Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Christmas Cake

Before the winter flu season hit, I baked my Christmas Cake.
            In Australia, if you're properly serious about it, Christmas starts in August. For Australians - at least those of us of anglo-Christian heritage - Christmas serves the same traditional role as the USA-ian thanksgiving. This is the holiday where families gather together. Come hell or high water, howsoever far we need to travel, we do our damnedest to get back home for Christmas week.
            This is the southern hemisphere, and Christmas is held in high summer, so the celebrating is done antipodean style - picnics on a lawn, BBQs on the beach. If we do a ham or a turkey it's leavened with seafood and salads and fruit, but when it comes to dessert, we live in a cultural blind spot: we cook the way our ancestors cooked when Christmas happened under six feet of snow and food was there to build bulk and sequester body heat.
            We bake and we boil. Steamed puddings, boiled puddings, mince pies, slow-baked fruit cakes. My parents have boiled Christmas puddings in the steaming heat of the Papua New Guinean Jungle and when it comes to the Christmas Fruit Cake - the Tabubil family embraces Tradition with both arms and goes well and truly off the deep end.

In August or September you gather your fruit. A pound or two of raisins, the same of sultanas, another of currants, candied citrus peel and cherries, crystallized ginger and pineapple, glace apricots and peaches and pears and figs and oranges and kiwi-fruit and quangdongs and cantaloupe (if you can find it) all chopped into little pieces no larger than a raisin. When you have a lasagna pan overflowing with sweetly aromatic fruit, you begin to add the alcohol. Slowly, pouring and turning and stirring and resting, over the course of a week you pour in bottle of brandy - and then another. As the fruit swells, you move the overflow into another great bowl and tend to both. The house smell thick and alcoholic - 
            "Like a distillery" Mr Tabubil sniffs ardently, "but in a good way."
            When the fruit is soft and swollen, and boozy sugar syrup oozes at the bottom of the pan, you make your cake.  Butter and sugar, eggs and apricot jam, flour for mortar, and spices (nutmeg and cinnamon and allspice) to earth the heady, alcoholic notes. Stir in the fruit. Slowly. Use a wooden spoon - metal spoons bend under the awesome pressure of the mix.
            Line the largest cake tin you own (and you have hunted down this one specially) with brown paper, building it up high over the edges of the tin to buttress the towering mountain of cake batter.
It’s a solid mix - like concrete. Fill the tin and drop it on the floor from shoulder height - Bam!
The impact shakes the kitchen and, only incidentally, flattens out the air pockets in the batter.
            And then you bake. Slowly, and for hours. Last year was my first solo - I started too late in the day and baked until eleven at night - and sat up until six in the morning, high on brandy fumes.
            Cool the cake and wrap it in glad-wrap and foil and kitchen towels, and tuck it away at the bottom of a cool pantry to mature and marinate for four months or so, and by the end of December, the cake is ready to ice: a coating of jam, a layer of marzipan, rolled thin, and then - c'est voila and sacre bleu - The Royal Icing!  You see it on wedding cakes - thick and white and silky. It tastes Terrible, but it gives the cake the look, n'est-ce pas?
            In Australia, you can buy your Royal Icing in bricks in the supermarket, but elsewhere we found the packaged stuff to be unobtainable - so we made our own.
            Icing the cake was the job of a full afternoon. We'd lay old sheets on the kitchen floor, put on disposable clothes and knead sugar and egg whites and glycerin until the entire kitchen was coated in a faint sticky sheen and we were just plain unspeakable.
            And last: a wrap of tinsel or Christmas paper, and a tableaux on top - a silver mirror for a frozen lake, small plastic fir trees and skaters and sleighs with reindeer, and you have a Christmas cake - a fruit cake with the density of plutonium and an envelope of solid sugar syrup - perfect for the end of an enormous meal on a sweltering summer afternoon.

Well, we think so.

In all honor, not much of that tremendous cake is consumed on Christmas day. It's served in thin wedges - intended for delicate nibbling around a cup of tea. For the remainder of the Christmas season, every visitor to your home - however casual or fleeting - is served tea and cake, and the visit becomes an honorary one. The cake is baked for the family, and as long as it lasts - so are they.

No comments:

Post a Comment