Rituals – my children LOVE them and I NEED them to keep the essentials of family life ticking over – for I am a worshipper at the altar of spontaneity. Making the pudding to my Granny’s recipe on *Stir Up Sunday* is a ritual. So is chutney-making in October; pumpkin carving for Calan Gaeaf; making leaf mould and tramping around Stourhead in October Half Term. Christmas cake making is NOT one of those rituals.
I love fruitcake and at Christmas one must always have a rich, moist and, above all, homemade celebration fruitcake to share – right? But for the rest of the household it has never been top of the wish list when it comes to tea time treats. In fact they are much more likely to opt for chocolate , ginger, lemon drizzle, in fact anything BUT fruitcake. Christmas isn’t quite the same without that rich combination of fruit, sugar and alcohol which arrives as the days get to their very darkest.
My mother always made hers on October 25th. It was huge and usually lasted until Valentine’s Day – but one of the pleasures of Christmas is finishing off leftovers for weeks afterwards. I am less rigid. It happens at some point during October or early November and unlike any other activity in preparation for Christmas is an entirely solitary affair.
It starts with a feeling on a bleak and usually damp morning that today’s the day to fill the kitchen with all those Christmas spices. After the family are packed off to work and school the decision has to be made. WHICH of the myriad recipes accumulated on bits of paper in my notebook should I use this year? I have my mother’s recipe with treacle, my grandmother’s with sherry, my great grandmother’s with brandy, Nigella’s with bourbon and treacle, Delia’s, Mary’s, Nigel’s, Jamie’s……
Then there’s the question of size and of shape. My mother baked the cake one year in several basins and iced them all to look like a wierd Victorian version of *Stepford Wives*. The next year we had a family of snowpeople. I even recall some faintly threatening Russian santas. It must have been during the menopausal years!!
Having settled all of the above there remains the question of how long to soak the fruit. One day; two days; a week; not at all? What about the mix of spices? Should I knock spices on the head altogether? So now you’ve realised why it’s a solitary affair. Any family involvement would lead to a scaled down version of the United Nations in our kitchen.
This year I have plumped for Nigel Slater’s basic cake recipe of a modest 20cm size and round. When I say Nigel’s what I mean is my version of Nigel’s. I fancied a quick and easy approach. This one does not require any soaking of the fruit beforehand and is only in the oven for 21/2 hours. I adjusted the balance of dried fruits adding blueberries and dates, reducing the amount of figs and nuts and increasing the amount of cranberries. I couldn’t bring myself to leave out the spices entirely so threw in a heady mix of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. I also added a couple of chopped russet apples.
And now it’s wrapped up well in its tin where I will *feed* it with brandy every week until the big day. The cake ritual happens a few days before Christmas when it has been covered in marzipan and iced. The children tie a golden ribbon round it, carefully unwrap the figures of the Holy Family and place them atop the cake.
One must have SOME cake rituals.