The Truly Remarkable Once A Year Cake



Christmas has not yet really started for me this year, which is odd because it usually starts bang on December the first. At the beginning of the month I managed to get myself to the starting line, I even produced an advent calendar for Dakota, made a batch of mince pies, and then I fizzled out. I’ve been blaming it on loads of work and not enough time, but I have finally admitted that I am sulking.

I hate being away from my family at Christmas, and this year they are firmly in Africa and we are firmly in Somerset. Well, Dakota and I are, but Rory is still away working. And that just intensifies my sulk.


I woke up this morning and while I was contemplating my ceiling and wondering whether or not Dakota might bring me tea in bed (she only ever brings it for Rory but I remain hopeful), I heard her singing snatches of Christmas carols between practice blasts on her trumpet. Yes, she plays the trumpet at school, and it’s a measure of how much I love her that I make no demur on the odd weekend that she brings it home to practice.

And that was the moment. The moment that the Christmas spirit finally emerged with all the enthusiasm of a hungry bear after a long winter’s hibernation. Yes, I still miss my mom, but on reflection, there are many this Christmas who are missing loved ones with a lot more finality than I am, so I have decided to count my blessings and get on with it.


So with the encouraging presence of both the Christmas Spirit and my mother, and The White Christmas Album on the CD player, I have spent the day in a frenzy of baking and decorating. We have not yet got our tree up, but Dakota and I will choose one tomorrow and decorate it together.

But these are all incidental to the one thing that really makes me feel Christmassy~ the Truly Remarkable Once a Year Cake.


This is a relatively new tradition in our family, which started when my nephew was about three. Most nights my dad would read him poetry before he went to sleep, and one Christmas we discovered a poem called ‘The Truly Remarkable Once A Year Cake’. This cake was made up of all the truly awful things that so delight the imagination of a child, and if memory serves correctly, it ends up exploding.


How this became linked to our Christmas cake, I’m not sure, but the connection is now inextricable. My dad adores fruit cake, and my mom used to have aged fruit cake served with vintage cheddar on her dessert menu for years. She would make 2 or 3 cakes and put them away to mature for a few weeks. When they were ready to serve the waiters would all be duly informed and inevitably, the orders would fly in. My dad wasn’t the only one with a passion for fruitcake. The tins would be opened and the rich boozy smell would rush out to tantalise and tempt, only to be followed in short order by the realisation that there were only a few pieces left. My father, unable to resist (or wait the requisite 3 weeks) had been slowly and unrepentantly nibbling away. Eventually, my mom capitulated and took it off the menu, and ever since then it has only made an appearance once a year at Christmas.



As the years have passed I have developed a passion for cake art. So my mom bakes and I paint, and every year the Truly Remarkable Once A Year Cake is delivered. Only this year I have both baked and painted, and not one but several individual fruitcakes which will be given as gifts. The best gift though, is the remembrance of something I love to do, and although I normally do it with my mom, just doing it made me feel closer to her, and to the spirit of Christmas.


I think I’ll just give her a ring and remind her to finish her own Once A Year Cake. I have a feeling she’s been sulking too…

This is my (admittedly very late) entry for this month’s Apples & Thyme. The roundup is ably served up by Jeni at the Passionate Palate

where she invites you to read some more stories of love, laughter and memories in the kitchen.

Don’t forget to check out the Vanielje Kitchen Cook Book

or my Fabulous Fruit Cake recipe

39 Responses to “The Truly Remarkable Once A Year Cake”

  1. on 16 Dec 2007 at 5:32 pm Andrea

    My word, that is just beautiful! You have such a talent! :-)

  2. on 16 Dec 2007 at 5:59 pm courtney

    Those are really beautiful cakes. I have just started learning decorating this year and I love your style. Im glad to see you have made a business of this. I am one of the few Americans that love fruitcakes. Although you don’t see them decorated here. Your cakes are stunning and the the recipiants are very lucky !

  3. on 16 Dec 2007 at 6:17 pm Jeni

    I am flabergasted! Your talent is amazing. Those are works of art, but sadly temporary ones! I couldn’t bear to cut into one. And…I am so glad you found your Christmas spirit! I’ll be baking today and thinking of you my friend. :-)
    xo, jeni

  4. on 16 Dec 2007 at 7:41 pm african vanielje

    Thanks Andrea

    Courtney, I love cake decorating, it is so artistic and liberating. I hope you continue to enjoy it.

    Jeni, thank you. The thing about them being temporary is you enjoy the execution and don’t worry too much about them being overly perfect.

  5. on 16 Dec 2007 at 9:23 pm Bellini Valli

    Wow! I can only aspire to have such whimsical cakes on my holiday table!

  6. on 16 Dec 2007 at 11:13 pm Amanda @ Little Foodies

    They are absolutely gorgeous! Truly beautiful, like something out of a fairytale.

    I’m sulking too! I need kick myself in to touch…!

  7. on 17 Dec 2007 at 12:41 am african vanielje

    Thanks Valli. Give it a try, whimsy is very forgiving, and it always reminds me of Africa.

    Amanda, I’m sorry you feel Christmas miserable too. Pour yourself a glass of wine, and do what Sognatrice does, put on some Harry Conick Jr, and get into the festive spirit.

  8. on 17 Dec 2007 at 2:59 am Charlotte

    Those are truly works of art, and the people who are receiving them as gifts are very lucky. Do you use marzipan for the icing?

  9. on 17 Dec 2007 at 8:04 am Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah)

    What utterly stunning cakes, it’s a wonder that they are eaten! They are works of art and I’m not sure anyone would ever dream of cutting into them. Totally inspiring and although I’ve only gone the whole hog once (since I can’t stand fruit cake) and baked and soused with brandy in advance, made the marzipan and decorations and painted, you’ve nearly tempted me to try again! :-)
    You have a remarkable talent, AV and clearly an artist’s soul.

  10. on 17 Dec 2007 at 10:05 am african vanielje

    Charlotte, thank you. I had fun. I cover them in marzipan (which I love, and make myself) then I cover them in icing to paint and decorate. This is because number one it is easier to work with findant icing and number two, because the whole cake is organic apart from the food colouring, and I’m not that fond of icing, so I guess I just see this as the gift wrapping and the marzipan covered fruitcake inside is the gift. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from painting and decorating the marzipan.

    AV, thank you from AV. I do enjoy painting and with cakes can get away with being quite kitsch in the way I could not on canvas. I think you’re not the only person who doesn’t like fruit cake, and I must admit, I only like mine and my mom’s. But then I’m kinda fussy that way.

  11. on 17 Dec 2007 at 1:09 pm Patricia Scarpin

    You are a gifted artist! The cakes are so beautiful! Love the colors!

  12. on 17 Dec 2007 at 1:23 pm myfrenchkitchen

    Your little cakes are absolutely just beautiful works of art!! Very lucky recipients!!

  13. on 17 Dec 2007 at 4:51 pm Pasticcera

    Absolute stunners these are. I have never been very fond of fondant cakes,(an acquired taste for Americans) although they are a nice canvas for decorations. I had no idea how beautiful they could be, usually the ones I have seen, even in “Harrods”, usually have such wimpy pastel colors, which sometimes can be nice, but yours are breathtaking and makes me want to have a go…..someday, and probably not once a year. Did you mix your colors from basic liquid food colors? What a fabulous advertisement for your “Menu of Hope” offering! Some people are going to be very lucky!

  14. on 17 Dec 2007 at 6:14 pm marye

    I am in your boat, i think..I am horribly behind and I thought I had such a good start. My daughter and son in law and grandkids moved in our house this past weekend to add to the insanity.
    My oldest son won’t be home for Christmas and he is sulking..he is preparing for his second tour in Iraq so no leave time.
    Between my kids and grandkids it feels like the 100 acre wood here.
    If I don’t make it back…Merry Christmas to you, my friend.

  15. on 17 Dec 2007 at 7:05 pm african vanielje

    Pasticcera, I am African so although my colours are often too kitsch for the Brits, no wimpy pastels for me. I use a mix of liquid, paste and powder colours and mix them with a little vodka (it works like water with watercolours, evaporating quickly and just leaving the pigment behind), plus gold dust and occasionally gold leaf.

    Marye, may your son be safe, and may you have a peaceful family Christmas (or maybe just a joyous family filled Christmas)

  16. on 17 Dec 2007 at 7:41 pm Kit

    These are so gorgeous they sum up Christmas spirit. I’m glad you’ve grabbed hold of some! I’m also struggling to get into it and still haven’t made my cake – I’ve now used up all the fruit for fruit mincemeat, so have to go shopping again before I can bake it. This is also the first year I’ve really been working and haven’t been able to sit at the table making cards and presents with the children, while listening to Cristmas carols, so their production is way below required quotas for supplying the entire family with pressies… it’ll all come together in the end!

  17. on 18 Dec 2007 at 5:30 am Maryann

    You are so talented. These cakes are gorgeous. I love the colors. The photos are great also :)

  18. on 18 Dec 2007 at 4:24 pm ejm

    Wow!! Those are fantastic! I’m particularly impressed by the crown. And I love the grapes.

    How did you achieve that blue colour?!


  19. on 18 Dec 2007 at 4:54 pm Jeanne

    OMG – those are GORGEOUS!! Why hasn’t every single person in southwest England bid on your custom designed cake prize in Menu for Hope yet?? Do you mind if I link to this post to punt your prize a bit?

    On the topic of sulking, I’m just in denial. I absolutely adore Christmas and it’s always been my favourite holiday, but in this country it just does not feel like Christmas to me (sans friends, family and sun). And when my mom passed away, I suddenly realised that she was the glue that held Christmas together for our family. Without her we have floundered, trying to create new traditions but so far, no dice. So in many way’s it’s easier just to be in denial, keep the Christmas tree in the attic and keep my head down. Oh yes – and to stay out of the shops that are full of ghastly things being sold to people who don’t need them to give to friends and family who don’t want them!!

    So this year on Christmas day I shall be up a mountain in Andorra, in the hope that if I’m up high I’ll be a little closer to my mom and she’ll hear my Christmas message to her.

  20. on 18 Dec 2007 at 8:31 pm Katie

    They are truly remarkable…. I keep going back to look at the photos. How can anyone bear to cut into them? But, how can you not?
    Absolutely Gorgeous!

  21. on 18 Dec 2007 at 9:40 pm Rebecca Lemke

    Hi Inge,
    I’ve been away from blogging for way to long……I’ve been doing more cooking than writing! I just wanted to stop by and say hello to you. Your blog is still one of the few I read regulary, so please add me to your feed.
    my email is:
    Your cake is ART! Simply beautiful.
    Take care and happy holidays,

  22. on 18 Dec 2007 at 10:08 pm african vanielje

    Kit, I,m sure you’ll have a last minute sprint. I’m hoping I will too. How are you coping with Christmas weather in the 30’s?

    Thank you Maryann. A decent camera is on my list to Santa, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the photographer at fault. I haven’t done these justice.

    Elizabeth, I use paste and powder colours and I mix them like paints. I’ll look up the brand and colours for you as you can probabely order online.

    Katie thank you. I made a cake last year that was really OTT. We eventually ate it at a big party as it was the only time we got enough people together. The fruitcake had been sitting getting ever drunker for nearly 5 months and when we ate it it was pure heaven. I remember people being surprised at how good it tasted, they thought it was all about the artwork. But I say it’s a combo and you can’t have one without the other.

    Jeanne, thank you. That’s why I was trying to finish the cake I was working on for a pic, but I hope it’s not too little too late. I hope you find the spirit of Christmas and your mom up your mountain in Andora. At least you have Nick. Have a peacefu Christmas my friend.

    Hi Rebecca. I guess it’s a busy season for chefs isn’t it. I have been appallingly lax about posting this month so you are not the only one. Please send me a link for your blog so I can add it to my blogroll. I lost them all when I wiped out my other blog and am slowly building it up again. I think you have to click on the email subscribe link in the sidebar on my main page. That should give you a feed. Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas to you too.

  23. on 19 Dec 2007 at 12:29 pm Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah)

    AV, you have me in a lather. Having been inspired by your cakes, I’ve decided not to bake one but to do something I did many years ago – make marzipan “fruits” – thing is, I refuse to by shop bought marzipan – I made my own last time but can’t find the recipe anywhere – this is what happens when one moves around the world, things get lost. Do you make your own marzipan or use shop-bought marzipan and if the former, would you be willing to share an “almond paste” recipe? I’ve found several on the web but they all seem to contain far too much sugar at which I’m sure my central European ancestors would have quailed!
    Thanks! The other AV.

  24. on 19 Dec 2007 at 5:41 pm Annemarie

    Those are gob-smackingly amazing cakes – to be able to both think up the design as well as carry it through is just so impressive. Fantastic concoctions, and hope you have some suitably greatful recipients for them!

  25. on 19 Dec 2007 at 6:13 pm african vanielje

    AV, on the case, will get back to you ASAP.

    Annemarie, thank you. I hope so too, but in this case the joy really is in the giving because they were such fun to make. Once they were all ready to decorate I got myself all sorted. My daughter was in bed, I put a pot of coffee on, Lenny Kravitz on my kitchen CD player and I got my paints out. This is when I really envy Ronell her French Kitchen Atelier. I had to clean it all up before I went to bed so that we had space for breakfast the next morning.

  26. on 19 Dec 2007 at 8:09 pm african vanielje

    Absolute Vanilla, I have posted both a cooked almond paste and an uncooked almond paste recipe under VKCB (on my sidebar). If you have a marzipan recipe that calls for almond paste as an ingredient they mean an almond paste that is made with almond flour. You can try and get this from a delicatessen or a specialist bakery, but the recipes I have given are complete. Sometimes marzipan and almond paste mean the same thing. Good luck, and mail me if you get stuck.

  27. on 20 Dec 2007 at 6:07 am Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah)

    AV, you are a star! I’ve found the recipes and now need to decide just what I’m doing. My little bottles of food colouring are ready, the fruit are shaped in my mind, now I’ve just got to make the marzipan. I assure myself that as I’ve done it before I can do it again and likewise, if I can make choux pastry I must sure as nuts be able to handle almond paste!
    Thanks so much – hugely appreciated!

  28. on 20 Dec 2007 at 4:01 pm ejm

    I didn’t even know that food colouring came in powder form! This might be just the thing for our coloured Christmas cookies.


  29. on 22 Dec 2007 at 11:08 am Jessica

    Wow! How incredible! They just look so superb. I can’t believe how many you made and decorated. Well done!

  30. on 22 Dec 2007 at 7:16 pm Laurie Constantino

    I had to come back and look at these four times before I could leave a comment — the cakes are so absolutely beautiful and complex I wanted to fully absorb them before i said anything. They are breathtakingly beautiful and completely original — I have never seen anything like your decorating style before. Thank you so much for posting the gorgeous pictures which belong on the cover of a book or, at the very least, a magazine cover. I love the three-dimensionality of each unique cake. (The holly on your yule log is great as well.) So sorry you are missing your family, but you really soared with these cakes. Happy Christmas!!

  31. on 22 Dec 2007 at 9:06 pm Colleen in South Africa

    Hi there AV, what stunningly decorated cakes. I just had to comment on your talent and the amazing colours you use. Being South African I can really relate to them and I love them. Well done you clever girl. I am so glad Dakota helped you find your Christmas spirit otherwise we may not have had these to feast our eyes on. Thank you for posting your fruit cake recipe as well as the marzipan. I would like to have a go at making my own marzipan, I usually use store bought which is pretty good here in SA but I want the challenge of making my own. I find your cake recipe very interesting as it is totally different to mine and any others I have seen, and I want to try it as well. Won’t wait for next Christmas though, gonna have to find a different reason to make it :) Its awful being away from loved ones at Christmas time. This year we have invited two separate people, who will both be on their own, to join us for Christmas lunch as I cannot bear the thought of someone sitting alone when we all want to be surrounded by people and happiness, love and laughter and of course lots of lovely food and pudding and cake….. Its what makes Christmas,well Christmas isnt it? So hey, if I lived nearby you would be welcomed over with open arms. But seeing as I am in that same Africa as your family I will think of you instead with warmth and say a special prayer for you. Have a wonderful Christmas with your little family and may you be richly blessed. Sending you a mama hug from Cape Town, Colleen :)

  32. on 22 Dec 2007 at 9:46 pm african vanielje

    AV, you go girl!

    Elizabeth – try googling orchard products.

    Laurie, thank you so much. I really appreciate the fact that you’ve come back to visit four times. I obviously never felt as if I’d got my fair share of play dough time when I was little. Merry Christmas to you, and look forward to more visits in the new year!

    Colleen, it’s so lovely of you to leave such a great comment. It’s always nice to know that you are making people laugh, think, smile, go forth and bake… The recipe makes a very versatile, and quick and easy light fruit cake. If I want a richer fruit cake I just switch the granulated sugar for soft dark brown, or molasses sugar. This changes the taste completely. It’s a good one and I often get asked for the recipe, which is always a good sign.

    Thank you so much for your ‘if I was in Africa’ invite. It’s appreciated but I have to admit to being a bit of a sulking child. We are not alone for Christmas as my husband is home tomorrow and my two best friends live next door. They have huge families and there are 8 kids under 10 in all, so not exactly a lonely Christmas, but as it is my favourite time of year I was just feeling a bit low that my very precious family is so far away. You sound just like my mom actually, as Christmas day for us was always half full of family and the other half full of honorary family (read people who had nowhere else to go). To be honest, anyone who was willing to brave my family en masse deserved, at the very least, a Christmas dinner.

    And thanks again, I’ll take all the mama hugs I can get. Merry Christmas

  33. on 22 Dec 2007 at 9:48 pm african vanielje

    Jessica, thank you so much. I have one last batch to decorate and I made some extras for Dakota to have a go, so tomorrow should be a fun day.

  34. on 23 Dec 2007 at 4:14 am VegeYum

    I am so impressed! Amazing works of art. How talented you are. Love that you love doing it with your mum.

  35. on 24 Dec 2007 at 6:32 am StickyGooeyCreamyChewy

    What stunning cakes! They are truly works of art. You have such a talent!

    I’m sorry that you’re feeling lonely this Christmas. I know how you feel. It is hard to get in the holiday spirit when you’re missing loved ones. Give your daughter an extra big hug today. That always makes me feel better!

  36. on 28 Dec 2007 at 4:57 am Tartelette

    Everybody has been so eloquent but I am completely speechless…and that is my compliment to you :)

  37. on 30 Dec 2007 at 5:00 pm Jutta

    I can’t believe it – this is amazing… I never saw something like that before.

  38. on 26 May 2008 at 10:15 am Carol

    Wow! the cake looks as inviting to receive as to eat all of it ! Great work and cool coloring too.

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