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. “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.”
We shopped for ingredients, and she waved airily at the Organic Hand harvested Raisins (“Marketing shite. Get the Basics”) then threatened to disown me when I reached for the Three Barrels.
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, and the next day, 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**.
The first time I added these design touches, my mam saw my additions, and reserved judgement, noting only, like an Irish Mary Berry, 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.
I wrote this piece in March.
My mother died at the end of June this year. I’ve debated, since then, whether to post this, or – indeed – to bake the cakes.
But I’ve done both, this year, because making them – smelling the almost physical hug of cinnamon and nutmeg, smearing the royal icing (which I definitely need a teacher on – any nuns around?) 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 lately, 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 Book, Death of a Diva, is out now, by the way, and can be purchased here, or – in a world first – delivered as a personalised gift e-book to a device of your choice from here via the lovely people at Fahrenheit Press.