If you’re celebrating the queen’s jubilee or any other British event (the London Olympics?), you’ll want a special cake as a centre piece and what could be better than an Empire cake?
Boiled fruit cakes were a particularly popular dish in the war years – and the years of rationing after World War II – when British families had limited amounts of sugar, dried fruit and fats and often had to save up a whole month’s supply to make a special occasion cake for a birthday or wedding. The wartime cakes often had ingredients we would consider pretty strange: mashed beetroot could be used to give a deeper colour to a cake, when dried fruit was not available, and potato flour was often used to bulk up a cake, although it generally didn’t contribute anything much to the taste!
Post War Cakes
The post-war cakes were often familiarly known as ‘Empire Cake’ as the ingredients could be varied depending on what dried fruits were available on ration in any given week after the various blockades ended and ships arrived from Empire ports, bearing foods that some young children had never seen before such as bananas, dried figs and pineapples.
What Kind of Cake is Empire Cake?
Empire Cake recipes are generally adapted from older versions of a similar process which resulted in cakes like the famous Dundee cake or the seed cakes that were sent to boys who were in boarding school. Such cakes were dense and rich, highly calorific, and easy to transport as they did not crumble or crack. They also had excellent keeping qualities, which could be important in an era when boys slept in unheated dormitories and were fed on unappetising and non-nutritious foods such as bread and milk and gruel.
Today’s boiled fruit cakes are often last minute cakes – ideal for the cook who’s forgotten to make a Christmas cake, for example, as they are rich and succulent without needing the long standing that melds the flavours of a traditional dried fruit cake. They are also very good for those who cannot tolerate alcohol, as these cakes do not need to be bound with brandy or rum nor spiked with it afterwards to keep them moist and well-preserved.
How to Make Empire Cake
An Empire Cake is an ideal street party treat to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, and is much simpler to make than it might appear.
- 310 grams chopped dried mixed fruit
- 90 grams preserved cherries, roughly chopped (the darker the cherries, the better the finished cake will look, try to find French rather than glace cherries for the best colour)
- 90 grams mixed peel (if it is in strips, chop it fairly finely)
- 60 grams walnut pieces
- 150 grams caster sugar
- 150 grams light brown sugar
- 170 grams butter
- 235 ml milk
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon minced fresh or preserved ginger
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- 335 grams sifted self-rising flour
- 2 eggs
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the mixed fruit, cherries, citrus peel, walnuts, sugars, butter, milk, spices, and bicarbonate of soda. Bring to the boil, and immediately reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer, stirring continuously, for five minutes. The mixture will froth and rise, owing to the bicarbonate, so when you are choosing your saucepan, ensure it has as much free volume above the ingredients as the ingredients take up in the pan, or it may boil over. When stirring, also make sure you get into the very corners of the pan, or you can find that fruit will tend to scorch if it doesn’t get moved around.
Let the mixture cool to room temperature, during which time you can prepare the cake tin. Use a 22 cm x 22 cm square tin, or a round one of similar dimensions. Oil the tin and line the base and sides with baking paper. Ensure the paper rises at least 5cm above the sides of the tin. Preheat your oven to 325ºF, 160ºC, 140ºC for fan ovens, or use an Aga (details below).
When the ingredients are at room temperature, stir in the flour and eggs and pour into the tin. Bake for forty minutes, then reduce the temperature to 300ºF (150ºC, 130ºC for fan oven), for a further hour. Check the cake to see if the top is browning too much. If it is, either safety pin the sides of the baking paper together over the top of the cake, if the paper is tall enough, or lay a piece of baking parchment over the top of the cake to stop it browning, and continue cooking for a further thirty minutes.
Remove the cake tin from the oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack, remove paper, and leave to cool completely before decorating.
Make the cake in the evening and leave it to cook in a low oven with a small pan of water below it, all night. In the morning check with a skewer and if the middle still seems a little moist, put it into a standard oven for about ten minutes at 300ºF (150ºC, 130ºC for fan oven) to finish it off completely.
A completely cooled cake is easy to decorate. Either ice it with marzipan and royal icing or, for a more modern twist, use a fruit and nut glaze to give a natural look to your cake.
- 3 tablespoons redcurrant jelly
- 2 tablespoon pineapple or apple juice
- Glace or preserved fruits and nuts
Heat the jelly and juice together in a small pan or in the microwave, whisking until they are completely combined and very hot. Brush onto the top of the cake, reserving about half the mixture.
Arrange dried fruits and nuts on the cake, either using a symmetrical pattern or an abstract design, and then reheat the remaining glaze and brush it over your pattern. You can finish by sprinkling some sesame seeds or linseed on the finished cake, to add a final contrast of colour and texture. Store in a sealed container, and it will keep for a month.
To chop preserved or dried fruit, lightly oil the blade of your knife with sunflower oil, it will help stop the sugar coating the blade and becoming sticky.