Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Advent Baking

Most of my everyday cooking is from the Whizz Bang School of Cookery (not listed as a recognised Cordon Bleu establishment I fear!) That is to say, it's mostly things like casseroles, hastily thrown together and shoved in the oven all afternoon, while work claims my attention, or cakes that can be blitzed in the food processor and tipped into a tin for half an hour between meetings. That sort of thing. Homemade soup speeded up by the pressure cooker and bread dough that can get on by itself in the bread-maker and shaped into rolls later, gets a look in and flapjack is good - you can melt, pour and bake that in a brace of shakes, but most weeks, anything more complex or individually time-consuming is out, certainly anything involving multiple processes or requiring topping or icing afterwards.

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
8oz sultanas
8oz currants
4oz raisins
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.

I was wondering how to photograph these, since this year's Christmas cake is not yet iced but the weather smiled on me and when I woke up this morning the first snow of winter meant that Frs Christmas and Snowman could sink their boots into some real snow for a photoshoot!


  1. Dear E
    Another lovely post, full of good Christmas things. My mum has some very similar Christmas cake decorations which come out every year. Even though I don't eat fruit cake, I like to see the decorations and feel that link to the past. Long may that continue.
    Best wishes (and enjoy your cake at Christmas)

  2. Oh, my, Mrs. T. Talk about a labor of love; you indeed have that put into your traditional cake. I will have to go back and look where you have written regarding the brown paper coat since that intrigued me.

    And as for the Whizz Bang method, yup ! :o) (too often over here, me fears!)

    1. The brown paper coat thing is good news for cakes that take so long to bake in the oven. It stops the edges getting burnt or too dry while the centre of the cake cooks. I never used to bother when I first made Christmas cakes but tried it one year and have used it ever since. E x

  3. Very touching words, Mrs Thomasina !
    Did you know that angelica (and especially candied angelica) is the speciality of Niort, near Poitiers ?
    It's the nuns, centuries ago, who begun to candy angelica, and you are right, it's truly a delight! My eldest son, who study at Poitiers'university,usually come back home with candied angelica as present for the family birthdays !

    1. No, I didn't know that. Convents have a wonderful tradition of culinary treasures so I am not surprised production originated with nuns. How lucky that your son is studying there and can keep you supplied! Homemade candied angelica is not quite as beautifully soft and translucent as I suspect what you can buy in Poitiers but I love using it and of course the name is lovely too! E x

  4. I love the little figures! One of these days when you have grandchildren they will just love being in YOUR kitchen helping you. And then they will love going around your house touching and admiring all the things you've made:) This cake is very exotic-sounding to American ears. I don't think I have any recipe that has been in my family that long. But I do have things I make that are partly made for all the memories. I know your cake will be doubly good because of all the memories and love going into it.

    1. I do hope so! May be a few years yet but I am looking forward to the time when it comes! E x

  5. Wonderful writing and photos Elizabeth. There is so much tradition and family bound up in making the Christmas cake that it makes it very special. I don't have a recipe passed down but I do have my grandmother's Father Christmas decoration though decades of sticking in his feet in icing means his boots have rather lost their shine. You had snow too. Apparently it won't be the last this month. Ax

    1. Glad you too have a venerable Fr Christmas for your cake! But, as you say, decades of walking in icing don't do much for your boots! E x

  6. What a post - a post that sums up everything I love about your blog Elizabeth; cooking, traditions, thoughts on life and theology, a love of food and family.

    I agree - homemade isn't necessarily cheaper, although it can be if you work hard at it. I made my Grandfather a Christmas cake last Christmas and the one before, and he was SO pleased with it, much more so than he had been with any other gift I'd given him previously. I wish now that I'd allocated an afternoon to make my cake, rather than fitting it in around general family chaos which is what happened.

    Gillian x

    1. I am very sure your cake just made your grandfather's Christmas. What a lovely thing to give! Sometimes life simply doesn't fit with trying to set aside uninterrupted time for things like this - it's nice if it can but one has to be realistic and any homemade Christmas cake will always get my vote! Enjoy every morsel when you get to it! E x

  7. I love the idea of passing down family traditions, especially the Christmas ones........I had a rocky start in life and my childhood was far from ideal, I think that's why I've made sure to create memorable and important traditions for my children............I love the sense of belonging it brings. How wonderful to have a christmas cake recipe that has been passed down the generations in your family, the little cake figures must hold so many memories for you...........may they spend many more generations with their boots firmly planted in crisp snowy icing...........a very lovely post. x

    1. Creating new memorable traditions for one's children is just as important as passing on old ones, I think, and it's one of the huge joys of having children that opportunities for such creativity present themselves all the time. Enjoy each and very one! E x

  8. I read a little book years ago (I can't remember its name) written by a woman who spent time living with the Amish. Her book dealt with the idea you discuss--finding the spiritual in everyday activities. I'm going to try to find the title now, as your post reminded me of the work so much and of how it inspired me. The sentiments you discuss are perfect for this time of year. I just finished a post (but haven't actually "posted" it yet) that deals with Advent, but mine is so secular and trivial compared to your beautiful musings. I plan to share your piece with some friends and co-workers. All the best...

  9. Very interested in what you allude to about the Amish - I don't know a great deal about them but have a vague notion that both Amish and Shaker spirituality has a lot in common with the Benedictine ethos that everyday work, study and prayer are not separate entities but are all part of the opus Dei - worship of God in a much broader sense than we normally understand it. Do let me know the name of the book if you find it. E x

  10. Just now saw your comment on the post "The Beggar Christ"...the poem was written by Jennifer Gordon:

    "On the back of this framed illustration is a poem written by Jennifer Gordon for the 10th anniversary of Colorado Vincentian Volunteers that explains Aktas' rationale for creating this piece of art"

    Sorry I did not see your comment prior to today!


  11. I always think of Ruskin's belief in the nobility of craftsmen; making anything well is a intrinsic part of the human experience. That's why I dismiss anybody who laughs at my joy of knitting and baking - to create is to live. And no shop-bought cake will ever provide you with that smell flooding the house for hours on end - for me that smell signals the onset of Christmas. My only problem is getting the cake marzipanned and iced in time - as school breaks up so late this year I can see myself doing these on Christmas Eve. Enjoy eating it! love from Judy.

  12. Oh Mrs T., what a beautiful piece of writing! And thank you for sharing your cherished recipe. I now feel quite sorry not to have made a myself cake this year, but with the elder three children not home for Christmas - our first ever Christmas without them - and the Farmer Boy not a cake eater, we would still have been scoffing rich fruit cake at Easter if I had.


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit me at Mrs TT's and comment. I love to read what you write.