Sunday, November 16, 2014

Christmas Cake

My mother is British. She was born in London a few years after World War II and immigrated to the United States with her family as a kid. When I was a kid we'd spend Christmas Eve at my British grandparents' house with aunts, uncles, and cousins. With jam tarts, sausage rolls, and Christmas crackers (the toy, not the food). With modified raspberry trifle (modified by my grandmother to be virtually sugar-free as a fifth of her grandkids and a few of her sons had Type 1 Diabetes), lemon curd, and mince meat pies. My grandmother would end the night by giving each of her children a loaf of Christmas Cake.

Christmas Cake is what I like to call a sober fruit cake. A traditional fruitcake is aged in the freezer, wrapped in a liquor-soaked cheesecloth or unbleached muslin that's been saturated with rum, brandy, cognac, bourbon, or whiskey. During the aging process, the cake absorbs the liquor, the tannins of the dried fruits are released (read: fermentation), and the fruitcake gains a richer flavor. That's not to say that alcohol is necessary to make a fruitcake a fruitcake. It's easy to find recipes that don't use alcohol. So what makes my grandmother's Christmas Cake different from other sober fruitcakes? It's my grandmother's recipe, and it's been in the family for generations.

Full disclosure: I don't like Christmas Cake. None of my siblings do. I don't like the candied fruit. Also cherries. My mother was so happy she ended up with six kids who didn't care for it because she only had to share it with my dad.

When my grandmother died in 2006, the Christmas Cake tradition inadvertently stopped. A few years ago, I decided to pick it up again and make it for my mother as a Christmas surprise. Because of the required aging time, Christmas cake should be made roughly a month before Christmas, or a month before you intend to eat it/give it to your neighbors/take it as a white elephant gift.

The first year I made the cake, it was a few weeks before Christmas. My mother didn't mind. She likes a fresh Christmas Cake just as much as she likes an aged one. Last year, I managed to make it a bit before Thanksgiving. Instead of making several regular-sized loaves, I made mini ones, so my mother could pull one out of the freezer anytime she wanted and not have to schedule an extra appointment with her trainer. The mini loaves proved to be the perfect size for my parents to share on a cold winters' night, sitting by the fire, my mother with a hot cup of tea, my dad with cold milk.

To begin, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time. The batter will look a bit cuddled (see above), and that's just how it should be. After beating in the eggs, put the mixer away. Everything else is stirred in by hand. Add the dry ingredients and the orange juice, stirring until incorporated and a cohesive batter forms.

In a separate, largish bowl, mix together all the fruits and nuts with a little flour. The flour keeps the fruit and nuts from all settling at the bottom of your cakes. Sidebar that's really important for this particular recipe: DON'T BUY A FRUITCAKE CANDIED FRUIT MIX. No one wants that green pineapple. There were no pineapples in England when this recipe was conceived (this is probably grossly untrue. I don't actually know when pineapples first arrived in England, but we still don't want them in our Christmas Cake).

Gently stir the fruit and nut mixture into your batter. Make sure it's all well incorporated and there's no flour lurking at the bottom of the bowl. Then divide into your greased loaf pans. This recipe will make 3 one-pound loaves or 7 mini loaves. This measurement is determined using disposable foil pans and may differ when using non-disposable pans.

Bake, then cool in pans completely. Once the loaves are cooled, remove from pans and wrap each one in tinfoil. Put the loaves into freezer bags. This doesn't mean any old plastic bag you've got lying around. Make sure it's specifically labeled as a "freezer bag". The goal is to age the Christmas Cake, not try and enhance it with freezer burn. I use Ziplock Gallon Size freezer bags. I can put all seven loaves in one. Freeze for a month, then eat. Or take one our of the freezer when you'd like. That's the way my mother likes to do it.

 Here's the actual recipe and instructions as my grandmother wrote them. My additions and adjustments are in italics.

Grandma Bulmer's Christmas Cake
(don't forget to let the kids stir & make a wish!)

1/2 lb. butter (no substitute!)
1 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. eggs (about 6 large) or 6 large eggs
2 c. plus 1 1/2 Tbs. flour
1/2 tspn. baking powder
1/2 tspn. salt
1/2 tspn. nutmeg
1/2 tspn. cinnamon
1/2 c. freshly squeezed orange juice (grate a little orange zest for a more pronounced orange flavor)
1/2 lb. cherries, candied (red candied cherries)
1/2 lb. green candied cherries
1/2 box yellow (golden) raisins - 2/3 box
1/2 box currants - 3/4 box
1/2 box regular raisin (omitted. As Alton Brown says "Raisins are always optional.")
1/2 pkg. pecans
1/2 pkg. almonds, blanched & chopped or 1/2 pkg. slivered almonds

This amount makes 3 - 1 lb./size (foil loaf pans) or 7 mini (mini foil pans) cakes. Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Cream butter and sugar until very light in color. Beat in eggs one at a time & beat well after each one. All beating should be done before anything else is added. Rest of ingredients are stirred in. Stir in flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon until combined. Add orange juice and stir gently until completely incorporated. 

Fruits & nuts should have a little flour shaken over them & then shaken out to give a light coating.

Grease foil pans & divide dough between them. Bake at 275 degrees for 1 1/2 hours for large pans and 1 hour 5 minutes for mini pans. Test with knitting needle (size 1) or toothpick if knitting needles unavailable. Leave in pans to cool. Wrap in tinfoil, then put in freezer-safe bag and freeze for one month. 

Yield: 3 one-pound loaves or 7 mini loaves

Happy Christmas Grandma. Happy Christmas Mom.

Love, Sarah

1 comment:

  1. Mmmm... sausage rolls...

    Also, I'm so glad you're keeping this tradition alive & well. And you've inspired me to make some too-- which I actually might do... maybe... we'll see :) Love you cuz!