The Importance of Rituals

 

Ritual plays a big part in our home. October Half Term is THE time for making the Christmas cake. Recipes come and go but the ritual of buying ingredients, soaking the fruit and mixing the cake two months before Christmas remains the same. Mary Berry’s version (above) with the odd twist from me is this year’s cake of choice. (I used homemade cherry brandy and a slightly different combination of dried fruit.)

There was a time when I had three little helpers in the kitchen. This year I have one away preparing for a university cycling competition, one upstairs doing his A Level coursework and one relaxing with friends before the next spurt of GCSE mock revision. They’ve all ‘checked in’ that the Christmas cake is in hand.

Being a Celt and a mother it’s not surprising that food plays a big part in our family life and that I share kitchen rituals from my own mother and grandmother with my own children and, one day perhaps, they’ll share the same ones with their own children. Of course they’ll change some; they’ll adapt some; they may even abandon some but that connection and routine is important to our well-being and sense of identity. If you want to read more about the importance of ritual and routine try this as a starting point.

 

This year’s cake

christmas cake

Sometime’s life moves on apace and I find myself running to catch up. What I needed yesterday was a relaxing day in the kitchen assembling the ingredients for the Christmas cake and watching the world go by whilst it baked and filled the kitchen with the heady scents of a Christmas to come. What actually happened was a lightening bake to the strains of Barwick Green neatly sandwiched between washing rugby kit and answering emails. And yes, I did have to get out of bed at near midnight to take it out of the oven. I’m sure Mary Berry is far more relaxed and organised.

You can read here about how Christmas cake is a bit of a moveable feast in this house. But here, as promised is this year’s recipe and method if you fancy trying it. It comes courtesy of local cake baker  Sandra Monger with the inevitable tweaking I simply cannot resist.

  • 250g currants

  • 250g raisins

  • 250g sultanas

  • 90g glacé cherries

  • 50g chopped candied citrus peel

  • 60g Dried cranberries and blueberries mixed

  • finely grated zest of  ½  a lemon and ½ an orange

  • 275g plain flour

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • ¾ teaspoon ground mixed spice

  • 225g butter

  • 225g dark brown sugar

  • 4 medium free range eggs

  • 2 tablespoons each sherry and dark rum

Method

Preheat oven to gas mark 2  or 150 °C  (130 °C for a fan assisted oven).Grease and double line a deep 8 inch/20cmcake tin using non-stick baking paper. Fold a 27 inch/69cmlength of  brown paper to form a strip that stands 5cm above the depth of your baking tin. Place the paper around the outside of the tin and  tie it in place with string. This extra brown paper will protect the cake edges while baking.

Gather, weigh and  prepare the dried ingredients.  Sort through the currents,  raisins and sultanas and remove any stalks.  Wash and dry the cherries and chop them in half.

Place the dried fruit, cherries, candied citrus peel and grated zest in a large bowl and mix well.  Add 1 tablespoon each of sherry and rum and leave to stand.  Mine stood for over a week!

Sift the flour and spices into a separate bowl.

Break the eggs into a jug, and whisk lightly with a fork.

In another big bowl cream the sugar and butter until light,  fluffy and pale in colour.  If you are using treacle add it now.

Add the whisked egg to the creamed butter and sugar a little at a time, along with a  tablespoon of the sifted flour. .

Using a metal spoon, gently fold in the remaining flour. Then stir in the dried fruits. Combine well.

Spoon the cake mixture into the pre-lined cake tin. Use a wet spoon to ensure that the mixture is flat, level and smooth and that all the fruit is covered, to prevent it catching when baking.

Place a 9 or 10 inchsquare piece of non-stick baking paper over the rim of the cake tin to protect the top of the cake whilst baking.

Fold a piece of brown paper several times to make a nine or ten inch square, put it onto onto a baking sheet and place the full cake tin on top. The paper will protect the bottom of the cake from burning, and the baking tray will make the cake easier to remove from the oven.  Place the tray and cake on a shelf in the center of the oven.

Bake for two hours then turn the oven down gas mark 1 or 140 °C (120 °C  for a fan assisted oven).  Bake for a further two hours.

After four hours, remove the cake from the oven and test with a metal skewer as baking times can vary.  If the skewer comes out clean the cake is done.  If not return to the oven and retest every 10 minutes until done.

Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool in the tin, with a clean tea towel placed over the top to keep the moisture in. Once the cake is completely cold, turn it out of the tin. Prick the top of the cake with a sterile skewer.  Pour on the remaining sherry and rum, allowing the alcohol to soak into the holes before wrapping in greaseproof paper and an outer layer of  foil.

Happy Christmas baking.

The Great Christmas Cake Debate

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.

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