I started to make a Christmas cake yesterday. I’ve been putting it off for a while because it is a fairly time consuming thing to do. Yesterday it felt like a job that couldn’t be put off much longer. After all, in four weeks, it’ll be the BIG DAY!!!!
I much prefer a homemade Christmas cake. Shop bought ones are not the same. They don’t taste the same, they aren’t the right size and there is just no romance about them. Baking one makes me think of the generations of my family who have made similar cakes through the years.
I remember my Mum confusing me one September morning by announcing that she was baking a Christmas cake. That must have been a super organised year. My child’s brain couldn’t compute the idea of baking a cake and not eating it for three months. Mum always made the effort, despite the fact that she also had a full time job. Inevitably, cake baking was a weekend activity so I could get involved too. My jobs were greasing the tin and then holding the string as she tied the brown paper around. I also helped with blanching the almonds. I still get a feeling of satisfaction from fishing them out of near boiling water and popping the wrinkled skins off.
We had a neighbour who made beautiful rich fruitcakes. My Mum was always envious of the flat, un-cracked surface that he always seemed able to produce. The fact that he was an old widower was yet another source of confusion to me. What was an old man doing baking perfect cakes? Wasn’t that what wives were for?
My Mum’s maternal Grandmother also baked cakes. However, it was her husband’s role to ice them in crisp, white, piped royal icing. It wasn’t his main trade, he was a joiner/carpenter in everyday life. Apparently he somehow acquired his icing skills by watching an army chef during his time serving in the first world war. It seems like a strange use of time in such a conflict but who am I to argue with the testimony of my oldest living relative – Aunty Betty. When I asked her about Christmas cake traditions in her childhood she told me that her maternal Grandmother used to pay for the ingredients for a small fruit cake (1/4 lb of butter in each, I guess it would be approximately 5-6 inches) for each of her grandchildren. Betty’s Mother would bake them and her Dad did the icing. It was a skill that he passed on to her. She said she used to always have a ‘headache’ when he was icing so that she could stay op and watch. In my childhood, whenever there was an important family celebration, Aunty Betty was called upon to create an iced sensation. I think our wedding cake was probably one of the last ones she did and that was back in 2000. She will be 90 next year and has not quite got the strength to hold and squeeze an icing bag for long enough.
These days royal icing has gone slightly out of fashion. I still love it, partly for the nostalgia and partly because it tastes about a million percent better than ready roll fondant. It’s not really as versatile but it can be extremely beautiful in the hands of an expert. The trouble is that it takes a lot of practice to become an expert.
Anyway, I think I’d rather have no Christmas cake than a shop bought one.
These days, I rarely have enough time to make a large fruit cake in one go. There is always a child that needs attention. Stage one involves measuring out all the dry(ish) ingredients: weigh and sieve the flour, sugar and spices, mix up the fruit, chop the cherries and nuts, grate the lemon rind. I also measure out the butter and prepare the tin. Often I do this in the evening, after the children have gone to bed.
Mmmm, how yummy does that look?
Next day I can get on with stage two, the actual mixing. If I’m making a particularly large cake just cracking and mixing the eggs takes a little while. I learnt by painful experience never to add the eggs directly to those that have already been opened. Each egg gets cracked into a cup and then added to a bigger jug ready to be beaten. I once cracked the last of about 15 eggs into the previous 14, only to discover it was bad. Eeuurggh. An expensive mistake! Mum didn’t teach me that tip.
My (well used) recipe of choice
I have a Kenwood Chef mixer that can cope with the complete mixture for an eight inch round fruitcake. Any bigger than that and I only beat the butter and sugar in it and maybe as much egg as I dare. Then I tip everything into a big plastic trug for folding in the flour, fruit and nuts. For very big cakes I often use my hands at this stage. My husband went to catering college and that was the way he was taught. It really is the easiest way when you are working with such big quantities of mixture.
Teapot at the ready – it’s thirsty work baking cakes
Finally there is the baking. Smallish cakes are not too much of a commitment, only taking a couple of hours. Once you start to get into big cakes you have to make sure you’re not going to have to get up in the night to check on them! At this time of year it is a pleasure to have the oven on all day, wafting the smell of Christmas into the air. It’s not so much fun in the summer. I know. Last year I made four fruit cakes of various sizes in one June weekend.
In our house there are a lot of birthdays (three) over the festive period so in reality, the Christmas cake can often double up as a birthday cake. This year we will be celebrating babykins first birthday between Christmas and New Year so I am intending to make (at least) two small rich fruitcakes. One will be available for a Christmas day supper snack, round about the time the first turkey sandwiches appear and the other one can be a reserve. It might even end up as a gift.
Done, though slightly sunk so perhaps another baking day is in order
I never really leave myself enough time to cover them in almond paste and ice them in the style I would like. Some years we just eat them, as they are, un-iced. Some years I manage a covering on the top (the ubiquitous ‘snow scene’) and a ribbon around the sides. Very occasionally I get myself into gear and ice them all around with proper piping and everything. Whatever I manage, Christmas cake always tastes better with a lump of Wensleydale cheese. Mmmmmmm, I can almost taste it.