Autumn, when the expat’s thoughts turn lightly to Christmas cakes.
For the past month or so, Facebook has provided me with gentle reminders that friends and family at home are busy baking the fruitcakes that will grace dinner tables on Christmas day, and continue to take up sideboard real estate well into the new year, shunned by some and gradually devoured by others, covered first in yellow marzipan and then a thick white layer of royal icing, and decorated – tastefully or otherwise. In our house, a family of reindeer usually trooped across the snowy expanse past a small cottage and a pine tree, with Santa and a snowman looking on, all vaguely to scale and from totally different sources long lost in family mythology.
It was October when it first occurred to me that I might have to make a cake this year. It’s not that I like Christmas cake – I’m more of a pudding girl, myself, with copious amounts of brandy butter and whipped cream – but it ushers in the season, and my husband can’t really imagine Christmas without it. Since we’re not going to Ireland this year, and I don’t have a new baby to excuse me as I did last time, I decided it was incumbent upon me to come up with the goods. Besides, any excuse to bake.
So I found a recipe, made my shopping list, and set forth. The orange and lemon I procured that day have long since been used for something else, because that was the easy part. I was happy to find currants and golden raisins (sultanas, we call ’em) in Safeway, but mixed peel eluded me. (Glacé cherries we can do without.) Then I realised that I needed a cake tin too, as none of mine were quite the right size or shape.
It turns out that you can’t get a Christmas-cake-shaped tin in America, because Americans don’t make cakes that shape. All their cake tins are two inches deep, three at most: the tin I needed had to be at least four, or all the quantities and cooking times would be off. I considered ordering one, but since it would probably be shipped from Europe anyway, and time had marched on while I did all this procuring and considering, I decided I could import one with my mother-in-law, since she was coming over this week anyway.
I didn’t have to ask her for the mixed peel, or resort to making my own (despite the very helpful recipe a friend at home sent me, saying that it was much nicer than the stuff they sell in the supermarkets; but as B commented, the whole point of the exercise is to replicate the cake we make at home with the stuff they sell in Quinnsworth) because after failing to find it in the speciality imports store in Rockville, I happened across a pack of just the right thing (helpfully subtitled “fruitcake mix”) in our local, magical, stocks everything, co-op supermarket.
So, in triumphant possession of my newly unpacked cake tin, last night I put in motion step one of making a Christmas cake: steeping the fruit in the alcohol. On Nigella’s suggestion, I used marsala, because unlike whisky or brandy, there’s a bottle of it in my cupboard.
Today, there was just one more thing to find: brown paper. Because a Christmas cake cooks for so long at a low temperature, it needs extra insulation to stop it burning, and a double layer of brown paper is required to line the tin before the parchment paper. (I suspect my mother skipped this step, because her cakes were always a little burned on top and a little gooey in the middle. Which is good for brownies, but not so much for fruitcake. Or maybe it was the fault of her oven.) I assume that in Ireland you can pick up some nice sheets of brown paper in the baking aisle alongside the dried fruit and the ground almonds and the ready-to-roll royal icing, but I had to use my imagination a little to find something suitable here. Halfway through the supermarket, inspiration hit, I did an about turn, headed back to the bakery department, and snaffled three or four of the paper bags provided to put your bagels in. Bingo.
Yes, it’s supposed to stick up like that. Nigella said so.
And so, with the help of my trusty Kitchen-Aid, I set about making my fruitcake. In fact, though I can’t swear I’ve ever made one before, a fruitcake is perfectly simple and hard to mess up. The most difficult part, once you’ve caught your hare (so to speak), and lined the tin, is remembering that it’s in the oven, because a lot can happen in three hours.
I had some helpers to distract me, of course. They did a great job cleaning up the flour on the countertop, but were disappointed to find that none of it was sugar. Wait till we get to the icing.
And so, we have a cake. View from above, before cooking.
View from above, three hours and two (long) bedtimes later.
As soon as it came out, I brushed the top with some more marsala and folded down the paper to keep in the steam (so the top doesn’t harden), as per my instructions. Then I wrapped the whole thing in two layers of tinfoil, and there it sits, cooling slowly and making the house smell gently of holidays.
Over the next few weeks I will feed it regularly with alcohol – my mother-in-law told me to, so I have to – and a few days before Christmas I’ll go through some more entertaining shopping roulette finding the right stuff to do the icing. I will, of course, keep you updated with our progress.