But every now and again I break the pattern to make something that is not susceptible to the Whizz Bang method and my Christmas Cake is such. Of course there are methods for making a Christmas Cake that are not so lengthy but this does not apply to mine. I use an old Victorian recipe that has been in my family for over a hundred years and although (unlike the Victorians) I do use the food processor for part of the preparation, it is a stately undertaking that Is Not To Be Hurried.
It is with some dismay that I increasingly realise that homemade does not necessarily equate to frugal whether that applies to cooking or clothing or anything else. Sadly, if you are on a really tight budget, it will often be cheaper for you to buy a commercial product than make your own from scratch. I find this quite upsetting as an indictment of modern life - I feel it ought not to be like that somehow. But it's not just my perception - I saw an article in yesterday's Guardian saying exactly the same thing here although it seems there is good news for homemade chocolate truffle-makers! But of course making your own homemade stuff is not just about saving money. And although making a Christmas Cake is not cheap (especially by the time you've bought all those ground almonds for making the marzipan later on), it is nevertheless worthwhile. It's worthwhile because a great deal more than the ingredients go into the cake and this is one of the reasons it needs time.
Stirred in, along with the dried fruit, the flour, sugar, eggs and butter, is history. Family history. Social history. Sacred history. Memories pepper the rich mixture and love, given and received at Christmases past and present, streaks the batter as vividly and dramatically as the spoonful of dark treacle in the ingredients. Prayers and blessings are folded in, along with the fruit; thoughts for those I love but now no longer see in this world; thanksgivings for all that the last year has held; wistfulness for what has been and is now gone; hopes and longings for the year to come; trust for the unknown future that awaits.
And this can't be rushed. It needs time to happen gradually. It began weeks back, when I bubbled up, in a cauldron of sugar syrup, a new supply of candied orange peel in anticipation of the season's Christmas Cake making. (I use the recipe in "Jane Grigson's Fruit Book", if you're interested. It's listed under "Grapefruit".)
Actually, it began even earlier, in the summer, when my mother gave me a small, precious container of homemade, candied angelica to add to fruit cakes such as this. And, if you've ever candied fresh angelica yourself, you'll know that it's the product of a labour of love, if ever there was one. Not to be squandered on any old cake but kept for something special.
But these advance preparations aside, I like to set aside a whole morning or afternoon for the actual Cake-Making so that each stage can be done without rush or the pressure of being against the clock. And I find the slowness of the whole business has a blessing and a delight built into it in our fast-moving world. I begin by weighing out the butter and sugar into the food processor to allow it to come to room temperature and then happily potter about between larder and work surface; assembling the dried fruits; snipping up the glossy orange lozenges of candied peel and the pale green angelica, brittle with sugar; halving the shiny, garnet-coloured glacé cherries; spooning out the creamy flour and aromatic spices.
So on my day off this week, even though Stir Up Sunday was a few weeks back (better late than never, Mrs T!) Christmas Cake Making was where it was at. It's Monday morning. The rain pours down outside and spatters the window panes in vicious squalls of wind; it is grey, cold and wintry. Inside, in the warm kitchen, I am absolutely content as I become absorbed in the present moment; holding the eggs, cool from the fridge, in my hand and wondering if they are too cold to use straightaway; surveying the deep blue mixing bowl of jewel-like fruit and chopped, milky almonds, waiting to be stirred in and pondering the metaphor of a cake like this and Life - made up of so many strands from so many sources, joined into one by both choice and chance, with the capacity to nourish, delight and feed at so many levels.
The Benedictines were (and are) big on understanding that there is no real difference between the sacred and the secular, that everyday objects and tasks can be, and are, holy in some sense. Nowhere am I more aware of that sense than when I make this cake, made by women in my family for generations before me. Each one, myself included, tweaking the recipe with her own twist, yet essentially replicating the same cake, for the same celebration.
Once mixed, and with all the wishes and prayers stirred in, it is time to pour the mixture into its tin, wrapped in its thick and tatty, brown paper "coat", tied on with string, ready for baking. I have used the same brown paper "coat" for about fifteen years and it is now rather worse for wear, but it has a shabby charm and reminds me of all the cakes I have made in that time, which it has insulated against the fierceness of the oven - celebration cakes for my parents, for my grandfather's eighty-fifth, ninetieth and ninety-fifth birthdays, H's christening cake and all the intervening Christmases. And these memories are part of the making of each new cake. Christmas, after all, is not just for Christmas - it's for Life.
It isn't too late to make a cake like this even though it won't have terribly long to mature. If you'd like to give my family recipe a go, here it is, (but any rich fruit cake recipe will serve you well.) It is easy and straightforward but give yourself time to make and to bake it. And, if you are anything like me, I promise that the making and eating of it will bless you and yours richly.
What you need:
9oz unsalted butter ("or margarine" as my grandmother annotated the recipe in wartime)
6oz soft brown sugar
1 dsp treacle
2oz natural almonds, chopped quite finely
4oz candied peel, chopped
4oz glace cherries, rinsed in boiling water to get rid of excess syrup, dried and halved
12oz plain white flour
1tsp mixed spice*
a good grating of nutmeg*
5 eggs (In the original Victorian recipe I suspect the eggs were small or medium ones. I use large eggs if the bantams aren't laying, as they aren't at the moment, deterred by the miserable weather and the fact that one of their company was snatched by the fox, which has put them off their lay so to speak.)
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda dissolved in two tbsps milk
*the spices were not part of the original recipe but I like to add them and sometimes also include the grated rind of an orange and / or a lemon.
What you do:
Line a large round cake tin with baking parchment. I use a tin that is 10.5" in diameter. Tie a "coat" of at least double thickness brown paper around the outside with string. (In my experience, this, by the way, is a two person job)
Preheat the oven to 140 C.
Weigh out the butter and sugar first into the bowl of the food processor and get the eggs out of the fridge.
Now turn to preparing the nuts and fruits and pile them up in a large separate mixing bowl.
Weigh out the flour and add the spices.
Now whizz up the butter and sugar and add the treacle. Whizz again. Break the eggs into the food processor bowl and pile in the flour and spices. Whizz again until you have a smooth batter. Scrape the sides down and whizz to ensure everything is well and truly mixed. Add the bicarbonate of soda, dissolved in milk, and whizz one final time.
Now decant the batter mixture from the food processor into your mixing bowl containing the fruit. Fold in the fruit and nuts carefully and thoroughly, with a large spoon, not forgetting to make a wish and pray a blessing on the cake and all who will consume it.
Tip and scrape the mixture onto your prepared tin. Bake on a low shelf in the oven for about 3 hours. May be a tad more of your oven is quite slow but I find three hours is enough in mine. Do not open the door until towards the very end of the cooking time. When it is cooked, a skewer inserted in the cake will come out cleanly and it will have a burnished dark brown colour with several cracks in the surface of the crust.
Leave it to cool completely and then spike it all over with a skewer before dosing it with a couple of tablespoons of cherry brandy, sloe gin, cointreau or whatever liqueur you have to hand. Plain brandy will work fine if you have nothing fancy and I certainly wouldn't buy anything specially.
Wrap it in a double layer of foil and at least once more before Christmas, give it another dose of your chosen alcohol. Then a few days before Christmas, give it its traditional hat of marzipan and royal icing and decorate as you like.
The decoration doesn't need to be fiddly and complicated. This cake needs no apologia or spin-doctoring. I keep mine plain - "rough iced", I think, is the technical term ie not mirror smooth, but with visible swirls made with a spreading knife.
And in the resulting snowdrifts, every year stumble, not one but two, ancient Victorian Father Christmases and a Victorian snowman made out of painted plaster. I inherited them from my grandmother twenty five years ago. They were a bit "has been" - as you might be if you had been struggling through icing snowdrifts for eighty years or so! They have been mended and one Father Christmas has had a face lift and a substantial nose job, courtesy of D's modelling skills and the judicious use of Plastic Padding. Re-modelled and repainted, they stride forth again in the snow that falls "deep and crisp and even" year in and year out without fail on my Christmas cake, among a couple of bottle-brush Christmas trees dating from the 1960s. Mere junior saplings by comparison with the others!
And every year, as their boots sink into the sugary snow, all the Christmases of my childhood flood back and I am a small girl again, standing on a chair and helping my grandmother in the kitchen and gingerly handling, with enormous care, these aged figures. H, in his turn, loves them and I hope, one day, I will be able to pass them on to him and his children. I hope then that they too, will remember them affectionately and in the mysterious, holy place that is a kitchen in which things are made with love and memory, generations, past and present, will continue to meet one another in the timelessness of Christmas.
And on that you cannot begin to put a price.