Sunday November 23rd 2008, 9:36 pm

Baking the Christmas cake, November 2008

I had a boyfriend once whose sister made him a Christmas cake every year. When it came time to eat the thing, instead of cutting it with a knife into neat pieces or treating it with any kind of ceremony or respect, he used to pick at the cake with his hands, tearing off big untidy lumps. Any remaining cake would sit there for weeks afterwards, all hacked at, looking like a replica of the north face of the Eiger. He quite obviously had never made a Christmas cake himself.
It always surprises me that noone ever mentions just what hard physical work it is making this classic rich fruit cake. The idea that all the tools you need are a wooden spoon and a bowl is true of course but doesn’t take into account the quantity of elbow grease required. Today I made my Christmas cake, thankfully, with the help of my trusty vintage Kenwood Chef but I have in years gone by done the creaming of the butter and sugar, the beating of the eggs and the stirring in of the inordinate amount of dried fruit, all by hand and have been completely knackered by the end of it. As a consequence, seeing anyone eating this traditional cake without due care and attention is in my eyes unacceptable. (However, I don’t want you thinking that was the only reason my relationship with the boyfriend didn’t work out!)
As mentioned in my last post, I’ve decided this year to follow a handwritten recipe found in an old cookery book, with of course, a bit of tweaking. Everyone you ever speak too about Christmas cake has something to say about one ingredient or another that they can’t stand; be it the marzipan, the icing, the dried fruit, etc, etc. I decided that my cake should include everything but the kitchen sink and treacle. Along with the usual currants, sultanas, raisins, chopped candied peel and glace cherries, I added roughly chopped stem ginger pieces and a couple of spoonfuls of the syrup from the ginger jar (because it is fab with just about everything). I didn’t have any ground almonds so I chopped up some marzipan and creamed it in along with the butter and sugar as well. I will publish the recipe here in the next day or so.
As the cake baked for 3 or 4 hours, the house became filled with this amazing smell. A Christmas cake baking is not like anything else and then I realised it was the smell of Christmas as a child. My baking project then became something much more important than simply ‘making a cake’. I’m not really a great traditionalist, always preferring to do things that are new and different, but this made me realise why we bother year after year to do these things. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help remembering the totally over-the-top childish excitement and fervour that Christmas once created and loved ones, no longer here, who cared enough to make it so.

Tuesday November 11th 2008, 3:56 pm

It is time to bake the Christmas cake

It is time to think about baking the Christmas cake. I’d like to say that I have an old family recipe passed down through the generations, but I haven’t and as I don’t bake a cake every year either, I have generally forgotten which recipe I followed the previous time. Delia is always reliable, I’m sure I’ve made hers on several occasions.
Last year my neighbour, John, decided he’d make a cake for each of his two daughters and was given several recipes by various people. He ended up making three cakes following three different recipes, not knowing which recipe would be the best. We discovered that if you bake your cake in a square or rectangular tin, as opposed to a round tin, you can then sample the cakes by slicing off one of the sides, which would eventually be covered in almond paste and icing anyway. For several weeks we had cake tastings in the afternoon, comparing the different cakes, deciding whether we preferred a recipe which had treacle in it or another one that included cocoa. Of course the more tastings we had, the smaller the cakes became. ‘Shall I just cut another slice off the other side?’, he’d say, ‘ yes why not’, I’d reply.
What was so great about these cake tastings was that it became much easier to recognise what an ideal Christmas cake should contain when there were others to compare against. This isn’t something we often get the opportunity to do, unless we work in the Good Housekeeping Institute. I realised that I’m not so keen on treacle in the mix as I think it gives a bitter taste.
Now the time has come round again to think about baking this traditional cake, I’m faced with the usual question of what recipe to follow. Every week at least one new cookery book enters this house and I love it when a vintage find has handwritten recipes sandwiched between the pages. I’ve found a recipe for Christmas cake in one of my old books, handwritten in fountain pen on an old postcard along with a second card explaining how to make marzipan and royal icing, so I shall take pot luck and make that one. Perhaps it will be someone else’s special hand-me-down family recipe. I forgot to mention the downside of cake sampling, which is that by the time Christmas comes you’ve had quite enough cake to last you for at least another eleven months.