My mother used to make our Christmas cake months and months before December. In April, the preparations would begin. We would have dinner and then whilst watching the News, she (who is she? the cat’s mother?) would gather the ingredients, a small table, a sharp knife and a tray. The household would know that this was the beginning of our Christmas preparations. Mum would finely chop the skins of oranges and lemons to make her own zest. I will never forget the aroma that emanated from those fruit. Now when I pick a lemon from a tree or smell an orange at a farmer’s market, particularly Seville oranges, I am transported back to those evenings with my parents. After the citrus fruit had been dealt with, she would chop the sultanas and raisins into smaller pieces and finally the glacé cherries. The fruit medley would all end up in a large glass jar and be drowned in brandy and rum. The heady fumes from the rum was enough to make one drunk.
Mum would sit up on the chaise lounge with the table in front of her, the ingredients next to her on the lounge and not move for hours until she had completed her chopping task.
After a few months of letting the fruit infuse with the alcohol, cake making day would arrive. I remember chopping day was in April because it was always a few days after Easter but can not remember cake making month.
The ingredients I remember are molasses, brown sugar, flour, lots of eggs, butter, ground pimento and the contents of the glass jar.
I do not recall seeing a written recipe or measuring equipment.
Mum followed the recipe in her head and “just” to know how much and when to place ingredients in the bowl at the appropriate times. She did weigh the cake before she placed it in the oven to know how long it should bake for.
The cakes were baked in previously loved Quality Street or biscuit tins that had been greased with butter and lined with grease proof paper.
Once the cake was baked, it would be allowed to cool, more alcohol poured on it and then it would be covered with grease proof paper, foil and the lid placed on it. Periodically, before Christmas day, mum would pour more alcohol over the cake and replace the covers. I have vague memories of the foil disintegrating because of the alcohol.
Years later, I wanted to start Christmas traditions of my own. Baking a Christmas cake being one of them especially as I live in Melbourne and mum was in London. Otherwise how would I get to eat homemade Christmas cake?
I call up from Oz to the UK and ask my mum for the recipe. Nope, she has no measurements and she does not remember using molasses. “Why didn’t you watch me and write it down when you were younger?”. Sigh! More about Jamaicans, my mother and recipes with quantitites another time. If you know about this phenomenon of “just” and not being given full recipes, please share what you know with me. If you don’t know, I hope you never find out. I don’t think it is endemic in the Jamaican culture alone. Lawd mi Gad! Ha! Ha!
Mum promised to measure the ingredients when she made her next cake and let me know the precise quantities. That never happened but when she visited me in Oz, we did make a cake together. It was amazing that she was able to look in my mixing bowl and tell me when to stop adding sugar or eggs and from the aroma, how much more spice I should add. You will not believe that I forgot to write the quantities down as I was so excited my mother was being patient enough to go through this process with me.
Since then I have made a few more Christmas cakes and have my own recipe now and I am still striving for perfection.
Two months ago, I placed my fruit in a glass jar, drowned in brandy, rum and some red wine. I do not chop the sultanas or raisins as I like to see them whole in the cake. Instead of cherries, I add cranberries. My zest is not as finely chopped as my mother’s was. I haven’t attempted using molasses yet.
This month I made my first batch. I decided to use Christmas bell shaped cake tins. I also found some cute love-heart shaped friand sized cake tins.
The resultant cake is light, delicious and moist. The sultanas are plump and juicy. The texture is light which is good if eaten on Christmas day after a feast. It is a bit grainy which could be because I used a different gluten free flour. The subtle flavours of allspice, cinnamon and the citrusy zest make it quite special.
The real deal will be made the first week of December and I will invite you to con chop!