Every family has traditions synonymous to themselves at Christmas time and the upholding of these traditions varies with each family and each generation.
One such tradition in our family was the making and baking of the Christmas cake. I am fortunate enough to remember memories of my Grandmother – my mum’s mum and her small kitchen where a lot of the joy and passion for baking was passed down. Scones, apple tarts, fruit cakes, jams and Christmas cakes were baking norms where we all got to help out and be very much included and indulge in the culinary delights of whatever was being created.
Like my mum and her mum before her I have involved my two children in baking over the years with sleeves rolled up, over-sized aprons donned and weighing scales at the ready. Inevitably the kitchen scene would always end up the same, flour all over the place on the counters, stuck between the cracks in the tiles, all over the floor, up the noses and whitening the hair of my two enthusiastic kids as sieves were shaken with enormous enthusiasm whilst sporting two major grins. Any one visiting, young or old got to roll up their sleeves, get involved and share in the fun and creativity as well as indulge in the end result.
Baking is a huge part of my family tradition with recipes being passed down the family line just like royalty would pass expensive gems. My mum’s recipe book was always bulging with recipes she picked up and collected over the years. She would title the recipe by the respective person she sampled the food and subsequently received the recipe from. Mrs Hennessy’s Cheesecake, Lisa’s shortbread cookies and my pastry recipe even made it in there. Baking holds fond memories for me and one such memory is the yearly Christmas cake. Those that know me personally know how much food and especially Christmas cake is a topic of great discussion with me especially in the classes just before Christmas. Discussing recipes is a daily event just as much as tampering and altering recipes is.
Traditionally Mum liked to bake her Christmas cakes on the October Bank Holiday weekend. Baking early allowed the cakes time to age, mature and allowed the alcohol to infuse ensuring that the cakes were nice and moist. One cake wouldn’t go very far in our household and each year, this year being no different my Mum would bake no less than four Christmas cakes.
In my teenage years Dad would be sent off on the elusive hunt to track down and find the hidden cakes. Mum used to go to great lengths to ensure that at least one cake would make it to the Christmas season. We were like blood hounds on the hunt once we got a sniff of fruit cake. Invariably a cake would always be found, normally in the back of the hot press and Dad would always be encouraged by three devilish daughters to cut into that cake and teatime became an indulgent pleasure. Truthfully I think mum deliberately let this cake be found so she could see in advance just how it had turned out prior to Christmas, but she never let on.
Like any family our cake recipe has evolved over time taking into account the taste and flavours of the relevant generations. Mixed peel e.g., in our family is a major No, No right back to my grandmothers time. So the recipe would always be adjusted with either more cherries or sultana’s being added in place of mixed peel. In the last year or two ordinary flour has been replaced with spelt to cater for my sisters and I dietary requirements. An apple is added for extra moisture and as a token of good luck from the harvest and any person within the house at the time of baking got to stir the cake and make a wish. Then you dare not breathe whilst the cake was in the oven and heaven forbid you drop something and the fruit sank. Wonderful memories.
Just before Christmas apricot jam is spread upon the cake and covered with a layer of almond paste, marzipan was another No, No in our family. The cake is then iced with Royal icing or of late mum took too icing with rolled out icing as she could really release her creative instinct for the benefit and joy of her five grand kids.
The alcohol of choice would always be poitín if it could be sourced, normally landing at the house in a 7up bottle or plain glass bottle, however it was transported it always appeared under hushed circumstances as poitín is a boot leg traditional alcoholic beverage in Ireland. We savoured these cakes the most as the flavour was mouth-watering. Traditionally and legally above board whiskey is used in most Irish Christmas Cakes today. In our house however, when poitín wasn’t available or able to be sourced brandy became the tipple of fancy used as substitute.
My mum sadly and unexpectedly passed away recently and at her funeral a few days ago I was fortunate to meet people who shared her life and joy of baking. She promised her Christmas cake recipe to a few but regrettably passed away before she could deliver on her promise. In honour of her memory and delivering upon her promise I am sharing our family recipe with you. Please enjoy as you create and stir memories of your own.
MY FAMILY CHRISTMAS CAKE RECIPE – 10” Square Tin
16 ozs Butter
16 ozs Brown Sugar
18 ozs Flour (Spelt)
1 tsp Mixed spice
5 Tbsp Brandy (or if you know someone who knows someone – a small drop of poitín)
2 pkts Sultana’s
1 pkt Raisin’s
6 ozs Cherries
4 ozs Ground almonds
4 ozs Mixed Peel (we substitute cherries or sultana’s here)
1 ½ Cooking apples
Place all the fruit and alcohol in a bowl and leave for a couple of days or overnight to soak up the alcohol. Add all the other ingredients and mix well, don’t forget to make you’re wish. Bake the cake in a fan oven at 150C for 3-4 hours.