ID 57387872 © Philip Kinsey |

Mother-in-law knew the importance of putting on a good spread.  The first time I met her I think she pinched my cheek and muttered something about fattening me up. 

Born and bred in Buckinghamshire, she met a Kiwi farmer and came to Waikato more than 50 years ago.

While he milked cows, she whipped up mini-feasts in the farmhouse kitchen.

There were always mountains of food to be found at her table, but nothing on this planet could beat her fruit cake.

I first encountered it about 25 years ago, possibly the same day she pinched me. Moist, sweet, with a satisfying crunchiness to the top, this cake is pure bliss.  With an eye to the future, I asked her for the recipe which she happily gave me.  Sort of.

After three dismal attempts, I went to her and asked what was wrong.  It was uncooked in the middle, black on top, or saggy.  She eyed me for the city-lass I was and said that while the recipe called for this or that, she never followed it and had her own way.  So I had to stand by, taking notes, while she made two perfect cakes on the spot.

I can’t believe how easy it is and have now lost count of how many times I’ve whipped this up myself.  It is now a family classic and making two at once makes sense.

Members of my family have been known to illegally break into a house – knowing that a fruit cake lurked inside.  We always timed our entrances to the day after husband-to-be had returned from visiting his mother because she would always give him a fresh-baked cake.  And it was only right to share it.

Sadly, Gwen died a few years ago, but every time I make one of her recipes I always remember her.  And my daughter is now trained in the art of fruit cake making, having become somewhat of an expert at the eating of the things.

An old friend dropped around one day, while I was baking a cake.  He eyed the oven and said that when a lad on his parents’ sheep farm, his mum used to make something similar.  It turned out the poor woman thought she was an utter failure at fruit cakes because they always came out flat.  He owned up to me that it was him all along, he loved uncooked, soggy cakes and when his mother wasn’t about, would open and then slam the oven door. Hard.

I ordered him down to the other end of the room and stood vigil in front of the oven.  In fact, this recipe is almost foolproof.

The only part of the process that is a bit irksome is cutting and buttering the greaseproof paper, and while you can get by with not doing it, more often than not the cake sides will blacken a bit.  Otherwise, really, it’s a piece of cake.  (But do keep Richards away.)


  • 450g sultanas
  • 225g butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 350g sugar
  • 350g flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder

Preheat the oven to 170ºC.  Melt a little butter and grease the cake tin.  Cut out two circles of greaseproof paper to fit the base.  Then cut a length of paper that will go around inside the tin.  Fold this piece into three lengthways and brush with melted butter.  Line with the folded paper, and finally butter the top surfaces of the paper (which will come into contact with the cake mixture.)

In a large saucepan, boil sultanas for about 10 minutes (just about the time it takes to do the first step.)  Drain well, and stir butter into the hot sultanas.  The idea is for the butter to melt.

Separate egg yolks, and put them aside.  In a large bowl, beat whites until stiff. Then add yolks, one at a time, and mix them together.

Slowly beat in the sugar.

Sift flour and baking powder and stir into the egg mixture.  Slowly add the sultanas, taking care to mix all ingredients well – a bit of muscle is needed, or a cake mixer.

Pour into the lined cake tin and bake for about 1 ½ hour, depending on the oven.  Check the cake after one hour by slipping a knife into the middle.