Yes, I know it’s only September but an English Christmas cake takes time to mature. It’s not just your regular fruit cake much ridiculed by families who, in urban legends re-gift the cake every December. No, no. An English Christmas cake is serious business. Perish from your thoughts a shiny round brick studded with green pineapple segments and fluorescent scarlet cherries. That type of cake deserves every rude comment. No, no again. Let’s start with the ingredients. That’s the first challenge – procuring the correct ingredients in a foreign land is not easy. In past years, I have even ordered them from England at enormous cost – dried fruit is very heavy. But I soon decided that by the time Christmas rolls around, not having the exact proportions of sultanas to currants won’t make much difference. The cake uses butter, sugar, flour and eggs and I typically buy organic ingredients the week I decide to make it, so they are as fresh as can be. Candied peel and glace cherries won’t be in the U.S. shops until November, so I buy next year’s later and then the only challenge is remembering where I stashed them. The dried fruit and nuts, along with black treacle, RUM, spices and lemon rind are added at the end and it takes two hands to stir the huge batch of batter. Cedric usually joins me to do the final stir and make a wish. My wish is usually that the cake turns out OK! The cake bakes slowly and for a long time – four and a half hours. The delicious smell starts permeating the halls after the first hour so all my neighbors know I’m baking again.
After the cake has cooled, it gets poked all over with a knitting needle and gets its first slosh of rum. Then for the next three months, every Sunday I feed it more rum. That’s the next challenge. Since the Big R, every day is Sunday, so I might have to get a working friend to text me each Sunday morning, saying, “Wakey, wakey, it’s Sunday and your cake is thirsty!” Christmas week, there’s specific action. By this time, the cake is so soaked with rum it has a hangover and deserves a layer of marzipan all over like a yellow blanket. But first I sieve some apricot jam, warm it slightly and brush it over the surface – that helps the marzipan stick. I try and do a professional job of marzipaning the cake just out of a sense of pride, rolling and measuring carefully to ensure a smooth finish especially along the sides. In reality, no one will ever see it and often I have to patch pieces where I’ve miscalculated the width so it looks like a badly sewn quilt. The best thing about the marzipan is putting little pieces aside for us to enjoy as treats. The marzipan is left to dry for two or three days.
A couple of days before Christmas, it’s time to ice the cake with royal icing, made with icing or confectioner’s sugar mixed with egg whites. I typically add a teaspoon of glycerine if I can find it. It makes the icing a little less brittle. Royal icing can set as hard as concrete. I remember one year going into a pharmacy and asking for glycerine. Oh my goodness, I still recall the consternation on the pharmacist’s face. It was just at the time when several homemade bombs had been detonated and one major ingredient apparently is glycerine. Who knew? The pharmacist called the senior manager and they asked me very seriously what I wanted glycerine for. When I explained it was for royal icing on the Christmas cake, they visibly relaxed. The icing covers the patchwork marzipan and I tap a flat spatula all over to make it look like snow. On Christmas Eve, the grand cake-cutting takes place and we anxiously await the decision on whether it’s a good vintage or not.
I’ve been making the cake for as long as we’ve been married and use the same trusted recipe that I tore out of a cookbook that evidently didn’t make the cut on one of our international moves. After the flurry of hurricane activity last week when we prepared a suitcase in case we evacuated, I realize now that I forgot a very important item … the Christmas cake recipe. Next time, that will definitely be included. Merry Christmas!