Late to bake your Christmas cake? Try this easy last minute recipe.

My old recipe book - but the recipe is even older.

Every single year I swear I'll make my Christmas cake early and every single year I don't. But if you're the same - fear not. Because with this old recipe that my Leeds Irish mum used to use, it doesn't matter. Above is the recipe that I copied out from my mum, back in the 1970s, in an excellent baking book that my aunt gave me one Christmas. But the recipe is much older than that. And as for the tin ... well, that's a treasured metal 'Progress' cake tin, a large, deep, heavy tin, that seems to date from the 1930s, so not only was it my mum's but probably my nana's as well.

The secret to this cake lies in the way you soak the fruit, and the way you soak the fruit relies on the kind of 'too busy to get this done' attitude that characterises most of my baking and means that, to use a good Scots expression, I'm 'aye at the coo's tail'. The recipe is written in old measurements, but it's easy enough to make the conversion, and besides, it's the kind of recipe that doesn't rely on precision at all, as long as you get it reasonably right. I never weigh anything with this one. I just use tablespoons and teaspoons.

Here's what you do:

You take 2lbs of mixed dried fruit. But a kilo (which is just a little more) will do fine. Put it in a bowl and squeeze into it the juice of one or two good oranges. I used navel oranges that are excellent at this time of year and very juicy. Grate some zest of the orange into the fruit as well, but be careful not to go into the bitter pith. You can add lemon juice as well if you like. Then, slosh into it a good measure of brandy or whisky. It really doesn't matter which. If you use whisky, you can add a glass of Crabbie's Green Ginger as well, for good measure, but this year I stuck to brandy. Be quite generous. Then, cover the bowl and leave it well alone for a few days, stirring it occasionally. This is where procrastination comes in handy. I have been known to leave this for more than a week. The brandy means that it doesn't go 'off'. Slowly but surely the fruit absorbs the juice and the alcohol.

Soaking fruit.
When you're ready to bake your cake, line a large deep cake tin with lots of buttered greaseproof paper on the bottom and round the inside. I use several layers. Your aim is to be able to bake the cake slowly, without it burning much round the sides.

Take a tub of glace cherries, about 100 or 150 grams, the sticky kind, put them in a sieve, rinse them and then pat them dry with kitchen towel. The recipe calls for 4 ounces, but you can add more if you like.

In a big bowl, using a wooden spoon or a hand held mixer, cream together 8 ounces of butter (or a 250 gram block in the UK) and 8 ounces of soft dark brown sugar. That's the one that looks fudgy, rather than crystalline. I measure 8 rounded (not heaped) tablespoons of sugar and that usually does the trick. NB It HAS to be butter. Margarine will not do.

In a small bowl, beat four large eggs together with a good teaspoon of vanilla extract. Real extract if you can get it, rather than essence.

In another bowl, measure out approximately ten heaped tablespoons of fine plain cake flour, and sift or mix this with a teaspoon of baking powder (not too much - this is not a cake that rises!) another flat teaspoon of mixed spice and half a teaspoon of finely grated nutmeg. I buy nutmegs whole and grate them myself. Don't overdo the nutmeg. It's powerful stuff. Once again, feel free to change this to suit your own taste. Some people use cinnamon but I find it can be a bit overpowering.

I don't recommend doing the next bit in a mixer. What I do recommend is that you wash your hands thoroughly, and mix it literally by hand. This is what my mum always did, and my nana before her.

Slowly but surely, add the beaten eggs, a little at a time, to the sugar and butter mixture, along with the flour mixture. Don't worry if it begins to curdle a little. Just add more flour. Into this gorgeous mixture tip the whole of the soaked fruit, the cherries, and a tablespoon of dark treacle (molasses) and mix well again by hand. If you have some chopped angelica, you can add that as well. Some years, I add a couple of tablespoons of ground almonds, but that's an optional extra and the cake is fine without it.

Make a wish. It's traditional.

Swathed in tinfoil.
You'll see that the recipe above calls for milk as well, but if your fruit and brandy mixture is very juicy, you won't need it. What you are looking for is quite a stiff consistency. The spoon should stand up in it. If you think it's too stiff, add a little milk, but don't overdo it. Spoon the mixture evenly into the tin, pressing it down well. Cover the top of the cake very loosely with buttered greaseproof paper.

At this point you have some options. I used to tie layers of newspaper round the tin, with more on top, but this always meant that the whole kitchen smelled of slightly singed newspaper for several hours. One year, I experimented with tinfoil, and found that to be much better. Once again, you are trying to stop the cake from burning around the sides. I tie a folded layer around the side of the tin with ordinary garden string, and I put a piece on the top as well. And I also stand the cake tin on a flat oven tray.

Heat your oven to no more than 150 degrees celsius. Old gas mark 2. The trick is to bake it in a slow oven, at 150 C for an hour and a half to two hours, and then turn it down to around 100 C for another hour and a half, and for the last hour even lower. The cake below took between four and five hours. For the last hour or so of baking, remove the greaseproof and tinfoil from the top. If you're not sure that it is baked inside, insert a skewer into the centre a couple of times. If it comes out clean, the cake is done. If it's sticky, it needs more time. If you have an Aga or similar, you will know what to do to give it a long, slow baking time. One proviso though - ovens are quirky things and some are hotter than others. If yours errs on the hot side, you'll need to adjust accordingly.

Once the oven is down very low, you can actually switch it off altogether and leave the cake to cool down in the oven overnight. When it is quite cool, insert your skewer into it a few more times, and pour over some more brandy. Store it wrapped in fresh greaseproof paper in a cake tin. It will be good enough to eat within a few days, but obviously better if you can wait longer. It should keep till Easter and beyond if need be. If it is a little 'overcooked' around the edges, and you are going to ice it, remember that you can cut off the burned bits, or even grate them off carefully. Lots of cooks do.

I'll put marzipan and icing on mine later, but this is a wonderful cake just as a plain 'store cupboard' fruit cake all year round and a little goes a long way. My grandad used to eat it in the traditional Yorkshire way, with slices of Wensleydale cheese, and so do I, if I haven't iced it. Try it. You'll be surprised how delicious it is.