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Posts Tagged ‘Traditional English Christmas Cake’

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Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot famously said, ‘The English do not have a cuisine; they have food. Overcooked meat, boiled vegetables, inedible cheese. And the day they invent English wine, I am retreating to the Continent.’ *

I should emphasize I’ve only been to Scotland, sadly missing England, Ireland, and Wales, not that it’s forever. I’m going. But despite one meal in Scotland, strictly average fajitas eaten at the sole restaurant at the edge of Rannoch Moor, everything we ate was incredible.** The trick, always and forever, is to eat where the locals eat, and to eat what’s locally sourced. In the space of one week we put 800 miles on our little rental car, driving across the central part of the country. Coast to coast, from Oban to St. Andrews, we feasted.

From a remote farm we bought bags of wonderful homemade granola with bright orange marigold petals in it. At the Gateway to the Isles at the western coast we ate tiny succulent mussels, harvested at a nearby island, and no bigger than the tip of your finger. At the opposite coast in Anstruther (pronounced ‘Enster’), at the recommendation of a portly policeman, we had crisp, tender fish and chips with malt vinegar. All week we ate a proper English breakfast with eggs, rashers, and bangers prepared by the house manager, a small, wiry English expat (our host called him Wee Jim). And of course we tried haggis, although made unconventionally: tater tot-sized, fried, and served with a creamy garlic dipping sauce. Conventional or not, it was rich and satisfying. And everywhere there were local brews of beer and whisky.

But travel aside, I’ve loved the British dishes I’ve prepared at home, and there have been quite a few. This year I’m going to tackle more of them. The poor reputation is getting pushed aside. I want to try out classic dishes; I want to learn about this region’s great tradition of simple, comforting foods; and I want to talk about it.

My Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life, 1969) will be my chief guide. I’ve already made Scotch Woodcock, Traditional English Christmas Cake, and Irish Christmas Cake. I tried Spiced Beef in Christmas 2014 and failed because the recipe didn’t emphasize that I needed to season every inch of the meat. But that’s on the editors of the book, not on the whole of the British Empire. I’ll try it again sometime.

For now, I started with Eve’s Pudding, a recipe from James Dunlinson, an Englishman who was the design director for Martha Stewart Living. Yesterday I was cooped up inside for most of the day while the outside was blizzarding. Today I put butter in a bowl to soften, shoveled out my car for an hour and a half, then came back inside and made this lovely thing.

It’s basically a cobbler, full of cinnamon and apples (would Eve have it any other way?). Warm out of the oven, with my extremities still red from cold, it was was a profoundly comforting experience. The British know from cold and raw; they built up a tradition of cooking to counter it. And it’s worked for a few years.

Poirot can stay a little smug; I always giggle at his statement. But not too smug.

*For best effect, say ‘food’ with a nasal French accent, the way he did. And it’s worth noting that Christie herself was an Englishwoman. Whether the statement was a sly personal editorial on the food of her homeland or her best guess of a Belgian’s opinion of it, we don’t know.

**Who in the name of all that is holy eats fajitas in the West Highlands? Well…I hadn’t had a vegetable in a week. It’s hard to find them in pubs in Scotland. When you see ‘salad’ on the menu chalkboard, they mean tuna salad or ham salad. Nothing green. As we were eating, an elderly Englishman approached our table gingerly about what he called ‘the fajitas,’ pronouncing the ‘j’. ‘Are they nice?’ he asked. If you need vegetables, and you probably do, then yeah.

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Sour cream coffee cake that looks like pie because I cut back the sugar by half. I’ve since gotten smart: kept the sugar halved, but doubled the overall recipe to give it the height I remember. I can MacGyver quite a bit when it comes to food. Cinnamony and tender. Christmas 2011.

The holiday season is winding down—just three more days until Twelfth Night. This time of year is famously nostalgic for the sights and sounds, but especially smells and tastes, of times gone by.

All of the photos here evoke a place that feels peaceful, safe, and magical—however briefly. Think about it: we willingly do this to ourselves every year, and it’s not always fun getting to the finish line. Shopping, wrapping, gift hiding, card writing, cooking, cleaning, decorating, tree hunting, driving, spending, fretting, sweating. There’s something we’re getting out of it, or we’d never bother. And I don’t think we do it just for the kids’ sake, or just for religion’s sake. This agnostic doesn’t have kids, but she bakes and decorates every year. I have a friend, also child-free, who’s atheist, and currently has a live 10-foot tree in his foyer.

I believe we do it for the feeling, for that fleeting sense of calm and magic we remember. We grab it every year with both hands, despite the hassle, despite the cost, because it feeds something inside us that’s hungry. The smells of pine and cinnamon and peppermint make everything okay again. The magic soothes us like a hot chocolate bath.

Christmastime has the unique ability to take us back to a place we need to go…and nourish us when we get there.

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My first-ever candy snowmen, sitting on a sugared landscape. Whenever I make them now I remember seeing one of the kids at this party smooshing a snowman with his fist. I wasn’t mad; I thought it was hilarious. Almonds all the way. Something like Christmas 2006.

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Shepherd’s pie, made with lamb, naturally. I made this just after New Year’s Day, 2013. Nothing comes close to the real thing. Rich, nutmeggy, and creamy.

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Half-eaten traditional English Christmas cake, made from a recipe gifted to me by my elderly English neighbor. I had so much fun making this and enjoying it in ‘fingers,’ little slivers, as they do across the pond. Intensely flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and lots of dried fruit. Christmas 2013.

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Another first-ever: stollen. I shot this right out of the oven, just before I pulled its fluffy insides apart with my fingers. Full of fragrant, juicy dried fruit and orange peel. Christmas 2010.

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My room, with guest appearances by Douglas fir, white pine, juniper, and weeping willow. It smells woodsy and wintergreeny. The shot might be a current one, but the smells remind me of Christmases past.

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My Raggedy Ann, about 40 years old, in her worn calico dress. She sits under my tree every year.

 

 

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Marzipan is a pale cream color until you add gel paste. This is destined to be chick yellow.

I’ve been making marzipan from scratch for a good long time, and talked about it awhile back during a particularly gloomy time of year in order to get the grey out my mind. Used it in 2012 for my Traditional English Christmas cake, too. Big success there.

Around the same time, I had contacted local baker Marie Jackson to ask her for a couple of recipes for publication in Edible Jersey magazine. I’d been by a few days prior on a reconnaissance mission to try her croissants. She made them from scratch, which, as an 8-hour process, is not exactly something you can mail in. After poking huge crackly buttery wads of it into my face, I deemed them fabulous.

When I called Marie for recipes, she was champagne-bubbly and fun to talk to—easily as memorable as her croissants. I’ve reviewed her and her shop (theflakytartnj.com) a few times since.

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Future peas. They look a little blue here. Hm.

This year I approached Marie to have a taste of my marzipan, and was gratified to hear she liked it well enough to offer me a spot in her shop to display and—with any luck—sell it.

Today I gave The Flaky Tart a test drive of a dozen boxes of candy in springy pastels: cherry blossoms, lop-eared bunnies, pea pods, and chicks. The bunny and chick look like Weebles. I quite dig them that way.

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Chick assemblage.

I wrote the below awhile back as part of my promotion for the candy, and I think it sums up the spirit of this work…and play.

*

so whatever happened to that little kid who slurped popsicles until there was a ring of orange around her mouth that hung on for a day

?

who was unbeatable at hide and seek (something to do with not being creeped out by the spiders who lived behind the rhododendron)

who sat up straight at the dining room table while dreaming of revolution
and who never ever turned down an opportunity to be ludicrous?

is she gone? in hiding? or stuck in line again at the post office, late for the dishwasher repairman, up to her eyeballs in grown-up clutter?

so wendy from peter pan grew up. so you did too, maybe not even noticing until two years ago Christmas, when your upper arms started to resemble ed asner’s.

no need to panic.

the post office line, the leaky dishwasher, your upper arms…they’re just details. and details aside, you add up to a lot more now than you did back in the day. your youth became tenderness, your cleverness became smarts, and your sass became chutzpah. way the hell better off than wendy.

all she did was mourn the changes. you’ll avoid that at all costs. you’ll celebrate them (yes, even the changes to your arms) because they’re what make you delicious.

besides,
that fearless, sometimes hare-brained, always wildly creative, good-time-charlie kid is no further away than one of your belly laughs. treat her to one. treat everybody who hears, too. why not?

you’ve still got the edge on.

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Last Christmas, after nearly a year of physical therapy required from a car accident and then the effervescent joy of Hurricane Sandy, I needed a Zenlike project. For me that ain’t T’ai Chi, so I whooped it up by making a Traditional English Christmas Cake. I never liked heavy fruitcake suitable for advanced weaponry, or made with the weirdo iridescent candied fruit that you see in supermarkets this time of year*, but was curious to find out what fruitcake made with real, wholesome ingredients would be like.

The recipe called for warm jam to cover the whole cake, then marzipan to cover that, then Royal icing, then decorations all over the top. It looked groovy, it tasted groovy, and even though it took a while to make, it was a gas. This year I went with another kind of fruitcake: Irish Christmas Cake, from a recipe in my 1969** Time-Life cookbook, The Cooking of the British Isles.

In keeping with the style of fruitcakes made in the north of England and Scotland, the Irish Christmas Cake doesn’t get any more decorative than what you see above. Which is fine. It called for the usual suspects—dried cherries, currants, two kinds of raisins, candied orange peel (but I chopped up the peel of an organic orange instead), walnuts and simply ground allspice. It also called for an ingredient I was unacquainted with: angelica. This would have been the one candied fruit I would have added were I able to find it, but after trying six stores, I gave up. I know it’s available online, and the oracle of Wikipedia tells me it has an intriguing, distinctive flavor, but the recipe called for just two tablespoons. No go. I hope to find it sometime locally.

The one thing inexplicably lacking from the recipe itself is one I had no problem finding, and that’s whiskey***. I added a splash or two of Jameson. Faithful reader, righteous travel writer and self-professed #1 Irish fan of this blog, Brendan Harding was fairly horrified at the recipe’s omission. He remembers ‘being sent to a bar as a kid to buy the whiskey for the cake and getting a free ‘soda’ as I waited. Mum made me hide the whiskey on the way home so the neighbours wouldn’t think we were a family of alcoholics. :)’

And as an amateur folklorist, I was excited to read in my cookbook about the superstitions that accompany making this cake. 1) Every member of the family must take a turn stirring the batter. 2) Each must stir clockwise, the direction people presumed the earth went around the sun, reflecting the heart of the season and the winter solstice. Stir it counter-clockwise, or as the local dialect would say, ‘widdershins’, and you’re tempting Fate. At worst, doom will befall you; at best, the cake won’t turn out well. Brendan confirmed this: ‘Then we all made a wish as we stirred the ingredients. Stirred clockwise!’

Me, I’ve always stirred everything widdershins because I’m a righty and it’s easier. Completely forgot and stirred this batter the same way. The cake turned out great, so I guess I have a dance with Fate soon.****

And a dopey mistake that turned out to be not that dopey: I remembered to add the golden raisins only. But I think the extra raisins would have ended up making the cake too sweet. So there.

In a professional kitchen, the below is called mise en place—to set everything in place. Since I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, I call it what we in the theatre world would call it, which is a preset.

Here’s my preset, expertly shot by me standing in my slippers on a chair.

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Crap, I forgot the walnuts in this shot.

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There we go.

Obviously I had to sample and eat a warm slice at 9 o’clock at night. Fruitcake is one of those treasures like gingerbread that actually taste better a day or so after baking, after the flavors get cozy with each other, and in this case, have a little drink. But I can attest to the fact that this tasted pretty darn good warm, an hour out of the oven.

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*And last year, and probably since the Ford administration, since it’s so crammed with corn syrup and food dye #7 that it’s immortal.

**Heckuva good year, producing both great Bordeaux and small brunettes with a penchant for blog footnotes.

***Spelled with an ‘e’ in Ireland, without the ‘e’ in Scotland. Now you can sleep tonight. Aren’t you glad you know me? 🙂

****Per sentence one, I was hit full-on by a Buick in 2011 and survived. Fate might want a dance, but I’m leading.

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