December 2011 was a truly shabby month in my neck of the woods. I'm not a naturally depressed person -- though I grant you it's easy to get despondent in the days leading up to Christmas, particularly during a historical era of joyless seasonal consumerism when the business of Christmas has become just that...business -- but I was probably as downhearted as I'd ever been. Still not over my mother's death, recently divorced, and disappointed by an inauspicious attempt to re-locate to Washington DC, I had thrown myself into a self-financed production of my so-far successful one-woman interpretation of A Christmas Carol, which my supporters had convinced me to re-mount, but had not supported. I know how it is; the holiday season nowadays is so ridiculously busy that it's impossible to do everything. To add insult to injury, as my savings were being swallowed up by A Christmas Carol at the City Theatre Austin, my handbag and its contents (including new BlackBerry telephone, wallet containing driving license, INS card, and a large sum of cash I'd taken out that very day to purchase gifts) was stolen from my theatre dressing room while I was on stage waxing Dickensian to a handful of devoted followers about, to quote Jacob Marley, "charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence..."
I didn't like to be glum at Christmas. In the past, I'd always been able to do something to change my mood, to lift my spirits. I usually read A Christmas Carol but that obviously wasn't going to work this time. Thus, after closing the show that sucked every last dime from my bank account, I wracked my brains for a way to cheer myself up. Out of the blue, I recalled the Making of the Nason Family Christmas Cake.
When I was little, my mother would make the family Christmas cake in a very particular way. Mum would sit my brother, sister and me around the washing machine in the kitchen to help. When I say we'd sit around the washing machine, what I mean is, the 1950s kitchen in our Victorian terrace-row house was so tiny that it didn't have a table. The term "no room to swing a cat" comes to mind, but with my stout, elderly kitty sitting beside me, I shan't say it aloud. Anyway, Mum would pull the old Hoover-matic twin-tub washing-machine into the center of the room -- and when I say "centre," I use the term loosely, since the centre of the room meant the area you could stand upright without actually touching the walls -- place a tablecloth on it and three little stools around it and there we would sit while she made the cake. She'd measure out all those delectable ingredients -- currants, raisins, sultanas, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, dried fruit, glace cherries -- and before they went into the big brown mixing bowl, we'd each get a little handful. As the mixture was coming together, she'd pass around the wooden spoon so we could partake of the cake, pre-cooking. No worry about germs in those days. Germs were good for you then. They built up your immune system, particularly with siblings. "We are family; sick brother, sick sister, sick me..."
After our father left the family when we were small children, life at home changed. It became a waiting game. Dad moved to a tiny town called Chard, ninety miles from Winchester. At first, he came back on his days off, Sunday and Wednesday afternoon. We would dash home from school on Wednesday to see if his van (various Ford Thames's) was parked outside the house. If so, we'd race down Elm Road to throw ourselves into his arms. But more often than not, the vehicle wasn't there and we'd be disappointed. First, he stopped coming on Sundays, and gradually over a period of years, on Wednesdays too. In the end, we were disappointed so often that we stopped racing. By the time we were teenagers, we dreaded the van's appearance because we no longer knew how to behave. However, when we were little, we were always waiting for him to come home.
That waiting, that potential disappointment, was worst in December. Mum quickly caught on that Christmas was becoming a sad time, a time of worry and stress for her little children. Heaven alone knows how worrying and stressful it was for her; that hardly bears thinking about. Either way, fearful that we'd only remember the season with sorrow and pain, Mum chose to "create memories" for us.
One of these memory creations was the hand-crafting of decorations for the Christmas tree. I doubt we could afford shop-bought decorations so this was surely a cost-saving idea too. On weekend afternoons, we would go walking in nature to find pinecones, acorns, rosehips and sometimes, little bunches of crabapples. There was always holly, mistletoe and ivy though I can't remember mistletoe being plentiful like it is in Texas. Back home, Mum would set the table with wire, string, scissors, paintbrushes and little pots of silver and gold paint. It sounds magical and joy-filled as I describe it now but if I remember correctly, there was much bickering and arguing and slapping: "I wanted that one!" and "That's mine!" and "Mum, it's not fair..." These natural treasures remained in our decoration box for years to come, precious and memory-filled, exactly as Mum intended.
"The Making of the Christmas Cake" was another of these memory-creation ideas. In the depths of my adult gloom, I wondered if by baking a cake, I could restore my waning spirits and recreate that same Christmassy glow. It was certainly worth a try.
My sister had inherited Mum's cookbook which contained the familiar cake, but I found a couple of fine English recipes on-line, and also an excellent one in my Marks & Spencer cookery book. I planned to combine them, to take the best from each. They all suggested I'd need one hour to prepare and four hours for baking. Let me repeat that. Preparation time: one hour. Cooking time: four hours.
The next day, I bought all the ingredients at our local supermarket. There were certain items which didn't fit the European description so I had to take a chance, e.g. flour. There were others that I couldn't find at all, such as currants, glace cherries, and all-spice, so I had to make substitutions.
I remember Mum saying that making a rich fruit cake could be hard on the arms. I had a touch of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome so I went to Target and bought a hand-mixer. Since my various recipes used metric and imperial weighing systems -- none of this American "cup" business for me, thank you very much -- I got swept up in the moment and bought a set of old-fashioned weighing scales like wot they done used in Downton Abbey. Eat your heart out, Mrs. Patmore.
When I got home, I was shocked to realize that I didn't have a 9" baking tin...didn't have a baking tin of any sort. Was it really that long since I'd baked anything? Apparently. Had I never made cupcakes for my stepsons? Apparently not. Hm. Perhaps I really was a wicked stepmother. I returned to the store and bought a 9" baking tin.
The day after that, my schedule was such that I could start at 5:00 p.m. and by 10:00 p.m., I would be leaning against the kitchen counter, brandy in hand, admiring my spectacular cake, cooling on the wire rack. Well, it turns out that I didn't have a wire rack but you get my drift.
At 5:00 p.m. on the appointed day, the three recipes were printed out and ready. All the ingredients were on the counter-top and ready. The kitchen was ready and so was I. The show was about to begin. I took a deep breath, and the curtain rose.
My main recipe suggested that I first weigh out every single ingredient into separate pots. Darn it, I hadn't even unwrapped the scales. It was like Christmas already! Well, not exactly. It took me fifteen minutes just to cut the scales out of their box. And then, to get them operational, one had to build them. They needed to be put together, to be constructed. There were screws and bolts and balancing bits. I needed a Philips screwdriver. After a fifteen-minute search, I hadn't found one so I tried using an ordinary one. No such luck. I finally shoved the scales back in the box and grabbed my pitiful selection of "cups" from the cabinet. Nearly an hour had gone by. Grrr! I made the sensible (read, time-saving) decision that there was no point in weighing out everything beforehand, just the important stuff like sugar and flour, etc.
Next on the list was The Insulation of the Baking Tin. What? Apparently, the slow cooking of the cake meant that the tin had to be thoroughly insulated so as to avoid burning. I needed (a) parchment and (b) brown paper. I opened the oven gloves and tin foil drawer and there, to my great surprise, was parchment. Who knew? Now...brown paper...where would that be? None in the wrapping paper drawer or the stationery drawer. Ah, yes, I know. Down behind the fridge. Booze bags. I had to cut them up and re-configure them (after shaking out the dried cockroach legs) to fit the cake-tin, and obviously I couldn't use Scotch-tape because it would melt or something, so I stapled the paper together. Now to wrap it around the cake-tin. This wasn't as easy as it sounds. I could see what the picture wanted me to do but I couldn't make it happen. I couldn't get anything to stay in place. What could I use that wouldn't melt/dissolve/burn in the oven? I resorted to wooden clothes pegs and paper clips. Then I needed something on which to place the cake tin in the oven when the cake-mix was ready to be cooked (which at the rate I was going would be the turn of the next century.) The recipe recommended cardboard. I found an old pizza box which I washed. Yes, washed. Don't judge me. I didn't want my cake to smell of pepperoni. Another hour had passed.
At last I was ready to do some actual mixing. First thing in the process: butter and soft brown sugar. I'd already taken the butter out of the fridge (thank you; I'm not completely stupid) so it was soft. Rather than open a new packet of soft brown sugar, I decided as a cost-saving measure to use up the supply in my pantry which had been there for some time. Unfortunately, this soft brown sugar was not soft. It was the opposite of soft. It was hard and lumpy, like a big brown rock.
I went to my computer to look this up. Surely there was a way to loosen lumpy soft brown sugar. There was! I wrote it down, but before heading back to the kitchen, I checked my email and went on Facebook to tell everyone about my cake-making adventure. I posted a photo I'd taken earlier of the ingredients looking all pretty on the counter.
I had to tear myself away
from the pretty picture to return to the catastrophic real-life scene. The online
de-hardification process involved warm, damp cloths and the microwave. Slowly
but surely, I partially de-lumpified this ancient sugar. Time was ticking by! I
didn't want to waste my whole evening so, ploughing on, I added the brown sugar
pebbles to the butter.
|Pretty Picture of Ingredients|
I tried to mix by hand but in no time at all, as Mum had warned, both arms were aching. Having to bang on the sugar stones with the wooden spoon didn't help, of course. Ah, but I had a mixer. Darn it, now I had to get the new red and shiny mixer of out of its box; that took easily fifteen minutes. It took another fifteen to work out how to use it, but once I knew what I was doing, I stuck its two wire whisk thingies into the mix and switched on. Bad idea. It seized up immediately on the brown sugar rocks.
After repairing the mixer, I thought the addition of eggs might help the situation but however slowly I added them, I couldn't stop the mix from curdling. The Marks & Sparks recipe was extremely particular about the "no-curdling" issue, and big-time curdling was taking place. I added flour but it didn't help. And there were still these half-an-inch to one-inch size sugar lumps to deal with.
At the three-hour point, I went at the cake mix with my marble pestle and mortar. Americans call it a mortar and pestle but to Brits, it's a pestle and mortar. I vented my irritations on those lumps of sugar; I slammed them like a hurt lover. I nearly broke my old-fashioned china mixing bowl but the slamming helped both the process and my mood. With the heat from the oven, switched on since 5:00 p.m., the kitchen was heating up (as was I) so the sugar had begun to dissolve on its own. At least the electric mixer was moving freely now.
This seemed a good time to do what all first-class bakers do before moving onto the final stages of preparing a cake. I mixed myself a cocktail. A helpful gin and tonic.
Now was the moment to add the remaining ingredients. Having chosen not to measure them out beforehand, this part got a bit confusing, and the gin wasn't as helpful as expected. You see, each of the different recipes from different books from different countries had different amounts in different weights and measurements, which I hadn't taken the time to convert into stupid, friggin' cups. There were different ingredients too, as I'd got a few replacements when I couldn't find the exact item. One packet of dried fruit contained mostly dried apples and prunes which I'd never seen in a Christmas cake before. I'm not sure the addition of prunes would be necessary with all the raisins and sultanas. This cake-baking would not only be memory-making but bowel-shaking too.
Eventually, I dolloped the cake mix into the cake tin, and shoved it into the oven at 9:00 p.m. It was only after I'd closed the oven door that I realized I'd forgotten the brandy. Boll****! Who forgets the brandy?! There was only one sure way to deal with this, something that all English bakers know. You "feed" the cake with brandy after cooking, when the cake has cooled down. While you wait for the cake to cook and cool down, you feed yourself with gin. I never actually saw my mother do that but I'm positive it's what she would've recommended.
I watched Alistair Sim's A Christmas Carol twice through, while eating toast and sipping wine. Five hours later, at 2:00 a.m. the following morning, the cake was ready and it was beautiful. I was clever enough to take a photo to prove it. I began the brandy routine right there and then...one for the cake, one for me, one for the cake, one for me...
|The Beautiful, soon to be Boozy, Cake|