In my house, Christmas begins at October Half Term. Not in the super Christmassy tinsel and lights sense (I’m never allowed to buy a Christmas tree until the second weekend of December), but the really important stuff (the food related stuff) begins in October. Ever since I can remember, at October Half Term my Mum has pickled onions and red cabbage, baked a Christmas Cake, steamed Christmas Puddings, mixed up mincemeat and, in recent years, made piccalilli. I’ve always been involved, starting with licking the bowl clean, and nowadays I’m actually allowed to do some of the baking.
For us, Christmas is all about food and drink. We are a family of foodies, and at Christmas we definitely indulge that. We do lots of smorgasbord lunches with home cooked ham, homemade pork pie, nice bread, cheeses and pickles. We drink an awful lot of mulled wine in front of the fire on cold evenings. We make our own sweets and truffles to pick at after dinner. My Mum makes 2 variations of mince pie because I like puff pastry and she and my brother like shortcrust. We argue over which meat we should cook on Christmas Day, but usually end up having turkey because it feels wrong not to. The ‘which vegetables should we do with it’ discussion happens weeks in advance. It’s an established house rule that you’re allowed to eat whatever you like for breakfast on Christmas and Easter (it usually involves chocolate). One year we randomly decided to make cheese whirls and sausage rolls at lunchtime on Christmas Day, so didn’t have official Christmas Dinner until after Doctor Who. Another year, my brother ate so much that he spent an hour after dinner in the starfish position claiming he was dying. (He recovered enough to manage a helping of pudding later). We make scones and teacakes to fill up the dead days between Christmas and New Year and to give stomachs time to recover. All my best festive memories can be tied back to food. (Apart from the year I got a puppy for Christmas).
However, I have a confession: I don’t actually like Christmas Cake. I don’t like fruit cake in general: I always feel like there is too much stuff in it. However, I’m a complete hypocrite and I absolutely love mincemeat, so much so that I could eat my Mum’s homemade mincemeat out of the tub with a spoon. (Not that I’ve ever done that, or anything…) I also like icing, which means that in years past I have chomped through a lot of pieces of Christmas Cake to eat the tooth achingly sweet goodness on top.
The rest of my family feel more kindly towards Christmas Cake than I do, but the fact remains that when we bake one there is almost always Christmas Cake left at Easter. Last year we attempted a brief internet search for an alternative, but we didn’t really have any idea what we were looking for, so we didn’t find anything. Also, it seems kind of sacrilegious not to use our traditional recipe, as I am the fourth generation of my family to bake with it (it’s my Mum’s Mum’s Mum’s recipe, and may be even older than that!).
We ended up not making a Christmas Cake last year and it was a bit sad. Nobody missed the cake, but I missed baking it at October half term. It’s one of our traditions: like the fact me and my brother (22 and 20 respectively) still get an advent calendar, and that my brother and I always bicker over what time to get up on Christmas Day (literally the ONLY day of the year my brother wants to get out of bed early). This year I kind of got to cheat a little bit, as when I mentioned Christmas baking David had a great idea that we could hold a mini Christmas Feast at the studio. Thus I get to bake Christmas Cake without the guilt of not eating it.
Thus David has been inducted into my family’s Christmas Cake tradition; he, and everyone else in his family (and everyone who passed through the studio for a few days) stirred the cake and made a wish. I’m sure everyone has different traditions, but with our cake you just give it a stir.
Josie’s Family Christmas Cake Recipe
rind of 1 lemon
rind of 1 orange
200g plain flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp mace
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp numeg
Alcohol presoak fruit (we used a random alcoholic beverage from David’s cupboard, traditionally I think you’d use sherry or brandy).
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs.
Pour liquid into sifted dry ingredients.
Bake for 4 hours at 140 degrees Celsius.
Having not baked Christmas Cake for around 2 years, I actually forgot a relatively important aspect when baking ours in the studio. The cake has survived okay, so it’s obviously not absolutely necessary, but you’re supposed to wrap it in newspaper whilst its in the oven to stop it overcooking on the outside.
As I told David, this cake it pretty bombproof – it’s very difficult to get wrong, and very easy to customise if you like cherries or nuts or anything. Once it’s cooked keep it wrapped in foil to prevent it drying out and feed it weekly with the alcohol of your choice. We’re still having trouble deciding what to feed ours, so if you have any top tips do let us know!