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.

 

Stir up Sunday

Here on the plot we’re hurtling towards another milestone on the journey towards Christmas readiness – *Stir Up Sunday* which will give us plenty to take our mind off the howling winds,rising flood waters in the middle of town and the fact that we are rapidly developing trenchfoot.

Time was that this was a community event with family members each taking a turn at stirring the mix from East to West before trooping down to the village hall with their carefully marked pud and placing it with all the others in the communal steamer. Time for a knit and natter, catching up on the local news before taking your pud home, rewrapping it and stowing it safely away in the pantry for the day itself.

We are likely to be mixing our pud post rugby mudfest in the privacy of our own kitchen on Sunday afternoon. Unlike the cake the pud is an old favourite inherited from my Great grandmother and includes the addition of a couple of grated carrots. Secreting a vegetable or two into sweet treats obviously runs in the family.

Granny Scourfield’s Christmas Pudding

Ingredients

  • 300g fresh white breadcrumbs
  • 100g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ whole nutmeg, very finely grated
  • 350g raisins
  • 100g mixed peel (we’re not keen on mixed peel so substitute a mix of peel, dried cranberries and dried apricots finely chopped)
  • 50g flaked almonds
  • 250g suet
  • 225g demerara sugar
  • 225g sultanas
  • 225g currants
  • 2 carrots, peeled and very finely grated
  • 2 cooking apples, peeled and very finely grated
  • Zest and juice of 1 orange
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 small glass of brandy
  • 2 tbsp black treacle
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten

Method

Put the breadcrumbs in a very large mixing bowl. Sieve in the flour together with the mixed spice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Then add the remaining dry ingredients including the dried fruit..Add the  grated carrots and apples.

Combine all the wet ingredients in a jug. Pour over the dry ingredients and mix together, from east to west, with a big wooden spoon. At this point you can add lucky charms to the mix for lucky people to find on Christmas Day. My granny used threepenny bits. The whole family should take it in turns to give it a stir, closing their eyes and making a wish.

Cover the bowl with a clean, damp teacloth and leave overnight.

Butter 2 x 1.2-litre pudding basins and spoon the mix into them. Place a disc of baking paper on top of the puddings, then seal with a big sheet of baking paper with a central pleat, to allow expansion. Cover with muslin cloth and tie with string. Steam for 6 hours in steamers, You can use a pan of simmering water if you don’t have a steamer. It needs to reach  2/3rds up the sides of the basins. Be sure to keep the water topped up.

Remove and allow  to cool.

When cool, re-cover the basins and store in a cool, dry place. On Christmas day steam for another 1-2 hours. Turn the pudding onto a plate, then pour 75ml of brandy into a ladle and carefully warm over a low heat for 1 minute or so. Light the brandy using a long match and tip over the pudding just before serving.

picture courtesy of Local Morsels

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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