboard. Carried from Abu Dhabi by my mother, the decorative box held the sweetest, softest, paper skinned, dense, sticky fruit. Some were sliced halfway with an almond wedged in it and others had candied citrus zest. We all tore away at the contents for days, but there is only so many kilos of such richness you can endure. Leaving them to end their days in the box was out of question. Sticky toffee pudding is of course, a delectably extravagant attempt at being thrifty, but a glance through a favourite book yielded a more seasonally appropriate option.
Christmas sees the usual repertoire of fattening treats coming out of my kitchen. Gingerbreads, both biscuit and cake form, mince pies and chocolate peanut butter cups are de rigeur in this house. I always do Nigella’s Chocolate Fruit Cake for Christmas as it wildly appeals to the lazier aspects of my character. Not to mention, the ease of preparation is particularly welcome at this time of year. However, change can be a good thing, and since I had dates screaming to be used, I decided to try a very different kind of cake. One full of dates, dried fruit, heaps of citrus juice and zest, ground ginger, crystallised ginger, spices and brushed with a ginger infused syrup. A perfect seasonal overload in one cake. For all that weight, the result is light, still comfortingly Christmas spiced in flavour, with a candy peel tang (without the vile things themselves) and happily keeps for two weeks. While Nigella’s cake is unashamedly rich and bursting with intense fruit flavours, this cake displays more restraint, flavour layers and as a result, is more elegant.
Annie Rigg, the author of Gifts from the Kitchen, suggests making one large cake, which you cut into squares and decorate individually to gift to people. I had some leftover fondant and covered mine in two designs, the bow and ribbon being a direct inspiration from the photo in the book and the other, slightly Middle Eastern theme is aided by the Wilton mold that my friend gifted to me. Considering that Jesus of Nazareth was born in the Middle east, I felt the notion wasn’t too strange. It’s definitely more in keeping with Doha, than the universally accepted snowflake and Christmas tree motifs.
A fair few things have been ticked off the checklist. Tree and decorations are up (by the 1st at The Scotsman’s insistence), a clear out of the ‘stuff’ every family seems to accumulate over the year has been accomplished (at my demand) and I have my Christmas linen freshly pressed. There is still the gift wrap and sticky tape wrestling match to look forward to but I am not thinking about that just yet! The other equally important list is food based and the cakes at least, have been crossed out. Onto the next!
In the meantime, have a great Christmas!
Date and Ginger Cake
For the Cake
200g ready to eat stoned dates
4 knobs of stem ginger in syrup
grated zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
grated zest and juice of 1 orange
5 tablespoons of ginger wine
250g plain flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons mixed spice
75g ground almonds
250g unsalted butter, softened
125g light muscovado sugar
125g dark muscovado sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons milk
Prepare the dry ingredients the day before you plan to bake the cake. Chop the dates into pieces roughly the same size as a sultana ( I found scissors the best tool for the job) and finely chop the stem ginger. Mix the dates, stem ginger, sultanas, raisins in a large bowl with the grated lemon and orange zests and juice. Add the ginger wine, mix well and cover with cling film to steep and absorb the liquid overnight.
Preheat the oven to 150 deg C. Place your shelf slightly lower than the middle of the oven if you can. Butter a 23cm cake tin and line the base and sides with a double thickness of baking paper.
Sift the flour, baking powder, the mixed spice and ground ginger and add the ground almonds.
Cream the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy. Add the beaten eggs one by one, starting on a low speed and moving to higher speed. Beat well between additions. Should the mixture be curdled, att a tablespoon of the sifted flour, add the egg and continue till everything is incorporated.
Using a large metal spoon or spatula fold in the sifted ingredients, add thh dried fruits and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the milk and mix again. Spoon the thick batter into the tin and level with an offset palate or spoon.
Bake for 11/2 hours, cover the top loosely with a sheet of baking paper halfway through baking time. When a skewer inserted into the middle brings out a moist crumb, the cake is cooked.
Let the cake sit in the tin on a wire rack for 20 minutes before turning out to cool completely on the wire rack.
For the Lemon and Ginger Syrup
3 tablespoons ginger syrup, from the stem ginger jar
2 tablespoons demerera sugar
juice of 1/2 a lemon
juice of 1/2 and orange
5 tablespoons of brand or ginger wine
While the cake is baking, get on with the syrup. Put all the ingredients into a small saucepan and place over a medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for 5 minutes to reduce it by a third. Take it off the heat and set aside to cool
Once the cake has had 20 minutes in it’s tin on the wire rack, brush the syrup all over the top of the cake and leave to cool completely. Wrap well in clingfilm until ready to ice and decorate.
This cake will remain fine in an airtight container for 2 weeks.
Portion the cake equally to get 9 squares. Cover with marzipan and leave to dry out for a couple of days. Then cover with fondant and decorate with Christmas cookie fondant cut outs. Leave to dry for a day or two and its ready to gift!