Christmas Recipe: Tipsy Cake

Annie Gray

This Victorian recipe, revived by renowned food historian Annie Gray, is perfect for Christmas, so give it a try.
Annie Gray's Tipsy Cake in all its glory
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Based on Eliza Acton, 1845, Modern Cookery

As a confirmed trifle-hater, I briefly considered putting a nice, savoury trifle in here, based on lobster in a fried bread cup. But honesty compels me to admit it is more of a croustade, and a cheat’s way out. If soggy, booze-imbibed cake is
your thing, here is the ultimate in the genre. Tipsy cake was the early nineteenth century’s build on trifle: just cake, alcohol and a token custard sauce. Those who dislike the jelly in modern trifles may well rejoice in this, therefore. The cake
used was a Savoy cake, a fatless sponge made in a highly decorative and tall mould with a characteristically flat top. It gave the dish a height lacking from more sloppy trifles, served in bowls, and marked the host out as having the kind of
kitchen which was stocked with copper moulds – and the kind of cook who could produce fancy sponges in slightly unpredictable ovens. Later recipes went even more over the top, reaching a sort of Tipsy Cake on hallucinogenic drugs, garnished liberally with ratafia biscuits, jam, cream, candied fruits and custard. Done in this way Tipsy Cake is jaw-dropping as a festive centrepiece. Even I have to admit that it is genuinely delicious.

Original recipe:

The old-fashioned mode of preparing this dish was to soak a light sponge or Savoy cake in as much good French brandy as it could absorb; then, to stick it full of blanched almonds cut into whole-length spikes, and to pour a rich cold boiled custard round

It is more usual now to pour white wine over the cake, or a mixture of wine and brandy; with this the juice of half a lemon is sometimes mixed.

Serves 10–12 (use a cake mould which holds 1.25–1.5 litres/2–3 pints)

For the Savoy Cake

Butter, plus a little flour and sugar, for lining the mould
120g/4oz flour
4 eggs
1 tsp lemon juice
160g/6oz caster sugar
The finely grated zest of 1 small lemon
To make the cake tipsy
75ml/2½fl oz white wine
150ml/5fl oz brandy (you could also use just brandy, or switch the wine and brandy for port, ginger wine, sherry, etc.)

For the Custard

3 egg yolks and 1 white
25g/1oz caster sugar
Orange flower water, to taste (you can also use vanilla)
300ml/½ pint full-fat milk
Optional (but wise): 1 heaped tbsp cornflour

To Decorate

Blanched almonds
Optional: whipped cream, jam, candied fruits, ratafia biscuits

A few days before you plan to serve your tipsy cake, make the Savoy sponge. Start by greasing a tin. If you have a Savoy cake mould, great! Otherwise a bundt mould would work – or anything with a bit of height and interest. Grease it well,
making sure you get into all of the crevices, then shake a mixture of flour and caster sugar in, shaking the tin to coat before pouring out the excess.

Sift the flour (Acton is adamant that a great deal of sifting is the way to a good sponge). Whisk the eggs, lemon juice and sugar together until pale and foamy. Now fold the flour into the egg mixture, and add the lemon zest, being careful not to knock too much air out. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 40–45 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. Leave the cake for around 5 days to get stale.

When you are ready to make your tipsy cake, simply place it in a shallow dish. Pierce the cake in several places. Mix the wine and brandy together and pour it slowly over the cake. Leave for at least 30 minutes, then carefully pour off any excess.

For the custard, whisk the egg yolks and white with the sugar and orange flower water (or vanilla). Mix 3 tablespoons of milk with the cornflour and set aside. Now heat the rest of the milk until just below boiling, and pour on to the yolks, whisking. Mix thoroughly and add back to the pan, along with the cornflour mix (this stabilises the custard and helps to stop it curdling). Heat without boiling until the mixture thickens, then remove from the heat.

Allow the custard to cool and pour it round the bottom of your tipsy cake (any excess can be served on the side). Stick the cake with almonds ‘so as to resemble a porcupine’ (neatly covering the holes you made for the wine). After that, it is up to you. Adding ratafias, extra cream or candied fruits will give you visual wow as well as extra flavour and texture. Don’t put the biscuits on too early, though, or they will lose all of their crisp, and there really is enough soggy cake in this already.

Annie Gray is a food historian and author of At Christmas We Feast.

Aspects of History Issue 6 is out now.