I stand at the kitchen, my hands pressed onto the granite counter, hunched over the recipe card smeared with cake batter to read the instructions that belong to the women in my family four generations back. I adjust the paddles on my red KitchenAid, and across from me, on the other side of the counter, I take note that my mother stands exactly the same way I do: hand on one hip, bent over, finger tracing her own smudged recipe.
In the United States, this is called Fruitcake, and it is met with a turned-up nose and an eyebrow raise. Here, fruitcake is another word for less than, strange, off your rocker nutty, nursing home, 1950, cheap. But anyone who is from, has visited, or takes a liking to the United Kingdom knows that we are making so much more than a fruitcake.
We are making the culinary soul of Christmas.
We’ve divided up the counter into Zones Red and White, for my KitchenAid and for hers. My older sister, who has already made her cake, because of course we’ll need three, sits on the couch and plays with her six month old. We play Christmas music over the speakers and begin dividing up the ingredients: dried cherries, currants, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, and sugar, all for flavor, then sherry, for making spirits bright and because neither of us are skilled at sharing a kitchen.
The Christmas Cake was most likely invented during the sixteenth century, a merger of two popular Twelfth Night desserts: plum porridge and the Twelfth Night Cake. Traditionally, the cake is “fed” weekly with brandy, then layered with marzipan and icing before serving.
We chop, dice, and mix, but we also tell and retell the stories written between each recipe line: about my Granny and Great-Granny, and how they used to also make their Christmas cakes together, about the time my brother-in-law once ate six pieces in one sitting, about my first married Christmas when I forgot half my ingredients and made a “raisin cake.”
We beat together the sugar and the butter until creamy, add spices and dried fruit, meld it all together with egg and flour, and we make a wish as we stir. I have been wishing for a pony for twenty years, but I still say there’s magic in it.
We bake it for three hours, let it cool, and then once a week, we’ll douse it with brandy to keep it moist. A week before Christmas we’ll cover it with marzipan, and create a snow scene over the top of that with icing. Then, between Christmas and New Year, in a snow-covered condo in the mountains of New York, ten of us will manage to eat all three cakes at an alarming rate.
Andrew and I are walking into a thousand changes this December. We’re buying our first house, finishing graduate school, and moving across the state, where we’ll need to make new friends, find a new church, learn the curves and patterns of another town. It’s nice, amid all of this, to stir a batter and stand rooted in a tradition that has survived wars, generations, and inter-contentinal moves: when everything around us is unsettled and rotating, to grip firmly to something solid.
Recipe for the Perfect Christmas Cake:
8 oz. butter
8 oz. brown sugar
4 eggs, beaten
9 oz. flour
1 1/2 tsp. mixed spices
4 oz. glace cherries, halved
1 1/2 lb mixed dry fruit
2 oz. mixed peel
2 oz. chopped nuts
Preheat oven to 300 F/ Grease and line a round cake tin with wax/ greaseproof paper/ put butter and sugar in a large bowl. Beat until fluffy/ Add beaten eggs and beat/ Sieve flour and spice. Mix fruit and nuts. Add alternate spoonfuls into mixture/ Spoon mixture into Tin/ Place in oven at 275 F/ Cook 3-4 hours/ Wrap in grease proof paper/ feed cake weekly with brandy.
**Pictures by Matt Genders**