I wrote this piece four years ago. It’s become a tradition to repost it at this time of year, so I’m sharing it again with some updates.
I hope you enjoy it.
When I was a child – without fail – November smelled of cinnamon, nutmeg, jewel-bright candied carbuncles of citrus peel, and rich, shiny brandy.
My mother baked Christmas cakes then for a mid-December delivery.
It was a skill she’d acquired at a women’s club in the local primary school where I’d been taught by the nuns.
As a kid, I found it impossible to imagine these stern bewhimpled disciplinarians running around the vast industrial convent kitchen, laughing, joking, clucking like chickens as they instructed the local housewives on how to make a fruitcake. As an adult, the image gives me great comfort, and makes me smile every time I imagine it.
Every year, my mother would pull an array of bowls from our cupboards.
Into one, a bag of raisins would be mixed with a bag of sultanas, the dark – almost scorched – scent of the fruit hovering like a lurking threat over the bowl; you had to put your face close to the fruit to smell the musky, oriental funk.
The peel, and syrup-smothered cherries – their natural acidic scent replaced by a throat-closingly sugariness would then be added.
And then, regardless of the contents of the bowl, the whole lot would be drowned in brandy.
Not any old Brandy. Some years ago, my mother’s health made it hard for her to make the cakes, and so the honour passed to me.
We went shopping in Sainsburys for ingredients. She waved airily at the Organic Hand harvested Raisins I was reaching for (“Marketing shite. Get the Basics. It’s only fruit”) then threatened to disown me when I reached for the Three Barrels.
“Get. Your. Hands. Away. From that shite,” she said, slapping furiously at my fingers.
“Change what you need to,” she said, without ever using the word “Recipe” (cos verbal instructions to add a bag of this, enough of that, and to bake it til its done hasn’t counted as a recipe since the 19th century) “But don’t ever use Crap Brandy in My Cake.”
“If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t put it in my cake.”
And so a Bottle of Courvoisier duly went into the trolley and – mostly* – into the cake.
The brandy – high in alcohol – has a scent that seems, to this day, at first ozoney, almost higher than smell, like something from beyond the clouds. It clears the sinuses, and, having cleared them, coats them with a caramel richness, smooth and rich, like a cashmere overcoat.
The whole is left to soak overnight. For a week. For as long as you fancy, to be honest. It’s dried fruit in neat alcohol. If they’d done the same to Tutankhamen he’d have looked like Ryan Reynolds when they dug him up. Just saying.
Basicaly: It’s not going off. It’s not going Anywhere, so leave it to Soak and suck and get dark and blowsy. Like me in my cups,
But I digress.
Next, that the boozy mélange is mixed with spices, handfuls of nutmeg, cinnamon, eggs, sugar, blocks of butter, ground almond and flour, then baked, low and slow – with a dip in the middle, to ensure a cake (as opposed to bread) shape – until just-short-of-dark, firm, moist and ready.
Sometime later, the block is marzipanned, iced (in Royal Icing only; I once used Fondant icing, and received a look of such sorrow I wanted to crawl, immediately, away to confession: “Bless me father, for I have sinned. I bought rollable icing…”) and decorated.
Here, I’ve deviated: my mother used some nativity scenes, the odd reindeer and some Santas. I have added Gold Balls, Pink sugar and a selection of Wooden Christmas Trees that double as Pate Spreaders (and which were purchased by my mother on one of her Buying Trips. I’ve added edible penguins. By which I mean sugar shaped like penguins, cos all penguins are edible, now I think of it; but few of them would be appetizing butchered, stuffed and draped over a fruit cake.
The first time I deviated from her minimalist approach to cake décor, my mam saw my additions, and reserved judgement, noting only that the cake within was “A little dryer than usual,” as though the post-baking addition of some sugary tat had screwed with her ‘recipe.’
But she smiled, and she sipped her tea, and crunched a nice block of icing, bit a mouthful of cake, and nodded approvingly.
My mother died in June 2015. I’ve baked the cake(s) since then. One for my husband and my dad and me. One for my brother and his family, and one each for friends and family. Making them – smelling the almost physical hug of cinnamon and nutmeg, smearing the royal icing (which is now overseen by my friend Viv, who has quickly learned to get the product to the right consistency, shovel it into the piping bag and stand back and let me have at it ) and decorating the resulting slabs – keeps her here. Keeps me there.
They were – and are – Her Christmas cakes.
I miss my mam every day, but especially at this time of year, when I look into my pantry, where four cakes, resplendent in their crisp, bright icing, wait; sugary reminders of her absence.
Then I remember how they’ll go, soon, to good homes, to become – as my mother herself always wished– part of someone’s Christmas Celebrations.
And – although I don’t miss her any less – I smile, and think she’d have been happy.
My new Danny Bird Mystery – Death of a Sinner – is a Fahrenheit69 Tete Beche Novella and is published in a joint edition with Jo Perry’s “Everything Happens.” It can be purchased here
You probably (obviously have all my other books already, but just in case you don’t, “Death of a Diva,” “Death of a Nobody,” “Death of a Devil,”and “Death of an Angel” can all be purchased from the usual e-stores or directly from the publisher here. The fifth, “Come to Dust,” is available exclusively as a free download from this website . But you know that already, right?