The term ‘tender loving care’ (TLC) is frequently used to explain how some dishes are cooked. It is especially applied to slowly cooked stews and similar dishes in which long marinades or pickling are part of the method. But no recipe I am familiar with needs as much TLC as a traditional English Christmas cake. The process from start to finish can take as long as three months of TLC. Baking is not my thing and I have never made a Christmas cake, but on many occasions I have been present when the long procedure is taking place.

That is what’s happening now: my niece Lilian started on her Christmas cake at the middle of last month and it is shaping up very nicely. Part of Lilian’s Christmas has always been a fully iced cake made but her mother (my sister) and based on a Genoa cake.

This cake is the Italian ‘panodolce’ (sweet bread) that originated in 16th century Genoa as a Christmas cake. It is made with sultanas, currants or raisins, glacé cherries, almonds and candied orange peel, and is baked in a mix of flour, eggs, butter and sugar. Many variations of the Genoa cake exist and all of them are made with less fruit than the classic dark rich cakes. The Genoa is lighter and doesn’t have any of the vine fruits such as currants which help to produce a darker cake mix.

When Lilian started to make her own Christmas cakes some seven years ago, she opted for a traditional dark English cake mix and looked around or a suitable recipe. She eventually picked Mary Berry’s Christmas cake on the BBC Food website and follows it to the letter, except that she doesn’t include almonds, a taste she’s not keen on in fruit cakes. Mary Berry is renowned for her cakes and pastry and she was the presenter of the Great British Bake Off when it started on the BBC in 2010. She is now Dame Mary Berry, having been awarded a Damehood in the Queen’s birthday honours in 2020. She has written more than 80 cookbooks and is still extremely active, publishes books and appears on TV at the age of 87.

If you think you’d like to make a Christmas cake but are put off by the daunting list of ingredients, you should know that there’s nothing difficult about it if you follow Mary Berry’s recipe to the letter. It works beautifully and you can’t go wrong.

The making of this year’s Christmas cake started in mid-October when Lilian wrote out the ingredients and made sure she had everything at hand. The first step was to weigh the dried fruits and then marinate them. She used a quarter of a pint of brandy and sherry and let the fruit soak it up for three days. The cake mix is easy peasy and when it’s ready the plumped-up fruit is folded in. Everything is poured into the paper-lined cake mould and it goes into the oven. When the cake comes out it already looks most appetising, but several weeks will go by rather slowly before a sharp knife goes through the icing sugar covering on Christmas Day.

The TLC begins when the cake has cooled down a little: the first stage is to puncture the surface in several places with a thickish skewer. As soon as the cake is quite cold, teaspoons of cognac, sherry or Cointreau are drizzled into the perforations. Lilian repeats this every week for seven weeks, although Mary Berry says it can be done for up to three months. This is TLC to the nth degree.

The making of the Christmas cake continues with the application of a glaze, in this case one of apricot jam. The next phase is optional and it depends on whether you like marzipan. Some people don’t, so they leave it out. But Lilian buys a lump of marzipan, rolls it out to a couple of centimetres thick and enshrouds the cake with it. She then goes into the final lap: the cake is covered with icing sugar and some festive decorations are added. It’s finished one week before Christmas Day.

Some people eat their cake on Christmas Day but not me. Nor do I have Christmas pudding on the day and mincemeat tarts are never on my December 25 menu. Nor are any of the Spanish sweetmeats: no turrón or the little paper wrapped biscuits, such as roscos de vino, which I adore. I think most people try to cram to many traditional treats into the one day. I prefer to spread them around and keep the sweet side of Christmas for other meals on other days between December 25 and January 6. I like mincemeat tarts for breakfast and the roscos de vino are great with mid-morning and afternoon cups of tea. Christmas pudding is a superb dessert for any meal on any day…but not Christmas Day. There are 12 days for Christmas celebrations and that’s long enough to have sweet treats at all times of the day.

I’ll be eating some of the Christmas cake, however, sooner rather than later after the 25. That’s because my niece gives pieces of it to family and friends — so it soon disappears. I’ll have a slice for dessert on at least two of the other 12 days of Christmas — with a glass of sweet wine, such as the Veritas Dolç of the José L. Ferrer winery in Binissalem.

I’ll also be organising (and making) treats for lunch on the other 12 days of Christmas. None of them will be labour-intensive. One, for instance will be a simple risotto made with a couple of wild mushrooms, a favourite dish of a nephew’s wife. Other festive meals will be a two-kilo spatchcock free range chicken roasted in the oven and served with roast potatoes and cauliflower in a bechamel sauce. There’s also a mutton stew on the menu as well as monkfish, mussels, halibut and other North Sea fish. The idea is to keep it simple. That’s why the only dessert I’ll make is a rhubarb crumble. It’s easy-peasy.