Christmas Baking


Can you imagine I got my first Christmas card on the third of November, that has to be a record….Christmas is creeping up on us, not slowly but with great speed and even though we may long to opt out of the whole palaver or hide away until all the frenzy is over. It’s simply not an option, so once again, we’ll enter into the spirit of the season wholeheartedly. If you’re thinking of serving a fine free range turkey or goose for Christmas dinner, put in your order right away. Beautifully reared organic and free range birds are difficult to source for various reasons not least the lack of slaughtering facilities and support for artisan poultry producers – can you imagine that  we don’t have one single poultry instructor in Ireland at present despite the craving for a product we can trust with a memorable flavour. Order a fine fat ham too from a free range heritage pig producer, this kind of food costs much more that the food of the same  name on the supermarket counter shelf. Often twice the price but it does take much longer to rear with much more expensive GM free and organic feed.

When those orders are in, you may want to make a plump juicy Christmas cake and a couple of gorgeous crumbly plum puddings. Despite the mystique neither are difficult to make. So allocate an afternoon. Buy top quality dried fruit, real crystallized cherries (those bright red ones are fake, most were never near a cherry in real life) and candied peel. We make our own which may seem to be a step too far – I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but a lot of the chopped candied peel is also fake, made from a gelatinous product rather than citrus peel.

So here’s the recipe, you can make it slowly over several days, it’s a brilliant way to use up left over orange,  lemon and lime peel and of course it makes a lovely present for foodie friends who can use it in cakes or puddings or simply dipped in chocolate as a petit four or sweetmeat.

Even though a lovely moist Christmas cake is a great stand by, not everyone wants a big cake. My favourite Christmas cake can be made in a 9 inch round or 2 x 7 inch tins. The second one will make a welcome present for busy friends.. We also make some ‘little dotes”, 4 inch cakes as presents for older friends who love a little cake but don’t want anything too large which lingers on after Christmas making them feel a tad guilty.

Stir about Sunday is on the last Sunday before Advent, Sunday November 22nd, but even if we have missed that why not gather up some of your kids and their friends and create an exciting party atmosphere around the making of the Christmas cake and pudding. Everyone can help, lining the tin, make a wish as they stir the pudding and cake and best of all you’ll be passing on the cooking skills to another generation. For the many who feel making a Christmas cake, a pudding, mincemeat is beyond them believe me the pudding and mincemeat are simply a matter of mixing ingredients in a bowl, hardly ‘rocket science’ for even the least undomesticated goddess.


Hot Tips

Nash 19 are now taking orders for their Christmas Hampers. Don’t forget their plum pudding packed with delicious fruit and whole cherries. Claire Nash will be in Terroirs on Morehampton Road in Dublin on Saturday 5th December from 12 noon with her plum puddings, call in to taste a juicy morsel. Contact Claire or Mairead on 021 4270880 or email

Country Choice in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, huge stocks of ingredients for Christmas baking have arrived.  Peter Ward sources supberb  quality dried fruit, nuts and real cherries. He also has a stall at the Milk Market in Limerick every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Phone 067 32596 or

Looking for a special Christmas present, don’t forget Ballymaloe Cookery School vouchers can be tailored in a variety of ways to create the perfect gift for the food lover or garden enthusiast in your life! Cooking is one of the most important skills a person can learn and the best bit is the Cookery School vouchers last indefinitely.

Fishy Fishy restaurant in Kinsale is hosting a series of Pop Up lunches over the coming months. Noel McMeel of Lough Erne Resort will create a special 5 course lunch on Wednesday 9th December. Tickets are €50 and can be booked or 021 4700415

Just discovered a brilliant new source of free range duck. Jacqui Mason who comes from Heredforshire in the UK, found it difficult to find good duck when she came over to Ireland so she decided to rear some duck herself and  now rears 75 free range Alysbury ducks every week and sells them to local restaurants and butchers (quite different from ‘farm fresh’) including Jack McCarthy Butchers, Kanturk, O’ Sullivans Poultry at the English Market


087 22 33113



Candied Peel 

The fruit used in this recipe should be organic if possible; otherwise scrub the peel very well. Use just one citrus fruit, or a mixture of all three.

5 organic unwaxed oranges

5 organic unwaxed lemons

5 organic unwaxed grapefruit

1 teaspoon salt

1.3kg (3lb) sugar


Cut the fruits in half and squeeze out the juice. Reserve the juice for another use, such as homemade lemonade. Put the halves of fruit into a large bowl (not aluminium), add the salt and cover with cold water. Leave to soak for 24 hours.

Next day, discard the soaking water, put the fruit in a saucepan and cover with fresh cold water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer very gently until the peel is soft, about 3 hours. Remove the fruit and discard the water. Scrape out any remaining flesh and membranes from inside the cut fruit, leaving the white pith and rind intact. Slice the peel into long strips or leave whole if you prefer.

Dissolve the sugar in 700ml (11⁄4 pints) of water, bring to the boil, add the peel and simmer gently for about 30–60 minutes, until it looks translucent and the syrup forms a thread when the last drop falls off a metal spoon. Remove the candied peel with a slotted spoon and fill into sterilised glass jars. Pour the syrup over the peel, cover and store in a cold place or in a fridge. It should keep for 6–8 weeks, or longer under refrigeration.



In Caster Sugar

Spread the peel on a baking tray  and leave to sit for 30–60 minutes to cool and dry out. Then toss the peel in caster sugar and store in covered glass jars until needed.


To Nibble

Cut the candied peel into 5mm–1cm (1⁄4–1⁄2 in) slices, roll in caster sugar and serve with coffee.


Chocolate Candied Orange

Dip the strips of candied orange peel into melted dark chocolate. Arrange individually on a sheet of silicone paper and leave to set.


Ballymaloe Mincemeat

This is still my favourite mincemeat recipe.

Makes 3.2 kilos approx. Makes 8-9 pots.


2 cooking apples, eg. Bramley Seedling

2 organic lemons

450g (1lb) beef suet, (see below)

pinch of salt

110g (4oz) mixed peel (preferably homemade)

2 tablespoons (2 American tablespoons + 2 teaspoons) Seville orange marmalade

225g (8oz) currants

450g (1lb) sultanas

790g (1lb 12oz) Barbados sugar (moist, soft, dark-brown)

62ml (2 1/2fl oz/generous 1/4 cup) Irish whiskey


Core and bake the whole apples in a moderate oven, 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, for 30 minutes approx. Allow to cool.  When they are soft, remove the skin and mash the flesh into pulp.  Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of a stainless steel grater and squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp.  Add the other ingredients one by one, and as they are added, mix everything thoroughly.  Put into sterilized jars, cover and leave to mature for 2 weeks before using.  This mincemeat will keep for a year in a cool, airy place.


How to make  Beef Suet

Suet comes from the fat that protects the beef kidney. Suet and tallow (the rendered suet) had fallen out of favour, but chips fried in suet and potatoes roasted in it are lovely. The flavour is much better and, incidentally, beef tallow has more vitamin B and despite its reputation is considerably better for you than cheap, trans-fat ridden cooking oils. People now make plum puddings with butter because they’re so paranoid of eating the wrong kinds of fat, but I’m still a great fan of the traditional plum puddings made in the classic way with suet, as they have a better flavour and texture. Serve these on hot plates, though, because if suet congeals it’s distinctly unappetising. Many sweet puddings can be made with suet, such as Plum Pudding (see recipe).

One can buy suet ready-prepared in packets but it’s very easy to do it yourself at home. Your butcher will probably give you the suet for free because there is so little demand.  Coeliacs need to be aware that ready-prepared suet usually contains white flour.

Strictly speaking, beef dripping is the fat and the meat juices that render out of a joint of roast beef while it’s cooking, whereas suet or tallow is fat just rendered from fat surrounding the beef kidney. However, nowadays the term ‘dripping’ is colloquially used to refer to all of these.


Suet – How to Prepare

To prepare suet, start by asking your butcher for the fat that surrounds beef kidneys.

Remove and discard the papery membrane and any red veins or fragments of meat. If you’re not meticulous about this, these bits will deteriorate and the suet won’t keep properly. The fat will separate into natural divisions. Chop it coarsely and either mince or whizz it in a food-processor for a minute or two until it’s evenly grainy (years ago, people used to grate suet on a simple box grater). Refrigerate and use within a couple of days, but if it has been properly trimmed it will keep for weeks in a fridge.


BMaloe Plum Pudding

Mummy’s Plum Pudding with Mrs. Hanrahan’s Sauce

It has always been the tradition in our house to eat the first plum pudding on the evening it is made.   The grandchildren can hardly contain themselves with excitement – somehow that plum pudding seems the most delicious, it’s our first taste of Christmas.   The plum pudding can be made from about mid-November onwards. Everyone in the family helps to stir so we can all make a wish.

Its fun to put silver plum pudding charms in the pudding destined to be eaten on Christmas Day.  Wrap them individually in silicone paper so they are bulky and clearly visible.

This recipe makes 2 large or 3 medium puddings.  The large size will serve 10-12 people, the medium 6-8 but I also like to make teeny weeny ones.


12oz (350g/2 cups) raisins

12oz (350g/2 cups) sultanas

12oz (350g/2 cups) currants

10oz (300g/1cups) brown sugar

12oz (350g/6 cups) white breadcrumbs (non GM)

12oz (350g/3 cups) finely-chopped beef suet

4oz (110g/ cup) diced candied peel (preferably home-made)

2 Bramley cooking apples, coarsely grated

4oz (110g/3/4 cup) chopped almonds

rind of 1 lemon

3 pounded cloves (1/2 teaspoon)

a pinch of salt

6 eggs

2 1/2 fl oz (62ml/generous 1/4 cup) Jamaica Rum


Mix all the ingredients together very thoroughly and leave overnight; don’t forget, everyone in the family must stir and make a wish!  Next day stir again for good measure.  Fill into pudding bowls; cover with a double thickness of greaseproof paper which has been pleated in the centre, and tie it tightly under the rim with cotton twine, making a twine handle also for ease of lifting.

Steam in a covered saucepan of boiling water for 6 hours.  The water should come half way up the side of the bowl.  Check every hour or so and top up with boiling water if necessary.  After 5 hours, 3 hours, 2 hours depending on the size, remove the pudding.   Allow to get cold and re-cover with fresh greaseproof paper.  Store in a cool dry place until required.

On Christmas Day or whenever you wish to serve the plum pudding, steam for a further 2 hours.  Turn the plum pudding out of the bowl onto a very hot serving plate, pour over some whiskey or brandy and ignite.  Serve immediately on very hot plates with Brandy Butter.

You might like to decorate the plum pudding with a sprig of holly; but take care not to set the holly on fire – as well as the pudding!


Mrs. Hanrahan’s Sauce

This recipe is so delicious that people ask to have more Plum Pudding just so that they can have an excuse to eat lots of sauce.  This makes a large quantity but the base will keep for several weeks in the fridge, so you can use a little at a time, adding whipped cream to taste.


4oz (110g/1 stick) butter

7oz (200g/scant 1 cup) Barbados sugar  (moist, soft, dark-brown sugar)

1 organic free-range egg

2 1/2 fl oz (62ml/generous 1/4 cup) medium sherry

2 1/2 fl oz (62ml/generous 1/4 cup) port

2 1/4-2 1/2 pints (1.3-1.4L/5 5/8-6 1/4 cups) lightly whipped cream


Melt the butter, stir in the sugar and allow to cool slightly.  Whisk the egg and add to the butter and sugar with the sherry and port.  Refrigerate.

When needed, add the lightly whipped cream to taste.

This sauce is also very good with mince pies and other tarts.


Children's Christmas Cake
Children’s Christmas Cake

Darina Allen’s Iced Christmas Cake

This makes a moist cake which keeps very well. It can either be made months ahead or, if you are frenetically busy then it will still be delish even if made just a few days before Christmas – believe me I know!.

Serves about 40


110g (4oz) real glacé cherries

50g (2oz) whole almonds

350g (12oz) best-quality sultanas

350g (12oz) best-quality currants

350g (12oz) best-quality raisins

110g (4oz) homemade candied peel (see recipe)

50g (2oz) ground almonds

zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon

zest of 1 organic unwaxed orange

60ml (21⁄2 fl oz/generous 1/4 cup) Irish whiskey

225g (8oz/2 sticks) butter

225g (8oz/1 cup) pale, soft-brown sugar or golden caster sugar

6 organic eggs

275g (10oz) flour

1 teaspoon mixed spice

1 large or 2 small Bramley seedling apples, grated


Line the base and sides of a 23cm (9 inch) round, or 20cm (8 inch) square tin with a double thickness of silicone paper. Then tie a double layer of brown paper around the outside of the tin. Have a sheet of brown or silicone paper to lay on top of the tin during cooking.

Wash the cherries and dry them gently. Cut in two or four as desired. Blanch the almonds in boiling water for 1–2 minutes, then rub off the skins and chop them finely. Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon zest. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.


Preheat the oven to 160°C/ 325°F/gas mark 3.

Cream the butter until very soft. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Whisk the eggs and add in bit by bit, beating well between each addition so that the mixture doesn’t curdle. Mix the mixed spice with the flour and stir gently into the butter mixture. Add the grated cooking apple to the plumped up fruit and stir into the butter mixture gently but thoroughly (don’t beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake).

Put the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Make a slight hollow in the centre, dip your hand in water and pat it over the surface of the cake – this will ensure that the top is smooth when cooked.

Now lay a double sheet of brown paper on top of the cake to protect the surface from the direct heat. Bake for 1 hour. Then reduce the heat to 150°C/300°F/gas mark 2 and bake for a further 21⁄2 hours, until cooked; test in the centre with a skewer – it should come out completely clean. Pour the remainder of the whiskey over the cake and leave it to cool in the tin.

Next day, remove the cake from the tin. Do not remove the lining paper but wrap the cake in some extra greaseproof paper and tin foil until required.

Store in a cool, dry place; the longer the cake is stored the more mature it will be.


Almond Paste and Cake Icing

I ice the Christmas cake above with almond icing and decorate it with heart shapes made from the almond paste. Then I brush it with whisked egg yolk and pop it in the oven – simply delicious!.


Serves about 40


450g (1lb/2 cups) golden caster sugar

450g (1lb) ground almonds

2 small organic eggs

2 tablespoons (2 American tablespoons + 2 teaspoons) Irish whiskey

a drop of pure almond extract


For Brushing on the Cake

1 organic egg white, lightly whisked, or sieved apricot jam


For the Fondant Icing

1 packet fondant (450g/1lb)


Sieve the caster sugar and mix with the ground almonds. Whisk the eggs, add the whiskey and 1 drop of almond extract, then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste. (You may not need all of the egg).

Sprinkle the worktop with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth.

Remove the paper from the cake. To make life easier for yourself, put a sheet of greaseproof paper onto the worktop and dust with some icing sugar. Take about half the almond paste and roll it out on the paper: it should be a little less than 1cm (1⁄2 inch) thick.

Paint the top of the cake with the egg white or apricot jam and put the cake, sticky-side down, onto the almond paste. Give the cake a thump to ensure it sticks and then cut around the edge. If the cake is a little round-shouldered, cut the almond paste a little larger; pull away the extra bits and keep for later to make hearts or holly leaves. Use a palette knife to press the extra almond paste in against the top of the cake and fill any gaps. Then slide a knife underneath the cake or, better still, underneath the paper and turn the cake the right way up. Peel off the greaseproof paper.

Then roll out 2 long strips of almond paste: trim an edge to the height of the cake with a palette knife. Paint both the cake and the almond paste lightly with egg white or apricot jam. Then press the strip against the sides of the cake: do not overlap or there will be a bulge with the uneven edge upwards. Trim the excess almond paste with a long-bladed knife and keep for decoration and to make almond biscuits. Use a straight-sided water glass to even the edges and smooth the join. Then rub the cake well with your hand to ensure a nice flat surface.

Leave in a cool, dry place for a few days to allow the almond paste to dry out; otherwise the oil in the almonds will seep through the fondant icing.


To fondant ice.

Sprinkle a little icing sugar onto the worktop.

Roll out the sheet of fondant to a thickness of a scant 5mm (1⁄4 inch).

Paint the cake with egg white or apricot jam, then gently lift the sheet of icing and lay it over the top of the cake so it drapes evenly over the sides.

Press out any air bubbles with your hands, then trim the base. Decorate as you wish. We use a little posy of winter leaves and berries including crab apples, elderberries, rosemary, old man’s beard and viburnum.

That’s just one option. You could also add simple shapes stamped out of the remaining fondant icing – stars, holly leaves, Santa’s – to produce an impressive result. If you are really creative, the fondant may be coloured using edible food colouring and then you and all the family can really have fun!



Toasted Almond Christmas Cake

If you’d rather not have fondant icing, the almond paste can be toasted and will keep just as well and be irresistible to nibble. Roll out the remainder of the almond paste to about 5mm (1⁄4in) thick. Stamp out star shapes, paint the whole surface of the cake with whisked egg yolk and stick the star shapes at intervals around the sides of the cake and on top. Brush these with egg yolk also.


Preheat the oven to 220°C/ 425°F/gas mark 7.

Carefully lift the cake onto a baking tray and bake for 15–20 minutes or until just slightly toasted. Remove from the oven, leave to cool and then transfer onto a cake board.

Decorate with sprigs of holly and a dusting of icing sugar, though you may feel that holly leaves and berries made of almond paste would be more appropriate for Christmas!


‘Little Dote’ Christmas Cakes

Makes 8 little cakes


225g (8oz) butter

225g (8oz) pale soft brown sugar

6 eggs

285g (10z) flour

1 teaspoon mixed spice

35ml (2½ fl.oz) Irish whiskey

340g (12oz) best-quality sultanas

340g (12oz) best-quality currants

340g (12oz) best-quality raisins

110g (4oz) cherries

110g (4oz) homemade candied peel

55g (2oz) ground almonds

55g (2oz) whole almonds

Rind of 1 lemon

Rind of 1 orange

1 large or 2 small Bramley Seedling apples, grated


Grease and line 8 tins 4 inch (10cm) diameter x 1½ inch (4cm) deep.  (We used springform tins from the Ballymaloe Shop)

Wash the cherries and dry them.   Cut in two or four as desired.   Blanch the almonds in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, rub off the skins and chop them finely.  Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon rind.  Add about half the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.

Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/gas 3.

Cream the butter until very soft, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.  Whisk the eggs and add in bit by bit, beating well between each addition so that the mixture doesn’t curdle.  Mix the spice with the flour and stir in gently.  Add the grated apple to the fruit and mix in gently but thoroughly (don’t beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake.)

Divide the mixture between the 8 prepared tins.  Make a slight hollow in the centre, dip your hand in water and pat it over the surface of each cake: this will ensure that the top is smooth when cooked.  Put into the preheated oven, bake at 160C/325F/gas 3, for 1½ hours – until cooked; test in the centre with a skewer – it should come out clean.  Pour the rest of the whiskey over the cakes and leave to cool in the tins.

Next day remove from the tins.  Do not remove the lining paper but wrap in some extra greaseproof paper and tin foil until required.


To ice the cakes –

To brush on the cake:

1 egg white, lightly beaten


Almond Paste – to ice the tops of the cakes

8oz (225g) ground almonds

8oz (225g) castor sugar

1 small egg

A tiny drop of pure almond essence

1 tablesp Irish whiskey


Sieve the castor sugar and mix with the ground almonds.  Beat the egg, add the whiskey and 1 tiny drop of pure almond essence, then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste.  (You may not need all the egg.) Sprinkle the worktop with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth.

Remove the paper from the cakes.

Put a sheet of greaseproof paper onto the worktop, dust with some icing sugar.  Roll the almond paste out on the paper; it should be a little less than ½ inch (1cm) thick.  Paint the top of each cake with the lightly beaten egg white and put the cake, sticky side down onto the almond paste.  Make sure the almond paste sticks to the cake and then cut around the edge and tidy and smooth the almond paste.   For the ‘little dotes’ we just iced the top of the cakes.

Leave to dry overnight before applying Royal or Fondant Icing.


Royal Icing

1lb (450g) icing sugar

2 egg whites

2 teasp. Strained lemon juice

Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl just until they begin to froth; then add the sieved icing sugar by the tablespoonful, beating well between each addition.  If you are making the icing in a electric mixer, use the lowest speed. When all the icing sugar has been incorporated, add the lemon juice, and if you would like a slightly soft icing, add a few drops of glycerine.   Beat until the icing reaches stiff peaks; scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Cover the bowl with a damp cloth for 1 hour or until you are ready to use the icing.

With a flexible palette knife, smear the icing over the top of each cake.   To achieve a snow-scene effect dab the palette knife onto the cake at irregular intervals so the icing comes up in little peaks.  While the icing is still wet, stick on some Christmas Cake decorations, eg Santas, Christmas trees and robins or if you prefer use some frosted fruits or flowers.

If you like you could tie a ribbon or cake frill around the edges of the cakes.


About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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