Ben Shewry isn’t mad at me, he’s just disappointed.

Like many, I’ve made the mistake of confusing Christmas pudding – steamed, dense, often served with custard – for Christmas cake: baked, carpet-bombed with fruit, carefully aged and, in Shewry’s opinion, far superior to the ubiquitous Christmas pud.

“The cake is head and shoulders above the pudding,” says Shewry, after correcting my gaff. “I mean, the pudding is also delicious, but the cake is where it’s at. From a technical level, it’s a lot more difficult to make a really great cake than it is a pudding because the pudding is being steamed in all this moisture for hours and can’t be stuffed up. If you bake a bad Christmas cake, all of your personal flaws will show through.”

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Like tacos, fried rice and any other dishes Shewry is passionate about, the Attica chef-owner harbours strong feelings on what constitutes a good Christmas cake. It should be dark. (“Light Christmas cakes are bullshit. I’m not even going to talk about those”). It should be boozy. (This year, he’s enriching his Christmas cake with Tasmanian Lark whisky). It should definitely not be iced. (“Icing is for wedding cakes. There’s a big difference between Christmas and weddings and the two shouldn’t be confused”). But more than anything, it should be homemade.

“You can buy a Christmas cake, but even those boutique ones tend to be disappointing,” he says. “It’s also a lot more affordable to make it yourself. They’re also straightforward to make.”

Shewry should know. Before he was running one of Australia’s best restaurants, he was employed as sous chef at government house in New Zealand. Shewry would often bake up to 50 Christmas cakes a year, so he understands the finer points of Christmas cake production.

In addition to sharing his master recipe for Christmas cake, he’s also given Broadsheet readers some pointers to steer us towards Christmas-cake enlightenment. First, a cake rises and falls on the quality of its ingredients, so don’t skimp when it comes time to fill your shopping basket, both in terms of baking staples – cultured butter, good quality brown sugar, eggs from happy chooks – and fruit.

“If you’re going to the supermarket to buy your fruit, that’s fine, but don’t buy the dollar brand because you’re not going to get a good result from that,” he says. “If you’re not buying fruit from a farmer’s market or from a source you know, buy the fruit that’s in boxes, not in plastic bags. The boxed fruit in general is a little bit more premium.”

Buying a fruit mix is a no-no (“That’s like using the sweepings from a factory floor,” says Shewry). But soaking your fruit in brandy the day before you start baking? That’s a big yes, as is personalising your cake and cake mix to reflect your tastes. (Mixed peel, believes Shewry, is a key component as it stops the cake from being too sweet). Finally, when it does come time to eat your Christmas cake, less is more: think fingers of cake rather than thick wedges a la chocolate sponge cake.

Although Shewry believes all Christmas cake is delicious, he says the best Christmas cake needs time to age. Ideally, it’s a project that should be started in September to give it ample time to develop and ripen but even a day-old homemade Christmas cake will reward home bakers: custard not necessary.

“I like to make my Christmas cake six weeks before Christmas and ‘feed’ it with spirits weekly. To do so by inserting a bamboo skewer into the top of the cake every 2cm to about half the depth of the cake. Pour or brush on whisky as you see fit. If you like a boozy Christmas cake (like me) then add about a shot each time for six weeks. Wrap cake in tin foil and store cake in an airtight container at room temp in a cool dark place,” he says.

Boozy christmas cake
Preparation time: 65 minutes, plus "feeding time" and
Cooking time: 4 hours, plus 24 hours to macerate

Ingredients
1 cup brandy, whisky, cognac or your favourite spirit, plus more for "feeding" your cake
375g dried quandongs
375g sultanas
250g raisins
125g currents
125g dried cranberries
125g mixed peel
450g tin crushed pineapple, drained
250g salted butter, softened
270g brown sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
1 tsp Heilala pure vanilla paste (can be replaced with 1 tsp pure vanilla essence)
40g your favourite marmalade
4 free range eggs
420g plain flour
Pinch salt
¼ tsp pepper berry
½ tsp dried, ground anise myrtle
½ tsp lemon myrtle
¼ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp mixed spice
Plus dried fruit and nuts of your choice to garnish the top of the cake (such as glace cherries, dried or candied pineapple and almonds)

Method
The day before you’re going to bake your cake combine all dried fruit, plus crushed pineapple in a large bowl and add whisky, mix well, cover and leave to macerate for 24 hours. If you forget this step or don’t have time, you can combine the fruit and whisky and gently warm in a saucepan for 15 minutes to plump up the dried fruit.

Preheat a fan forced oven to 140.C. Prepare a 20cm–22cm round cake tin by greasing and lining with two layers of baking paper. Make sure the baking paper rises about 7cm above the height of the cake tin. Sift flour and spices together.

Add the soft butter and brown sugar to a large bowl and, using an electric hand mixer or stand mixer, cream until pale. (If you don’t have an electric mixer just whip by hand.) Add the eggs one at a time, beating each in thoroughly. Add zests and marmalade to macerated fruit and combine well.

Add a quarter of the dry ingredients and a quarter of the fruit mix into the butter/egg mix and fold in. Repeat until all is added and well combined. Pour cake batter into lined cake tin. Use a spatula to smooth out the top. Decorate your cake with dried fruits and nuts.

Place the cake into the oven on a middle or lower rack. Bake for four hours or until a bamboo skewer comes out clean when inserted. Once cake is cooked remove from the oven.

Allow cake to completely cool before removing from the tin, do not remove the baking paper. Store in an airtight container with the baking paper attached.

Native Australian spices and fruits are available through Indigie Earth.

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